Roald Dahl wrote swirling sugar fantasias, palaces of chocolate, and a floating, dripping den of peach flesh. He wrote frothing chocolate waterfalls and gravity-negating fizzy drinks and “lovely blue birds’ eggs with black spots on them,” which, when sucked on, get “smaller and smaller until suddenly there is nothing left except a tiny little pink sugary baby bird sitting on the tip of your tongue.”
Dahl’s feasts are his imaginative aristeias. At the same time, Dahl’s most whimsical confections are always paired with torments for those who can’t resist them. Overindulge—drink from the forbidden chocolate river—and, whoops, you are Augustus Gloop torpedoing toward the fudge boiler. Dahl’s culinary flights of fancy are matched by endlessly inventive brutality toward those who eat too much, the Bruno Jenkinses and the Augustus Gloops (Gloop with its terrible smack of formless, spreading flesh).
Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop!
The great big greedy nincompoop!
How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast
On everything he wanted to?
Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!
However long this pig may live,
We’re positive he’d never give
Even the smallest bit of fun
Or happiness to anyone.
If you look closely, the danger inherent in food is everywhere. There’s the dinner party in “Taste,” Dahl’s chilling adult short story in which the host bets his gourmand guest that he won’t guess the provenance of the wine (the prize: his daughter); the chocolate Xanadu of Willy Wonka, where handling food the wrong way subjects you to contortions and tortures; and the dripping, voluptuous peach that kills James’ aunts. He entices us and then shows us what happens if we succumb: derision, loss of bodily autonomy, death.
In Dahl, it is always greed that comes before a fall. The witches of the eponymous book plot to lure children to a furry fate by putting Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker into candy (after which they will be killed by their unsuspecting parents and teachers). Their first victim is the gluttonous brat Bruno Jenkins: “Pass him in the corridor and he is fishing potato crisps out of the bag by the fistful. Catch sight of him in the hotel garden and he is wolfing a Dairy Milk Bar and has two more sticking out of his trouser pocket.”
The way Dahl writes about fat people is horrible, but it’s more complicated than just fat-shaming: He sees food as having terrible and frightening power. Fear—if we want to armchair psychoanalyze—must account for some of this brutality. “I’d rather be dead than fat,” Roald Dahl told his future wife on their first date.
In Matilda, the “decidedly large and round” Bruce Bogtrotter manages to subvert the usual Dahl story of gluttony and punishment. In a scene that will live in my brain forever, the grim Miss Trunchbull accuses Bruce of stealing a piece of chocolate cake, and so forces him to eat the whole thing in front of the entire school. At first, it is the pinnacle of humiliation.
But as he eats and eats and eats, “a subtle change was coming over the two hundred and fifty watching children in the audience. Earlier on, they had sensed impending disaster. They had prepared themselves for an unpleasant scene in which the wretched boy, stuffed to the gills with chocolate cake would have to surrender and beg for mercy and then they would have watched the triumphant Trunchbull forcing more and still more cake into the mouth of the gasping boy.”
But Bruce Bogtrotter eats it all. He sits victorious, “like some huge overstuffed grub, replete, comatose, unable to move or speak. A fine sweat was beading his forehead but there was a grin of triumph on his face.” Dahl captures the grim and masochistic satisfaction of eating to the point of pain—but also the power of using the thing others shame you with as a weapon. Still, Bruce’s victory is only partial: Clearly, we are not supposed to want to be like grublike, chocolate-smeared Bruce.
Dahl is equally imaginative about bad food. The centipede from James and the Giant Peach eats “hot noodles made from poodles on a slice of garden hose—and a rather smelly jelly made of armadillo’s toes.” Then there’s Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, a cookbook of grotesquerie from which I recently made the swampy chocolatey muddle that is Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake, much of which ended up on the faces of two pleased and sticky toddlers. It has recipes for fresh mudburgers, snozzcumbers, wormy spaghetti, and “mosquitoes’ toes and wampfish roes most delicately fried.” These recipes remind us of the uncanny side of food—our greed makes animals of us all, Dahl seems to say. “We are all pigs,” he writes in a cookbook for adults, Memories With Food at Gipsy House, “but we are, I hope, discerning pigs…”
Everywhere you see the amazing—and grotesque—power of food to transport but also to distort and maim and kill. I first read these books as a kid, when food didn’t automatically come with guilt, when greed was an abstract sin, not a constant interior battle. Food, adults find out, is something to enjoy and fetishize and post cute pictures of online only so long as it does not make you fat. In case of fatness, you must subsist on almonds to ward off social exclusion and disease. If we had been listening, Roald Dahl would have given us a hint of what we were to find out later: Food is alchemy—magical, wonderful, dangerous, unmanageable.