I have a number of abiding memories from reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows as a child and young teenager. Some strong themes stand out for me, in particular the spirits of discovery, adventure, fun and camaraderie that imbue the book, its critique of the excesses of wealth, and its celebration of idyllic country-river life.
Of course, as a teenager I also had a strong desire to one day be able to ‘muck about in boats’. It was only much later as an adult did I realise the extent that food was also a strong theme running both through the book and my experience of it. With this year being the centenary of the publication of Kenneth Grahame’s most famous and enduring work, I thought it worth while to revisit this theme in Grahame’s book.In a writing class some years ago, we were all asked to bring some food with a literary theme to share, and to select and read in class a scene involving food from a pice of literature, to celebrate the final class of the year. One of my classmates (Hi, Heather!) read from a scene in the opening chapter of the book where Rat takes Mole on a picnic on the river bank in what is Mole’s first ever – and defining – experience of the River. She also brought every single food item listed by Rat to be in the picnic hamper to share at the party.
I just want to set the scene for you. The Mole has just seen the River for the first time, has just been befriended by the Rat, has just gotten into a boat for the first time, and is about to embark on his first ever River excursion with the Rat. During a quick stop-off at Ratty’s home on the river bank, Rat reappears “staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.”
‘Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.In case you had difficulty deciphering from Grahame’s writing what the Rat had packed, here it is again:cold chicken, cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickled gherkins, salad, french rolls, cress sandwidges (sic), potted meat, ginger beer, lemonade and soda water.
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
‘O stop, stop,’ cried Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’
‘Do you really think so?’ inquired the Rat seriously ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut in very fine!’
The only thing my classmate couldn’t manage to bring was the potted meat – if only because she wasn’t sure what it was – and she compromised with some paté. As you can imagine, we had a great end-of-year celebration that year.
My classmate’s passionate recreation of Ratty’s and Moles’ river-side picnic lunch rekindled my interest in The Wind in the Willows, and reminded me of other scenes involving food in the book. When Mole gets lost in the Wild Wood and Rat goes to rescue him, they take refuge from the snow, nightfall and dangers of the Wild Wood with Badger, whose hospitality includes an ample supper and a lovely breakfast the next day.
In my favourite chapter, 'Dolce Domum', food is also the social lubricant that makes Mole’s rediscovery one winter evening of his own home the warm and joyful experience it is. First we have Rat displaying his optimism and can-do attitude to rustle up a tin of sardines, a box of captain’s biscuits, a German sausage and some beer from Mole's stores for his and Mole's supper. When the local young field mice out caroling turn up to sing at Mole’s front door, Rat soon packs off two of them with a shopping basket and strict instructions for more provisions to cater for the impromptu event. The joy with which Mole sits down with his guests to a table laden with food later that evening is a significant marker of the importance of food in hospitality and 'house-re-warming' – not only in Grahame's experience of country England of that period, but for all cultures everywhere, I'm sure.
I don't want to delve to far into what experiences influenced Grahame's book, or his idealisation of country life, animals or rivers in England. And I don't particularly want to get into the theory that suggests that food and food scenes in children's literature take the position of sex and sexuality found in adult literature – other than to mention in passing (heh!).
This is more an opportunity, instead, for me to pay homage to a book that had a big impact on my early life, and remains a favourite for various reasons – food being one of them. It is also a book that has survived a hundred years quite well, considering the popularity of the plays based on it performed at Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens each summer, the television shows based on it, and how children are still taken with the adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger, Otter and, yes, even Toad.
The guardian.co.uk and Telegraph.co.uk have great articles on Kenneth Grahame and the book to mark the centenary, and offer some fascinating insight into Grahame and what inspired and motivated him in writing the work.The Guardian piece has the bonus of publishing my all-time favourite EH Shepard illustration for the book, which I've not shown here only because it is still under copyright. It's the one that pretty much summed up the book for me as a child. EH Shepard's illustrations are generally considered the favourites and most identifiable with Grahame's book. The illustration above (not by Shepard) was published with the Telegraph piece.
As the weather warms up and our thoughts turn to the wonderful possibilities of picnics and barbecues and their associated foods, or just enjoying the gardens, rivers and creeks near us, I hope the Wind in the Willows offers you some inspiration. I know it will me. Perhaps I'll even make it out to the Fairfield Boathouse on the Yarra River to muck around in boats.
Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.
[Note: sorry, I've just noticed the image was not displaying - I've fixed that up. Updated 9.42am Friday 16 January 2009]
Labels: animals, books, children, joys