Food, Connection, and Identity
By Neha Verma
People from the same place of origin often share a sense of identity, and it is common for that sense of identity to be based on food. As people come together to prepare and consume a food specific to their area, that food gives them a source of connection to one another and to their home. In Fell and Stevenhagen’s The Tale of Despereaux, soup is an integral part of life in the Kingdom of Dor. When soup is banned by the King, Dor looses a part of its identity and the people loose their sense of connection to one another. Hit hardest by the ban is Chef Andre, shown in this still. Once strongly connected to Dor through his preparation of soup, he suffers the loss of his identity and his role in the kingdom as a soup chef. At the end of the film, Andre breaks the ban on soup, reclaiming his own identity and restoring a sense of identity to Dor. Throughout The Tale of Despereaux, the Kingdom of Dor as a whole and Chef Andre’s character are used to illustrate the strong relationship between food, connection, and identity, as well as and the importance of staying true to oneself.
In Dor, soup is depicted as an indispensible part of life, and it is therefore closely tied to Dor’s identity. The narrator explains: “In Dor, Christmas was nothing; well, they still celebrated it, but it was nothing compared to Soup Day!” A holiday like Christmas encourages people to celebrate their shared religious identity. The comparison between Soup Day and Christmas illustrates soup’s ability to create a sense of identity in Dor that is just as strong as a sense of identity stemming from religion. Soup’s importance is further emphasized when an outsider arriving in Dor says: “Every place has something special, and in Dor, it’s the soup!” Although this outsider has never been to Dor, he already associates Dor with soup. Soup defines Dor not only according to the people who live there, but also from an outsider’s perspective. While a sense of identity begins with a person’s perception of him or herself, it is also strongly influenced by the perceptions of others. Therefore, it is telling that both the kingdom’s people and outsiders alike recognize the importance of soup in Dor.
Soup also brings the people of Dor together, allowing them to establish a sense of community based on their shared connection to soup. While Christmas is a celebration of identity, it also represents a sense of community based on that identity. In this respect, the parallel between Christmas and Soup Day again holds true. The film’s Soup Day scene prior to the ban is rich with a sense of community. A large banner that reads: “LONG LIVE SOUP” is hoisted into the air, requiring multiple people to hold it up and thereby highlighting how soup brings the people of Dor together. Within Chef Andre’s kitchen, the teamwork involved in preparing a huge – about the height of four people – cauldron of soup is especially evident when a close-up follows a few potatoes follows them down an assembly line, with different hands performing each preparation step as they tumble toward the cauldron. Over the course of the film, there is no mention of anyone disliking soup – simply a collective love for Dor’s characteristic food. Soup is the common thread between the people of Dor, tying them to one another though a shared identity.
Because soup plays such a significant role in defining and uniting Dor, the ban on soup destroys Dor’s identity and sense of community. Chef Andre’s character symbolizes these losses. Immediately after the ban on soup, Chef Andre is shown alone at a long table, as depicted in this still. The still is dark and the colors are dim, consisting of browns and grays. The majority of the scenes in the film without soup are also without light, signifying the sense of darkness and loss that comes with betraying one’s identity. The area of the still with the most light is a stack of bowls in the upper left-hand corner, perhaps suggesting that in taking the bowls off the shelf and putting them to use for soup once again, the sense of darkness and loss can be lifted as identity is restored. In the center of the still, Chef Andre simply rolls a coin along the table, illustrating the emptiness he feels upon loosing soup. His chef hat even sags toward the ground, emphasizing his dejection. While previously, his hands chopped and stirred and lifted spoons to his mouth, they are now consumed by the meaningless task of playing with a coin. This still also illustrates Chef Andre’s loss of connection to the people of Dor – the table spans the length of the frame, yet Chef Andre sits by himself. Without the appreciation of soup he once shared with the people of Dor and the role he once held as its preparer, Chef Andre is left alone at the table.
In The Garden of Eating, Jeremy Iggers writes: “To reroot ourselves in the particularity of our place… means eating the food that can only come from where you live” (Iggers 94). At the close of the film, Chef Andre exemplifies this statement. Deciding he cannot live without his Dorian identity any longer, Chef Andre breaks the ban by making a pot of soup. As he cooks, the aroma of the soup wafts up to the storm clouds hanging over Dor, and for the first time since the start of the ban, the sun comes out. In making soup, Chef Andre not only reclaims his own identity, but also reestablishes Dor’s identity by making the food that is particular to the area. While the storm clouds symbolize the sense of loss and darkness that results from betraying one’s identity, the return of light to Dor signifies the restoration of identity and, therefore, the start of a better time for the kingdom’s people. The fact that the loss of one food can topple a kingdom and its return can immediately restore order is a testament to the power of food in establishing a sense of identity and the importance of honoring that the foods that make us who we are.
Iggers, Jeremy. The Garden of Eating: Food, Sex, and the Hunger for Meaning. New York: Basic, 1996.