I think a lot about how often stories represent food as an enticing imperilment. Consider the pomegranate seeds that require Persephone to remain in Hades half the year. Consider the Turkish Delight in Narnia that makes a child a witch-queen’s minion. Consider the apple that topples Snow White into a toxic slumber. The apple that expels Eve from Eden. The sweet things in life, these stories imply—wondrous delicacies that tempt us toward thoughtless consumption—are sources of wonder much less often than woe. Consumption, these stories warn, can lead us to be consumed.
Many of my favorite stories present food as both delicious and dangerous. My love for these stories is surely shared with many millions of others trained since girlhood to love cooking, yet fear the consequences of eating. Every person I know who was raised to be a good girl and become a good woman understands the dual potential of food as delightful treat and devastating trap.
This contrast fascinates me. This reality where something that should be simple—fuel for the body, nourishment for the soul—can be so complicated. The way that cooking food for others is an act of care but eating that food ourselves can seem like an act of self-harm. I think about this dichotomy often, and I revel in stories that explore its permutations.
One of my favorite writers, Greek author and artist Eugenia Triantafyllou, is a remarkably skillful creator of knife-edged stories both touching and terrifying. I had a hard time choosing which of her stories to write about for this column. One highlight, “Tomatoes” grows blood and soil and seeds into bait for an appetizing snare. Another, “This Village,” marries sweet treats with pure and heartfelt menace. I hungrily read and reread, and in the end I chose “Bonesoup,” published this summer in Strange Horizons, for its clear-eyed, unsentimental portrayal of how the consequences of cooking and eating are not always the same for every person.
I will not spoil the story—it is a must-read—but I will say that this story, like many Triantafyllou stories, makes me equally hungry for the food it describes and for connections as powerful as those her characters experience. Dina, the narrator of “Bonesoup,” has a doting grandmother who will do whatever it takes to make her beloved granddaughter thrive. In the end, Dina finds herself willing to do the same for her grandmother. It is a heartwarming relationship, despite its impacts on the people whom Dina and her grandmother do not love as much as they love each other.
This being a column about both stories and eating, I wanted to cook something inspired by Triantafyllou’s story. “Bonesoup” contains more than a few appetizing dishes. I could have cooked bone broth to honor this story’s title. I could have cooked lamb brains or honey rolls with cinnamon. I could have cooked ekmek, tripe soup, apple pie. But this is also a column about endings, so I chose the final dish in the story: Chocolate cake, which Dina bakes for her friend Katerina to soothe—and steal—a broken heart.
If you, like me, like to devour stories—and if you, like me, relish the unsettling parts—you can find the cake recipe I used on Nicky Corbishley’s Kitchen Sanctuary website. I baked this cake in my mother’s battered heart-shaped pan to make the most of its Gothicly cherry-studded charms. I have not, it must be said, experienced much heartbreak of late—I made the cake to share with my betrothed—but I could nevertheless taste Katerina’s plight in its dark, dense, bittersweet crumbs. Always a girl for the sweets, Katerina. Always there in Dina’s grandmother’s kitchen, always chasing love, never half so loved as Dina. Never, in stories, the kind of girl for whom things end well.
I admire how Triantafyllou pulls off the balancing act of showing the danger sweets pose to Katerina without reprimanding her character’s dietary predilections. A lesser writer might portray Katerina’s situation as the deserved consequence of giving in to temptation. Triantafyllou, though, is too insightful to diminish the power of her story with an obvious moral. It is not that Dina—a girl for the meat, as her grandmother forever proclaims, a girl who grows up to reject sweet treats in favor of the savory foods she was raised to crave—is superior to a girl raised on sweets. It is only that she is luckier in how she is loved. It is not truly sweets that endanger Katerina. It is not Katerina’s fault that Dina loves her grandmother more than a childhood friend.
This is cake that keeps. Almond flour retains moisture beautifully, and the melted chocolate that pulls it together provides enough richness to make large portions unappealing. Days later, I am still eating chocolate cherry cake while contemplating heartbreak and culinary hazards. I have worked hard to not be afraid of eating cake. Or, at least, to recognize that my fear of eating cake is an artifact of socialization, and that salvation lies not in denying myself cake but in choosing to reject the idea that cake will somehow ruin me. Eating cake while devouring stories about dangerous food feels deliciously transgressive. When I bake for people I love, I now include myself among their number. I am a girl for the sweets and for the meat. Chocolate cake will not break or unmake me.
How many stories still serve the cake with a side of consequences? How many narratives have I consumed that did portray eating as a moral failure? How much of what I learned as a child have I truly unlearned? Social conditioning sinks so deeply into developing bones. I wonder how different my cake would taste if I had read stories like Eugenia Triantafyllou’s “Bonesoup” when I was younger—stories that complicate timeworn ideas about where we should end up when we choose to eat.