We take a look at some of the foulsome food that featured in Roald Dahl's life and stories.
Revolting Rhymes is full of frightful meals, including children and adults being eaten by fearsome giants and sneaky wolves. These disgusting dinners have inspired us to look at how some of Roald Dahl’s own ideas and experiences with bad food at an early age are reflected in his stories.
Through Roald Dahl’s fiction and cookbooks, he has shared his passion for food and luxurious treats, and particular ideas that he appears to have held from a young age. Whilst still a teenager at Repton School he wrote an essay about the merits of an appreciation for good food and drink; the following extract from that essay, sees him describe restricted diets of "cabbages and carrots" as a denial of one of the "greatest innocent pleasures" and eating and drinking being a "duty to be enjoyed by all".
This idea can be seen in the fact that Roald Dahl’s villains often deliberately deny themselves good food, actively choosing to eat disgusting things as a reflection of their terrible natures. Grandma describes in detail the taste and texture of eating insects in George’s Marvellous Medicine to make George, and by extension the reader, feel repulsed and uneasy with her character. Similarly, Farmer Bunce’s favourite meal in Fantastic Mr Fox of mashed goose-livers in doughnuts is responsible for "a tummy-ache and a beastly temper".
However, the most irredeemable characters are those that enjoy eating human beings, especially children. The Giants in The BFG, The Gruncher in The Minpins and the crocodiles in The Enormous Crocodile all love eating children; even Mr Twit threatens to eat the little boys that become stuck on his superglued tree. This transforms a simple act like eating into a frightening experience where the reader is the potential meal. In the following unused extract from the first draft of The Enormous Crocodile, the crocodiles argue in gruesome detail about whether boys are "tough and chewy" or "juicy and yummy" and at what age they are tastiest.
Roald Dahl’s protagonists sometimes have terrible diets too; for example Charlie Bucket’s family have nothing but cabbages for every meal but are nevertheless good-natured people or The BFG who eats snozzcumbers because they are the only vegetable that grows in Giant Country. In contrast to the villains however, these characters are eventually rewarded for their good nature in the face of adversary with extraordinary food and drink; Charlie and his family enjoy a multitude of treats in Mr Wonka’s chocolate factory and The BFG and Sophie have a wonderful feast with the Queen.
These stories are also marked by characters forced to eat disgusting things as a means of survival. In this respect, Roald Dahl’s own experience of terrible food on a Public Schools' Explorers Society expedition to Newfoundland in 1934, may have informed his writing. For 21 days, a group of 30 teenage boys including Roald hiked and camped through Canadian forests living on basic rations as a test of their survival skills. In this extract from his expedition diary, Roald describes what he ate on Day 6, which included one mug of "thin porridge" and "Pemmican Soup". Pemmican is a mixture of powdered dried meat, fat and berries used as a high energy food which provided Dahl’s expedition group with a large amount of fat and protein despite its unpleasant flavour.
In Boy: Tales from Childhood, Roald Dahl also describes how, due to extreme hunger during the trip, the boys experimented with foraged food like "boiled lichen and reindeer moss". Upon reaching base camp at the end of the expedition he gorged himself on cheese, biscuits and marmalade, summarising this feeling as "EAT. EAT. EAT."
In writing characters that choose to eat disgusting things, Roald Dahl entertains and repulses his readers. However, by associating revolting food with unpleasant characters and rewarding good characters forced to eat poor food, he confirms the importance he placed in enjoying food and sweet treats.