I can’t believe I’m making two television posts in a row. But there is a lot of really good, thoughtful television on the air these days–and in this age of increased awareness of food politics, it’s not too surprising that some of these shows use scenes of eating to make points about character, culture, and plot.
In Season 1 of Orange is the New Black, food was primarily utilitarian: reward, punishment, or trade. Commissary junk food is bartered for goods and services. Red’s black market yogurts are conferred as a favor. The utilitarian prison food cooked and overseen by Red is roundly mocked by everyone: even though the COs wander back to beg specially-made scraps and even though everyone has a few favorite specialties, the prison meals are designed to meet the daily caloric requirement for a large sedentary population as inexpensively as possible, and its uninterestingness is part of their punishment. (Disgust plays a role here too, particularly when Piper is sent to SHU and is served moldy food.) But though few people love the cafeteria food, withholding it is a form of punishment that inmates can mete out to other inmates.
In Season 2, scenes of eating are allowed much more symbolic impact. In particular, food means family: one of the more dramatic food scenes occurs when Red manages to smuggle in an entire family supper, nice plates and all, to stage an elaborate apology to her prison family. Food is one of the only ways Red knows to express care; it’s also, interestingly, a way for her to express flair, even more so than her trademark red mane. The family supper is intended to be a virtuoso performance, and Red gets peeved when Big Boo interrupts her speech. Later, she perceives the meal as a Last Supper with Big Boo as the Judas, but Nicky shoots that idea down; the lesson Red was supposed to learn is that you can’t barter for friendship.
Elsewhere, in Piper’s WASPy world, there is family food that’s comfortless or all for show: the lettuce and sad cheese plates at her grandmother’s funeral; the awkwardly named “bagnut” that kicks off Polly and Larry’s equally awkward union.
But the most developed storyline that revolves around food and family belongs to Vee and Taystee. Taystee’s always been one of my favorite characters: she’s sharp, funny, exuberant, and great fun to watch onscreen. As Miss Claudette tells her, she’s a smart girl who likes to play the clown, and many of her clowning scenes in Season 1 revolve around food in a not particularly flattering way: for some examples, she gets in a fight about an ice cream treat and tells Alcoholics Anonymous a wild story about getting blackout drunk and waking up with barbecue sauce all over her bare chest. I wasn’t thrilled with these scenes, which seemed to be written for cheap laughs–ha ha, the big black woman loves junky food–and if they just narrowly escape caricature, it is due to Danielle Brooks’ dynamic presence in that role.
But Season 2 opens up a lot of storylines for a closer and more nuanced look, and Taystee’s relationship with food is one of them. In a flashback to Taystee’s life with her foster mother Vee, we see Taystee regretfully turn down a meal with Vee and their foster family because she has to go to work–evidently at a fast food chain, which she does instead of participating in Vee’s drug ring. Later, we see Vee serve homemade bread and soup to Taystee and RJ when both are helping her sell drugs; the warm and silly camaraderie is painfully juxtaposed with the fact that they are dealing and marketing heroin, but Taystee’s face is heartbreakingly full of happiness about sharing a family meal. In another memory, Taystee brings home hot wings; Vee teases her about her love of junky food, and Taystee is comfortable enough to tease right back, perhaps under the mistaken impression that she can have her cake and eat it too, i.e. be true to her own will while under Vee’s roof.
Naturally, cake is how Vee wins Taystee back when they meet again in prison. On the surface it might look like a cheap shot–of course Taystee’s 30 pieces of silver would be cake–but I think her backstory sets up this moment to be complicated and nuanced. Sure, a good cake has a lot of value in this prison, not only because it provides some longed-for sweetness in a food system that is so frequently bland and functional or gross and functional. But taking food from Vee’s hands will naturally remind Taystee of being cared for by Vee, as in the family supper scene. The cake also demonstrates Vee’s power in the prison system: it is carried out to her by one of the kitchen staff, and it is made of ingredients that one must be well-connected to obtain.
In a ceremony just as performative as Red’s Last Supper, Vee begins cutting the cake and summons Suzanne, a mentally troubled inmate whose loyalty Vee has carefully cultivated. “Come get you some cake,” Vee purrs, and we might remember the tragic scene from Suzanne’s childhood of her struggle to fit in at a child’s birthday party. (Vee has a way of tapping into every character’s fear and longing when she wants something from them.) Vee then looks Taystee in the eye until she comes forward to ask about the cake. Vee calls it the cake a “peace offering” and encourages Taystee to invite her friends to share it. She asks Taystee’s forgiveness and promises that she will take care of her.
Care, belonging, access to power and connections–that’s quite a deal for a cake to offer! But Taystee’s hesitation and the conflict written all over her face show us that she knows perfectly well that it doesn’t come for free.
At my other blog, 8 Things I Love about OitNB
At the Smart Set: Nutraloaf as real-life prison punishment