*Note: may contain spoilers*
The broken spines on my childhood bookshelf give away which pages I returned to over and over to relive favorite scenes, and it’s evident I especially loved made-up feasts. I remember devouring eight kinds of toast for tea with a fawn and drooling over holiday banquets at wizard school.
But these days I find myself drawn to fictional feasts I should not trust. Not just fake food, like the sand pretending to be roast turkey in A Wrinkle in Time; the eaters in that case are well aware of the illusion. Not just yucky stuff either, like the pickled breakfast served by Lady Serpentine in Neverwhere, as the strange meal ultimately restores her hungover guests. I mean repasts that allure and then betray. Sumptuous tables that take you in and then spit you back out. Smorgasbords that somehow result in witches. Dishes you have a bad feeling about but tuck away anyway. A place where fear proves well founded too late.
There’s something off about these feasts beyond innocence, something I can’t quite name, even as I poke at it with my fork. So let’s ruminate instead. Let’s hold horror on the tongue, like a cheese full of fungus. To that end, here are the most dreadful spreads I’ve ever read, by grotesqueness, ascending. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, so feel free to chime in. What awful fictional fodder have you come across?
When you are captured by fey beings and find yourself at a ball, hands away from the banquet table. Fairy food not only deceives but irrevocably binds the eater into otherworldly contract. In A Dictionary of Fairies, Katharine Briggs warns,
“From very early time there have been traditions of mortals carried away into Fairyland, or detained there if they ventured into a fairy hill and were inveigled into tasting fairy food or drink, and so partaking of the fairy nature.”
Magic also conceals the true form of the meal; Briggs tells us “their food, although it appears by glamour to be rich and elegant,” consists of “brisgein (that is, the roots of silverweed), stalks of heather, milk of red deer and goats, and barley meal.” The poet Robert Herrick imagines even stranger fairy victuals, like mandrake ears and broken hearts of nightingales, surely also disguised by glamour to mortal eyes.
Relatedly, beware pomegranates.
Roast rabbit amid cultists
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar describes, in one chapter, a night of feasting and revelry whose bleary morning-after breaks open the fabric of space. Book-besotted islander Jevick, taking in a festival called the Feast of Birds while visiting the great city of Bain for the first time, falls in among wild goddess-worshippers who make uneasy the men of reason in power. The revelers wind up at a cafe:
“We did not exchange names, but after a time we began to behave like young men, and our talk grew louder in that dim room where pork and rabbits crackled above the hearth . . . . when the meat was done we ate it ravenously, grease on our lips, and the strength it gave us was potent like that of the wine.”
Food and drink give way to music, dancing, and academic argument, but the feast continues as Jevick encounters a girl, who whispers in the dark, “Cousin, this is what the gods eat.” The next morning, Jevick wakes aching, feverish, robbed, and worse, haunted by an angel.
Structurally unsound woodland cottage
Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm tell how Hansel and Grethel, abandoned in the woods to starve, find unexpected sustenance.
“ . . . and if help had not soon come they would have been starved. About noon they saw a pretty snow-white bird sitting on a bough, and singing so sweetly that they stopped to listen. And when he had finished the bird spread his wings and flew before them, and they followed after him until they came to a little house, and the bird perched on the roof, and when they came nearer they saw that the house was built of bread, and roofed with cakes; and the window was of transparent sugar.”
Of course, the hag inside tries to eat them.
Binging while bereaved
In Mia Alvar’s story “Legends of the White Lady,” a model from New York who recently lost her best friend picks up a gig in Manila, where a folktale ghost haunts her. After a photo shoot, she visits a restaurant and notices some teenagers laughing about how out of place she looks. In defiance, she gorges herself.
“. . . I force-fed myself squid in its own ink and pork in its own fat. I nearly gagged on a dark pudding that stank of blood. Undressing an egg from its magenta-dyed shell, I felt the tears fall hot and fast out of my eyes into my food. When a sob rose in my throat I stuffed the egg down, barely chewing.”
As she finishes off the heap on her plate, the ghost dressed in fluttery white chooses this moment of sick satiation to catch her eye before walking away.
Burnt goat while crying
In The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a missionary family sits down to dine on a goat their new congregation has killed to welcome them to the Congo. The eldest daughter says,
“I sat breathing through my nose, holding in my mouth the pure, awful slavor of something on fire and a bristle of stiff hairs from the burnt hide of a goat. I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down.”
The mission does not go well.
The very idea of feasts
In The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, Shevek, a physicist from the barren planet Anarres who holds the key to interstellar travel, makes a historic visit to the lusher, estranged companion planet Urras. Communal sharing—so radical that their language lacks possessive pronouns—underpins Anarresti society, while capitalism organizes the wealthy Urrasti nation of A-Io. In a bout of restlessness, Shevek spends an entire day like an Urrasti, stuffing himself with things he does not want and eventually rejects, both bodily and ideologically.
“You Urrasti have enough. Enough air, enough rain, grass, oceans, food, music, buildings, factories, machines, books, clothes, history. . . . You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. . . . We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit.”
Jellied calves’ brains
The infamous Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin begins with ill harbingers, among them an unusually wary direwolf, an awkward apology, cacophonous music, men leaving the feasting hall without explanation, and almost aggressively unappealing dishes.
“Catelyn could not fault him for his lack of appetite. The wedding feast began with a thin leek soup, followed by a salad of green beans, onions, and beets, river pike poached in almond milk, mounds of mashed turnips that were cold before they reached the table, jellied calves’ brains, and a leche of stringy beef. It was poor fare to set before a king, and the calves’ brains turned Catelyn’s stomach. Yet Robb ate it uncomplaining, and her brother was too caught up with his bride to pay much attention.”
The pink lamb they eat for the main course perhaps signals the abattoir that follows: the musicians exchange lutes for crossbows and the hosts betray the guests even before the feast has ended.
In The Road, Cormac McCarthy draws out a monstrosity latent in desperately hungry human beings to the most awful conclusion. A man and boy—starving and struggling to survive after the utter downfall of civilization—see a little smoke rising from the trees, smell meat cooking, and venture into the forest for a look.
“They walked into the little clearing, the boy clutching his hand. They’d taken everything with them except whatever black thing was skewered over the coal. He was standing there checking the perimeter when the boy turned and buried his face against him. He looked quickly to see what had happened. What is it? he said. What is it? The boy shook his head. Oh Papa, he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with him, holding him close. I’m sorry, he whispered. I’m sorry.”
Multiple infants that are yours
The definitive classic in the genre of dreadful spreads. After a tug-of-war over the throne of Mycenae, Atreus pretends to seek reconciliation with his rival and cuckolder Thyestes, offering him a savory stew, as Robert Graves retells in The Greek Myths (edited by Michel W. Pharand).
“Atreus now sent a herald to lure Thyestes back to Mycenae, with the offer of an amnesty and a half-share in the kingdom; but, as soon as Thyestes accepted this, slaughtered Aglaus, Orchomenus, and Callileon, Thyestes’s three sons by one of the Naiads, on the very altar of Zeus where they had taken refuge; and then sought out and killed the infant Pleisthenes the Second, and Tantalus the Second, his twin. He hacked them all limb from limb, and set chosen morsels of their flesh, boiled in a cauldron, before Thyestes, to welcome him on his return. When Thyestes had eaten heartily, Atreus sent in their bloody heads and feet and hands, laid out on another dish, to show him what was now inside his belly. Thyestes fell back, vomiting, and laid an ineluctable curse upon the seed of Atreus.”