Food is the center of our lives. It’s necessary for survival, and a source of personal pleasure and communion. Of course our relationship to food is complex. In my own life, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. Every family gathering I’ve ever attended has had food at its center. Usually, lots of food. Food laid out on countertops and banquet tables for people to come and go and serve themselves. And come and go we always do. Yet, amidst all this eating what is often very good food, there is the inevitable buzz of food talk. What’s the newest diet fad? Who’s tried it and failed? Who succeeded? And while no one has dared to comment when in the course of my tumultuous life I have added pounds to my frame, the shedding of pounds never fails to gain attention and approval. Obesity is my family’s disease and they are obsessed with food. It has taken much of my life—and still sometimes I need reminding—to reconcile my own relationship to food. I’ve binged and purged. Eaten next to nothing for days. Used exercise as punishment. This may be why though Zadie Smith’s On Beauty captured my attention on many levels, I was most intrigued by how she uses food as a metaphor for life.
In Smith’s novel, Rembrandt scholar Howard Belsey discovers late in his life (he is nearly sixty) that it is not the examined life after all that is most worthwhile, but the shared life. Food is one way she traces this theme to the last pages of the book.
We all must eat sometime. And in On Beauty much is revealed about each character through their relationship to food.
Kiki Belsey, who is the Black Madonna of this novel—the heroine—the character who best knows how to commune in life, says to Howard Belsey (her husband) early on, “Your life is just an orgy of deprivation” (13). She’s right, too. And it’s no wonder we never see him eat. In fact, we see him literally (but, with humor) shun the idea of cooking, a pre-requisite to eating, an act that celebrates the idea of eating for more than just survival, but also for comfort, community, and pleasure. It’s Howard’s notable sense of humor that makes his transformation at the end more believable. Laughter is communal too. What’s the satisfaction of a joke without someone to tell it to? As the Belsey’s are preparing for their anniversary party he “was dressed in his traditional ‘cooking’ costume. This outfit—a kind of protest against the very concept of cooking—Howard constructed by donning all the discarded cook-wear clothes Kiki had purchased over the years and never used” (84). Howard’s pleasures are self-centered. His smoking. His book that doesn’t seem to get written but isolates him from his family. His rigid academic theories, which also isolate him and even lead to a kind of tyranny wherein Kiki isn’t allowed to hang the kind of paintings she likes in her house. Portraits offend his—oh, so developed and informed artistic sensibilities (another symbol of the lack of communion in his life—no faces). His affairs.
The intellectual Howard fails to see what he has to learn from his not so academic wife Kiki. Kiki is not an intellectual, but she knows how to share her life. And that? That is beauty. She is a nurse, a devoted mother and wife, and a woman who builds community around her. The way she befriends Carlene Kipps, in spite of their obvious differences of opinion and their husbands’ rivalry, demonstrates Kiki’s ability to find beauty in life, in others—making her, as the physically beautiful troublemaker Victoria notes—stunningly beautiful. The second time she goes to visit Carlene Kipps she brings a pie, something she is accustomed to doing, known for, “I need a homey, warm, chunky, fruit-based, wintery kind of a pie…I need a down home pie” (161-162). Kiki is the least self-centered character in the book, trying to create home wherever she goes.
Jerome, who praises the fact that the Kippses eat together and tells his siblings he can’t understand how they can live at home with Howard because it is such a “denial of joy” (236), gets it. Levi, most like his mother, gets it too. We see this in a slightly humorous way when he brings a handful of instant Asian food to offer his new friend Choo when he drops by his place unannounced. He’s learned from Kiki that when you pay people a visit, you bring something to commune with them over. Jerome and Levi have learned from Kiki that communion is what living is about. But Zora—Oh Zora! —does not dare to eat a peach and instead “prepare[s] a face to meet the faces that she me[e]ts”(209). She eats guiltily and has not yet come to see her own beautiful self or the beauty in sharing herself. She’s more like Howard.
Communion is what we are here for, how we really survive as a species, and food symbolizes communion. Smith shows the beauty of successful communion and the suffering caused by our inability to connect. In the scene where the Belsey children meet up with each other in a moment of happy coincidence, we see how, despite their differences, there is love between them to be shared. The moment is lovely: “Just before Thanksgiving a lovely thing happened” (233). Later in the scene Smith addressed directly the power of communion, “People talk about the happy quiet that exists between two lovers, but this was too great, sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating” (235). Another scene that shows the connection that can happen between people over a meal is introduced early on, “And not the two of them [Howard and Levi] began to choreograph a breakfast in speechless harmony: passing the box of cereal from one to the other, exchanging implements, filling their bowls and sharing their milk from a pink china jug with a sun-yellow rim” (8). This communion is a beautiful dance, a connection without need for speech or explanations.
Then there is Howard’s failed communion with his estranged father, his fruitless search for biscuits, the weak tea, and the ensuing search for instant coffee. Also, the failed communion between Kiki and Howard and one of the few times they are able to breach that gap over dessert liquor. This inability to commune in life, to learn to like the tomato is Howard’s conflict. Victoria Kipps tells Howard, “Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato…Your tomatoes have got nothing to do with love or truth” (312). She says this as a compliment, but we recognize it as the elucidation of his greatest flaw.
Howard needs to learn to like the tomato. And happily, in the end, we sense that he does, in how honorably he shoulders his separation and Kiki’s independence, in how he pauses just to look at the last painting of his slide show in the lecture he gives at the end of the book, in how it renders him speechless in Kiki’s presence, and in how he discovers cooking. Not just any cooking, either. He undertakes the task of using the apples from the tree in their backyard that in the past (and beginning of the book) had just fallen to the ground to rot, “Outside smelled of tree sap ad swollen brown apples, of which maybe a hundred were scattered over the lawn. It had been like this every August for ten years, but only this year did Howard realize something might be done to improve the situation. Apple cobbler, apple crumble, candied apples, chocolate apples, fruit salad…Howard had surprised himself” (435). I was also delighted and surprised! Delighted and surprised to find that in spite of Smith’s honest presentation of the lines that divide us—there are many—there is beauty in this world. There are reasons to come together and celebrate each other.
What does this matter to my writing? Even my current project? Smith weaves this theme of food throughout the story without coming off as heavy-handed or even addressing it directly at all. The communion just happens or doesn’t. I have this short story I’ve been working on that is about what I wrote about in the first paragraph of this essay: food, family, and self. Looking at what Smith has done here has given me some ideas about how to do this without directly addressing food as subject, which at this point, is how the story begins. Also, looking at what she’s done reminds me of how everything counts, every detail of a story should have a function in the greater goal of the narrative—to impart meaning—which is something I’ve been working on a lot lately. I’m getting better at cutting out lines that although perhaps well phrased, don’t serve the story.