‘The cook disappeared. Almost at once she was back again staggering under the weight of an enormous round chocolate cake on a china platter. The cake was fully eighteen inches in diameter and it was covered with dark-brown chocolate icing.’
It’s difficult not to be familiar with this infamous Mathilda scene, evocative of sympathy and nausea in equal measure as the porky elementary-schooler Bruce Bogrotter is forced to ingest the entirety of a grossly rich, dense and fudgy chocolate cake, not only in front of the whole school but also under the menacing eye of the ‘Trunch’. Is it the horror of the aggressive enforcement of such excessive gluttony, combined with the humiliation of public gorging, that makes the scene so unforgettable? Or is it perhaps the inherent guilt that even though what we’re reading is obscene, extreme, and ever so slightly vile, there is also some feeling of bilious jealousy, a sense of longing for a taste of what is described as being the most sumptuous chocolate cake in all the land. It seems that food is unmistakably memorable in literature; the deployment of our imaginations can allow us to dream up the most delicious or most dire creations. Perhaps, in the same way that cities often seem that bit more magical when reading about them in a guide book than they do in reality (most likely down to the omission of the actuality of the sordid urban underbelly), so does fictional fodder seem override that of reality. Harry Potter’s Butterbeer, for instance, holds so much promise, mouth-wateringly described as a hot, foaming tankard of alcoholic butterscotch, yet, tragically, the commercial version offered at Warner Bros’ Studios is widely regarded to be a synthetic, sickly bevvy of overwhelming abhorrence. Similarly, earthly attempts to replicate the confectionary wonderment of Willy Wonka’s factory in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have flopped spectacularly; it seems ludicrous how a purple-wrapped ‘Wonka’ bar from Sainsbury’s can be in any way related to the factory’s glorious torrent of liquid chocolate. I feel sure that the delights of Enid Blyton’s pop biscuits, google buns, and infamous ‘toffee shocks’, would, even if well-executed, doubtless fail to adhere to our very much elevated and totally extraordinary expectations. It has not escaped my notice that all of these examples are taken from children’s fiction, but, I suspect, that’s the point. Surely, there is no outlet more vivid or more creative than the imagination of a child, the limitations of which are very few and far between. It does seem totally paradoxical that food is more delicious when imagined than when eaten, but I suppose that’s just the way the literary-cookie crumbles.