The Power of Food in Supernatural Storytelling

Students in Dr. Karen Metheny’s Summer Term course, Anthropology of Food (MET ML 641) are contributing guest posts this month. Today’s post is from Sarah Critchley.

This summer, our Anthropology of Food class has covered seemingly every conceivable way to study how food reflects a culture, but the article that stood out to me was about the supernatural. Alison Krogel’s 2009 article, “Dangerous Repasts: Food and the Supernatural in the Quechua Oral Tradition” shows the effect that food can communicate without even physically eating it. Indeed, the amount of food consumed by the Quechua people covered in this article was negligible, but the characters in the stories they told prepare feasts that kill those who reject them, cast spells against their husbands in a potato dish, and even the characters themselves can become the meal if they are out too late.

Krogel includes a frequently-told story of a girl named Isicha Puytu who leaves her family behind after being tempted by a wealthy landowner. The girl’s family members try one by one to convince her to come home by bringing her gifts of food. After the brother and the father have gone, the mother outdoes herself by making an expensive dish, which the daughter again rudely refuses. The mother curses her, and the girl dies. Krogel notes that parents like to tell this story as a “tool for both entertaining and warning brazen children” (2009, 111). Other tales in the article have specific morals that food serves to heighten: don’t trust a witch even if she is your mother, don’t be mean to your wife, and watch out for travelers that refuse to eat your food – they might be evil spirits who want to eat your baby instead!

Thinking of food and the supernatural in Quechua tradition made me wonder how one could apply the same analysis to other folklore. As Krogel writes, “studying the techniques employed by narrators who weave foodways descriptions into their stories provides Food Studies scholars with a lens through which we might better come to understand a culture’s aesthetic preferences and complex socio-cultural practices and belief systems” (2009, 123-124). The story of Hansel and Gretel came to mind as I was thinking of how food can be a catalyst to teach a moral important to a society. Hansel and Gretel are captivated by the witch’s delicious house, only to find it full of danger within. The tale serves to warn that appearances can belie reality and harkens back to the Quechua’s message to warn “brazen children” with the story of Isicha Puytu. Perhaps more significant, the reason the siblings were in the forest alone was because their mother (or step-mother, according to some versions) locked them out of the house because there wasn’t enough food. When they return, she has died. Her death suggests that deliberately starving one’s own children or family members deserves the ultimate punishment. Though we have less of an oral tradition today in the United States than the Quechua in the Peruvian Andes, comparisons can be made to the role of food in folklore and fairy tales that are meant to be a tool to teach cultural values.

Works cited

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. 2018. “Hansel and Gretel.” Date of access, June 25, 2018.

Krogel, Alison. 2009. “Dangerous Repasts: Food and the Supernatural in the Quechua Oral Tradition.” Food and Foodways 17(2): 104-132.

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