Food and Fables
Food has been one of the focal points of human civilization since it began. In many cultures all over the world, communal meals are not only a time to share food, but to regale the younger generation with history lessons and fables. It makes sense, therefore, that these fables often feature food as an essential plot device.
As a lover of history and folklore, I naturally gravitated towards these kinds of narratives and began to collect them from a young age. One of my favorite stories about food comes from Japan. Momotaro (loosely translated into English as “Peach Boy”) is the story of an old man and old woman who live in the mountains. They desperately want a child, but are unable to have one of their own. Each day, the old man walks into the mountain forest to cut down trees while his wife heads to the creek to wash the clothes.
On one such day, the old woman walks down to the creek and begins to wash clothes when she spots a humongous peach floating towards her. She fishes it out, and finds her husband to help her carry it back to the house. There, the old man uses his knife to cut the peach open.
Much to their surprise, they discover that instead of a pit, there is a tiny baby at the center of the peach. As soon as the peach is open, Momotaro leaps out and introduces himself. The old man and woman adopt him as their own, and raise him to be honest and brave. His magical origin allows him to grow at an extremely fast pace, and within a few years, Momotaro grows into a mighty man.
Their farm community is attacked by ogres, and the few valuables they have are stolen from them. Momotaro vows to sail all the way to the ogre’s island and get them back. His elderly parents beg him not to go, but he insists. They send him off with a Japanese flag, a sword, and a bag of homemade millet dumplings.
As Momotaro journeys, he stumbles across a variety of animals, all of whom are starving and ask for one of his tasty dumplings. Being honest and kind, he always gives in. Once he feeds them, they join his rag-tag band. By the time he makes it all the way to Ogre Island, he has made friends with a monkey, a pheasant, and a dog.
They of course confront the ogres and take back the treasure. In some versions of the story, Momotaro forgive the ogres for their vandalism and thievery, then invites them back to his farming community to become contributing members of society.
Momotaro is one of the most beloved fables in Japanese society because food is the source of all cooperation. Without his elderly mother’s dumplings, Momotaro would never have been able to tame the wilds, assemble his army, and take back his family’s treasures. It teaches young children that responsible citizens share what they have with those who need it most. It teaches them that lovingly produced food can empower one to achieve great deeds. And most of all, it teaches them that even the most daunting challenges seem achievable when your belly is full.
Peach Boy is just one example among many. There are literally hundreds of West African folk tales about Anansi, nearly all of which feature food as a mechanism to teach children humility and the importance of charity. The Little Red Hen is a Russian folk story which uses food to convey the importance of hard work and preparation. Stone Soup, a folk tale thought to be Romani in origin, illustrates that the worth of the food we eat is not in its monetary value or flavor, but in the sense of community it engenders. The list goes on and on.
In short, nearly every food has some kind of significant narrative associated with it. Whether a tall tale or a snapshot of history, these stories can become the key to showing children that food sustains us as much as we sustain it. The ingredients we cultivate and consume can teach us how to be healthy and strong, both in body and spirit. It is my humble opinion that each and every child deserves to finish each meal with a full stomach, a full mind, and a full heart.