FOOD is...sitting around the table telling STORIES
Taking on from my previous post about food and families, when I think of families sitting around a table, I think about them sharing food and stories.
My Mom is the creative one in the family, the creator of birthday cakes, First Holy Communion cakes, engagement cakes and all kinds of decorative food platters. One such creative platter was the ‘Horn of plenty’. Every cousin getting engaged would request her to make one of these. This, a horn made out of marzipan and stuffed with marzipan fruits, was made to present to their future family on the occasion of an engagement. We loved this. It looked so fancy, and we longed to sneak a marzipan fruit or two...but eagle eyes kept us away. I only ever knew of THIS kind of Horn of Plenty...that is, until I developed an interest in world mythology. Books led me to the word ‘cornucopia’…’cornu’ meaning horn and ‘copia’ meaning plenty. Commonly known as the ‘horn of plenty’, it is a symbol of nourishment and abundance. Also a symbol of fertility...no wonder it featured at engagements...absolutely no subtlety there!!!
For me, every celebratory table must be a CORNUCOPIA...overflowing with plenty of food to go around, laughter, STORIES, conversation and memories.
Myth offers us different stories about the cornucopia, but the most popular one is about how an infant Zeus, hidden from his devouring father Chronos, breaks off one of the horns of his wet nurse Amaltheia, or of her goat. Either way, Amaltheia or Zeus, fills it with fruit and vegetables…a symbol for or a tribute to the unending nourishment she provided Zeus.
There were myths created for a range of human experience. Food consumption being essential and universal, foods have plenty of their own myths. As I think of the fruits in the cornucopia, I remember that myths across cultures, have some wonderful stories about fruit.
Long considered nourishing and healthy...here is a cornucopia full of references to some stories about fruit in MYTHOLOGY and FOLKLORE.
*- In Greek mythology, it is said that the first apple trees were created by Gaia, the mother of Zeus. She gave the trees as a wedding gift to Hera. These apples were gold and were kept under the care of three minor goddesses called the Hesperides and a dragon named Ladon.
- Fetching the apples from these trees was one of the Labours of Heracles, who enlisted the help of Atlas.
- An apple was also the cause of the squabble between the three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite which led to the Trojan war.
- There is yet another story about apples and a race....do you know which one?
*- In Norse myth, the Goddess Idunn was the protector of the famous apples which gave the gods eternal youth. However, when she is tricked by Loki and carried off to the realm of the giants,Jotunheim, the gods go old and grey without the apples from Idunn's hand. Apples were seen as a symbol of youth and immortality. No wonder the old saying ‘An apple a day……’ rings true.
*- The most famous story about pomegranates comes from Greek myth. When kidnapped by Hades, Persephone, daughter of the Goddess of Agriculture - Demeter, refuses to eat anything in the underworld. Parched, she sucks the juice of just 6 pomegranate seeds...to quench her thirst. Unfortunately, as per the laws of the underworld, it means she cannot leave. Some skillful negotiation from Hermes, leads to a deal and what we know as the seasons.
*- During his life on Earth, the Buddha received plenty of valuable offerings from Kings and wealthy disciples. However it was a poor old woman's gift of half a pomegranate that delighted him and he received it with two hands.
- Another story tells us how Buddha once offered a pomegranate to the child-eating demon Hariti, which seems to have cured her off her affinity for eating children. Buddhism considers the pomegranate to be one of the three blessed fruits along with citrus and peach.
- In Indian Mythology, The story of Ganesha and his brother Karthikeya and their race around the world, all to win the prize of a mango, is a well loved one and it doesn’t matter how many times a child may have heard the story, it remains a joy to listen to it one more time.
- Another story involves Bal Krishna and a mango seller, in which he tries to barter a fistful of grains for some mangoes.
Phillipino mythology tells a sweet love story about Pangga, a beautiful and intelligent young girl and the town’s vagabond Manong. Pangga’s parents never bought Manongs promises to bring down the sun and moon to shine on their home or the other sweet nothings he whispered to Pangga. When the lovers disappear into the forest, they are never found, but the myth ends with a discovery of a new kind of tree. Its fruit was a bit crescent-shaped like the moon, yellow like the sun, and sweet like Manong’s tongue. It was rich in nutrition, as Pangga’s multifaceted genius. In time it was called “Manga,” a mix of their names, and today’s vernacular for mango.
Every part of the banana tree is significant and useful whether its root, stem, fruit, flower or leaf.
