Brain Food

Virginia Woolf eats two big meals in the first chapter A Room of One’s Own (1929). The first is just big. The second is big in its impact. Its comparative meagerness has disproportionate impact on that “train of thought” which Woolf sets out “to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can” over the meandering course of the long essay (40).

Woolf recreates the first meal, a luncheon at an Oxbridge men’s college, in scrumptious, finger-licking prose. If the word “partridges” calls to your mind “a couple of bald, brown birds on a plate, you are mistaken.” The men’s partridges are regal fare, and they “came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins, but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent” (10-11).

Transcribing that sentence, I feel a familiar prick of critical conscience: isn’t it disingenuous to extract from stream-of-consciousness narration? But here the familiar prick has a distinct flavor. Woolf’s description is so luscious that even this vegetarian wants to copy it all out, right from the fowl through the “confection which rose all sugar from the waves” and the wine glasses that “flushed yellow and flushed crimson” throughout the meal. Woolf is at once ironic and wistful about the expansive conversational mood into which this meal puts the scholars. Food and drink induce a “more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself” (11). You don’t imagine these students and dons rushing off to tutorials or offices; you don’t imagine them getting back to brain work. Food for the Oxbridge men is luxurious. It is the opposite of work, not the recognized result of it.

Woolf prepares you for the sumptuousness of her prose as she describes the men’s standard menu, noting that although novelists don’t usually say a thing about “what was eaten” (10) at momentous meal-events in their novels, she’s going to indulge. Everything about the men’s meal can be read allegorically, as representing privilege or taste or culture in the outdated sense or sex or, naturally, the writing of experimental fiction. But it’s also what it is: a menu that is insistently “theirs.”

Half a dozen pages later, Woolf is sitting down to dinner in the hall at Fernham, a fictional women’s college. Good thing lunch was so filling. Woolf’s sentences shrink with her portions: “Here was my soup. … Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that.” As she digests the scrappy, wilted meal, Woolf arrives at one of those literary sentences that now—pangs of conscience be damned, evidently—graces cookbook covers and epicurean slogan t-shirts: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (17-18).

True enough. But if ever there were an instance of Woolf’s royal “One” obscuring too much, it is this sentence taken out of context. These women students cannot think well on their diet. (A.S. Byatt’s juicy recent novel of bohemian family life over the turn of the last century in England, The Children’s Book (2009), evokes what it meant for women early in the twentieth century to have thinking, intellectual life, as their clear intention. One of the most gripping plotlines of a novel replete with compelling characters and doings centers on smart young women whose clear intentions point to no clear, livable social outcome.)

Already during the dinner at Fernham, Woolf anticipates two important possible reactions to her dissatisfaction with the women’s food. Midway through the menu, she envisions working women bargaining for provisions, haggling with market vendors as they carry their “string bags on Monday morning.” The very next sentence tries to correct this imperious vision and force its thinker to keep eating in the same stroke: “There was no reason to complain of human nature’s daily food, seeing that the supply was sufficient and coal-miners doubtless were sitting down to less.” This is a moment of free indirect admonishment: Woolf sounds like a governess talking to a child who doesn’t want to eat her vegetables. Only she is also the child (17).

As Woolf’s description of the women’s dinner recapitulates her description of the men’s lunch by inverting it almost point by point, “one” realizes that though these women might not be fed well enough to think well, it is only in their dining hall that the writer can think at all about the work that goes into making her food. It is only at dinner that she can—must—think about “daily food” as what sustains “human nature.”

I mean neither to impugn nor to exonerate Woolf for her position vis a vis colleges or kitchens, dining or cooking. Instead, as I prepare for the upcoming Food Justice conference at the University of Oregon that Arcade blogger Allison Carruth is convening, I’ve been thinking about how these opening meals become the model for the material and economic “trains of thought” that Woolf follows throughout A Room of One’s Own. How those meals—as much as and perhaps more subtly than the famous, off-limits lawns and libraries—land at the alter-ego Mary Beton’s “conclusion—the prosaic conclusion—that it is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door” if a woman is to write fiction (105). Woolf makes no bones—to use a cooking-derived cliché—about A Room of One’s Own being about money, who has it and who controls it and what it buys—art, from the making to the selling, included. In her Room, food is symbolic, even metonymic. And food is also just food. For thought.

(Page numbers in parentheses refer to Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own. 1929. New York: Harvest, 1989.)

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