One of the biggest mysteries of this season in my eyes is “how in the world have the Harry Potter films become a Christmas/holiday tradition?” Sorcerer’s Stone came out in November back in 2001, but the timeframe doesn’t instantly make a film a Christmas classic. Sure enough, though, every December I can turn the channel to ABC Family (or whatever it’s called now) and find each and every Harry Potter film nestled snugly in between other classics such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Polar Express. While this mystery may never be solved in my eyes, it got me thinking about a certain facet of the Harry Potter series that, in all its exploration of magic, seems to be woefully underutilized—a fellow holiday tradition, food.
Fans of course remember the grand banquets during the sorting ceremonies and have fond memories of the pumpkin pasties and the chocolate frogs available on the Hogwarts Express, but all things considered, wizard food remains strangely mundane compared to Muggle food. Stranger still is how it seems that, in general, the more realistic the story, the more magical its food seems to be. Yet in a way this makes sense; these seemingly at odds representations of the magic of food serve to reinforce what the characters are looking for in their respective stories.
People who have watched Studio Ghibli films often speak of how tantalizing the food looks in its animated form, and certainly Spirited Away teaches viewers the lesson of not being greedy through Chihiro’s parents feasting on food that was not theirs and being turned into pigs because of it. However, I find that the most common “magical food” trope in mundane universes is food literally inducing a memory, bringing joy to the eater and allowing the protagonist to achieve their goal. In the series Kitchen Princess by Natsumi Ando, protagonist Najika Kazami travels to Tokyo to learn how to be the best chef she can be. Coming from a poorer family, she faces many struggles in her now high-brow cooking academy; however, one by one, she turns people to her side by having them taste her food. One of her largest opponents is the popular Akane, who despises Najika because she’s getting too close to her crush. Akane is also on track to becoming a supermodel, but because of this she ends up dieting too extremely and begins not being able to stomach any food. Taking her time to create a dish with Akane in mind, Najika is able to create something that not only can Akane eat, but also reminds her of her now deceased grandmother, who wished her to pursue her goals in a healthy way.
Similarly, in the Disney film Ratatouille, the bumbling young chef Alfredo and Remy, the rat who teaches him everything he knows, must create a dish for a food critic to save his restaurant’s reputation. Unfortunately, this critic is a huge asshole who accepts nothing but perfection, which Alfredo is the antithesis of. However, with Alfredo and Remy working together, the two manage to make a dish so homey that the critic has an intense flashback to his childhood; the flashback is so strong that after he finishes that bite, the critic’s mood improves dramatically and he begins to lay off his “perfection is everything” mindset a bit. In both of these cases, food takes on an almost otherworldly quality that can perform feats that no man alone could do. This is a mundane world seeking some magic in their lives, because the normal they’re used to is not helping anyone around them, or themselves.
While this sentiment can be echoed in Harry Potter in places, I think one of the larger themes of the series is that while Harry truly thrives in the wizarding world, what he really wants is a normal life. He gets over being “the boy who lived” fast enough, and who wouldn’t when that means escaping your abusive relatives (for the school year) only to be hunted down by a dark wizard and his henchmen and basically being blamed for every ridiculous magical happening since returning to said wizarding world. He bonds with Ron, Hermione, Luna, and his other friends because they treat him like a person rather than a celebrity. In following this trend, then, it makes sense that food, a comfort item, is presented in a mostly mundane light. While the food is presented in every magical way imaginable, most commonly it has no outward effect on the person eating it outside of it being yummy. In fact, when food in Harry Potter does have magical effects, it tends to be in a negative light. The most prominent example of this are the chocolates that Romilda Vane gave Harry during their sixth year. Romilda had spiked the chocolates with a love potion, and such magic has never been painted in a positive light throughout the whole series, and especially not here. While coming to the wizarding world was a freeing experience for Harry, it was never magic itself that he was seeking. Harry’s desperation for a “normal” life, where he can just live as a person who isn’t abused and has friends, may have been put on the backburner through the whole Voldemort thing, but it’s through small details like this that show that sometimes a more magical life isn’t necessarily the solution to your problems.
By now it’s clear that real life is reflected through our fiction, and because of that the same themes and items can have multiple different meanings and interpretations in various stories. Sometimes an apple is just an apple, sometimes that apple is symbolism for the depravity of man and the downfall of human society. Sometimes food is used as a magical catalyst to bring characters closer to their goals, and to provide comfort where other humans have failed. Other times food is simply food, delicious and warm and best shared with the friends around us. Wherever you find yourselves this holiday season, I hope that, if nothing else, you can have a good meal that carries you through the bumpy spots remaining in this year, and into the… hopefully warmer embrace of the next.