*One story about the banana can be found in the Mahabharata. Before the outbreak of the battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, Krishna went as a mediator. While the Pandavas did not want to go to war against their cousins, the Kauravas were adamant and would not listen to the advice given by Krishna, even after he had predicted the destruction of the entire race. Defeated at his mission of bringing peace between the two rival sections of the family, Krishna went to the house of Vidura who was a half brother, both to the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Vidura was not at home and his wife Viduri, offered Krishna a Kadali (banana) fruit. She was so ecstatic by the presence of Krishna who had graced her threshold that absent mindlessly she threw away the banana- fruit and offered only the banana peel to Krishna. Krishna had noticed this but kept on eating the banana peel as they were offered to him with a pure heart and devotion.
Coconut in Sanskrit is known as 'Sriphala' which translates to 'God's fruit'.
- One day as a child when Little Ganesha was playing, he was attracted by his father’s third eye and he went to touch it. Lord Shiva stopped him and said I am going to give you a special ball to play with...this ball was the coconut! Therefore the coconut is very special to Lord Ganesha and is offered to him.
- Another story tells us of King Trishanku and Sage Vishwamitra and how the latter turned King Trishanku into the first coconut tree, when Indra threw him out of heaven. As the folklore around the story suggests, the pole that the sage used to support King Trishanku became the coconut tree. The tree bore his head as the coconut fruit, the shell of coconut has fibre around it, which stories tell us were originally Trishanku's bread and hair. When the coir is removed, we can see that the shell has three impressions which are considered to be Trishanku's eyes and nose.
- One of my all time favourite stories to narrate is a folktale from Gujarat, published by Tulika, ‘All Free’ rewritten by Mamata Pandya. This is a hilarious tale about Bikhubhai whose mouth waters for fresh grated coconut with jaggery. The story takes us through Bikhubhais attempts at getting a coconut for free!!
I just had to include this folktale from Japan in this list as it has always been a favourite with my students. A childless elderly couple find a baby boy inside a giant peach. He grows up brave and strong and with a little help from his friends, overcomes the Ohni or demons who attack and rob his village. I narrate it using traditional Kamishibai cards, however there are many picture books available on Momotaro.
The First Strawberries by Joseph Bruchac This beautiful picture book is a re-telling of an old Cherokee myth which narrates the story of how strawberries came to be. A long ago, when the first man and woman quarreled, the woman left in anger. The Sun sent berries to Earth to tempt her with their vibrant colours and taste to slow down the wife's retreat.
8. STAR FRUIT
The Brothers and the Star Fruit tale: A Tale from Vietnam by Susan L.Barchers A unique take of a rather familiar plotline, where two brothers take different paths with their inheritance. One brother is content and kind and the other rich yet greedy. As always Fate...that uncanny friend and foe, has a plan up its ginormous sleeves.
It is difficult to source the Indian Mythology stories referenced here, in books worthy of sharing in a list. The stories are often hidden within ‘collections’ of stories. If you do know well written, child-friendly books which have any of these stories, please share the titles in the comments. I found a lacunae of good quality picture books on Indian Mythology for young children. Especially on stories not heard often.
The stories referenced above may be found in the following books:
- Indian Mythology
Gautama Buddha - A life in stories by Maria L. Denzongpa (Scholastic) The Upside-down King by Sudha Murthy Amma Tell Me About Ganesha by Bhakti Mathur
- Greek and Norse Myth D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths Usbourne Greek Myths for Young Children D’Aulaires book of Norse Myths Usbourne Illustrated Guide to Norse Myths and Legends Norse Myth by Neil Gaiman ( 12 +)
# The First Strawberries by Joseph Bruchac # All Free by Mamata Pandya # The Brothers and the Star Fruit tale: A Tale from Vietnam by Susan L.Barchers
The post features just a small list of Origin myths, mythological stories and folktales around fruit. You may adapt this to vegetables, grains or traditional foods.
1. A study of various myths around fruits by plotting the origin of each Myth on a map, will help children understand the geographical areas in which each variety of fruits grow. Older children may look up the regions where these fruits would thrive and the climatic and geographical features of these areas. This is a good way to link reading of myth with non-fiction, also available within school libraries. Encourage children to support the fiction they read, with non-fiction...encouraging them to read across genres.
2. Comparing and contrasting origin myths from different cultures, help children see the differences but also the similarities in the values across cultures.
3. Writing a How and Why story of their own. This is a fun exercise and my students enjoy the process. Children can pick any fruit. They need to identify a characteristic about that particular fruit. Create a story about why that fruit has that particular characteristic. Eg. Why does the pineapple have a crown on its head. Why is the banana shaped like a smile …and so on.
4. For younger children...Play “Guess My Fruit.” Make up clues to describe a mystery fruit. Have students share their clues and let the other students guess. Use this opportunity to talk about attributes and physical characteristics of these objects.
“I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane