Like many kids, I was raised on the Brothers Grimm. My grandfather would read a story to me from an old two-volume set every time I saw him, and mark the date in neat pencil on the top margin.
I never really liked the fairy tales that Disney had already Disney-fied. I was definitely a little princess, but the old German versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and the like seemed weird and somehow off when compared to the glittering, animated, showtunsey versions I got from those plastic-cased VHS tapes. (Yep, it was the 80’s...)
The tales I wanted to hear again and again were the ones where trios of food and household objects spring to life and go on misadventures. Grimm’s Fairy Tales is full of magical shoes, weaving looms, fruit, and bags. Most are just props that move along the story, allowing the impossible to occur. Occasionally, the food and stuff has a starring role, like in The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean.
(Illustration: Water Crane)
Here, the inanimate has a will of its own. A straw, a coal, and a bean escape from the clutches of the cookstove. When they set off on their first and final adventure, the bold straw and coal drown in the river. The sensible bean, who waits on the bank, gets to live.
The moral probably is: “be cautious”. How boring! I think what really got to me as a kid was that food, objects, and everything we use might actually want to escape from being burned up in a fire or shoved into our drooling mouths. Maybe I was a weird kid. Or, maybe this has been freaking kids out for eons.
Where I come from, food doesn’t spring to life once slaughtered, picked, or set on the table. Things are different in the fairy world. The strange spookiness and constant witchery of Grimm’s finds its way into the food and vermin of its Black Forest cottages. Take The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage -
(Illustration: Louis Rhead)
These three set up a nice household, and maybe a love trio as well. When they try to switch up their household chores, guess what happens? The house burns down. And, more drowning.
The Brothers Grimm clearly thought that food and, by allegorical extension, people, need to know their place and stay well within it. The old tales also suggest, however, that if infused with a little fairy magic, food will break free of the cupboard. It will try to set up house, explore the forest or, as in my childhood nightmares- learn to fight back.
This is the first in a series where I'm going to explore anthropomorphic food in history, culture, and advertising. If you have any suggestions, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org