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Big Rock Candy Mountain, Hansel and Gretel, and the misery of hunger

Big Rock Candy Mountain, Hansel and Gretel, and the misery of hunger published on No Comments on Big Rock Candy Mountain, Hansel and Gretel, and the misery of hunger

I’m making a digital set with a gingerbread house, chocolate pond, marshmallow cliffs, whipped cream trees — in short, a fanciful landscape formed entirely of sweets. During my work, I have been thinking about other worlds made of food, including Hasbro’s board game Candy Land, the cottage encountered by Hansel and Gretel in the fairy tale, and the edible forest in the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

At least in the examples of Hansel and Gretel and “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” the food landscape represents a sort of macabre “hunger horror.” The theme of food/hunger runs throughout Hansel and Gretel. The children use a trail of bread crumbs to lead them back home, but the crumbs are eaten by the birds, leaving the children lost and starving; they encounter the old woman when they start eating her house made of food; the old woman wants to turn Hansel into food, so she fattens him up in a cage; finally, when the woman prepares to cook Hansel, Gretel shoves her into the oven instead, thus putting the woman on the menu instead of the kid.

You can tell that Hansel and Gretel reflects the kids’ own food insecurity because everything coded as food is…well…insecure. They depend on bread crumbs to save them, but birds take away this food from them. The edible house may satisfy their empty bellies, but chewing on it leads to their imprisonment. The old woman then begins her project of turning Hansel into food, and she can only be defeated by being cooked herself. Food betrays Hansel and Gretel at every turn. It fails at its express purpose — to provide nourishment and continual survival — and instead leads Hansel and Gretel toward greater threat and possible death. The portrayal of food as an actively hostile force is why I call this “hunger horror.”

In contrast, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” seems, at first glance, a much less horrific text, a merry list of the edible features of the aforesaid mountain: “Oh the buzzing of the bees / In the cigarette trees / And the soda water fountain / By the lemonade springs / Where the bluebird sings / In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Most people these days know just about that much of the lyrics, leading them to cast it as a nonsense song…which is probably why I grew up listening to this song on a children’s record. [The “cigarette trees” may have been censored, however.] Beyond the chorus, though, the first verse features an itinerant homeless man singing “Of the land of milk and honey / Where a bum can stay / For many a day / And they don’t have any money.” As the rest of the song clarifies, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is a wish fulfillment song for people who want food and shelter. The horror lies in the blatant, obvious artificiality of the fantasy [everything’s made out of food, i.e., processed], which suggests that the hobo’s dream of having his basic needs met will never come true.


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