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From Cather Studies Volume 12

Under the White Mulberry Tree: Food and Artistry in Cather’s Orchards

Food in Cather’s work has begun to receive the attention it warrants. Paralleling the development of literary food studies or the examination of food’s multivalent significance in works of literature, Cather’s body of work, given its frequent engagement with culinary themes, has served as a point of interest for many critics. Most prominently, scholars have explored the significance of immigrant foods in Cather’s oeuvre, often linking her celebration of “ethnic” foods—such as Bohemian kolaches and German cakes—to a broader anti-Americanization argument.[1] Elsewhere, critics have examined Cather’s novels in relation to pivotal culinary histories, such as early twentieth-century developments in agriculture, the pure food movement, and attitudes toward alcohol consumption and temperance.[2]

Despite crucial inroads made by these scholars, there remains much work to be done in exploring food in Cather’s fiction. In particular, the relationship between Cather’s artistic philosophy and her ideas about food, cooking, and eating remains relatively unexplored, yet can potentially lead to a new understanding about Cather’s artistic praxis and the role that food, specifically as linked to the senses, plays within her artistry. In this essay, I connect Cather’s relationship to producing literature to her ideas about cooking as an art form and suggest that Cather valued the same things in good cooking that she valued in good writing—simplicity, authenticity, and the creation of indefinable pleasure. Likewise, I begin to identify within Cather’s fiction the function of culinary imagery with specific attention to the sensory effect of this imagery and its ability to produce what she famously identified as her goal in “The Novel Démeublé”: “the inexplicable thing not named.” Indeed, Cather’s utilization of culinary imagery in her writings precisely allows her work to produce moments of the intangible by invoking smell, taste, and other sensations that food has the potential to elicit.

Given Cather’s extensive oeuvre and her copious references to food, eating, and cooking, it is imperative to narrow one’s focus. In conceiving this essay, I was struck by the emotive and sensory significance of orchards in Cather’s fiction and will thus use two of her novels that feature orchards—O Pioneers! and Sapphira and the Slave Girl—to analyze how Cather utilizes food.

Orchards are rich spaces because they are the manifestation of human intervention in the natural landscape, and they produce food to be smelled, tasted, and consumed. Scholars have already begun to examine the significance of orchards in Cather’s fiction as sites of culinary and cultural exchange, as well as spaces of creative generation and economic prosperity for female characters. Ántonia Shimerda and Alexandra Bergson cultivate their own orchards. The trees themselves are living testament to women’s endurance, potentially symbolizing, in turn, the success of specific immigrant groups over others.[3] Likewise, as Esther M. Lopez points out, despite the potential celebratory cultural melding that Bishop Latour’s future apricot orchard represents, other culinary scenes in Death Comes for the Archbishop reveal Cather’s own “ambivalence about . . . changes occurring in the Southwest” (89). In these ways, orchards emerge as places of contradictory ethnic and economic significance—also intimately connected to the body and the proliferation of bodies and the melding or clashing of cultures. Less so explored, however, is how orchards, as places of cultural, creative, and culinary import, help express Cather’s artistic philosophy of simplification and “the inexplicable thing not named.”


Cather’s artistic philosophy in “The Novel Démeublé,” published in 1922, emphasizes the importance that young writers move away from the act of cataloging in fiction—or “mere verisimilitude”—and instead toward “[presenting] their scene by suggestion” (6). Partially a stab at the mores of American literary realism and partially a celebration of Tolstoy, Cather asserts that the creation of “the thing not named” is “the over-tone divined by the ear but not heard by it . . . that gives high quality to the novel or drama, as well as to poetry itself” (6). In other words, a novel draws its artistic value from the writer’s ability to relay emotion and meaning on the page without explicitly naming the emotion or sensation itself. Meanwhile, Cather also emphasizes the fact that such a narrative effect results from the process of simplification, of throwing “all the furniture out of the window” (6), so to speak. Put differently, the novel should not be “crowded with physical sensations”; rather, the sensations themselves should be fused to the characters’ selves, creating complete beings. Implied throughout “The Novel Démeublé” is Cather’s tendency to value this notion of “simplification,” meanwhile denigrating writers’ attempts to ostentatiously draw together a series of observations just for the sake of doing so.

Cather again echoes this artistic philosophy in her of-quoted introduction to Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, published in 1925. In one passage, Cather claims that a great story “must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure. A quality that one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden” (xiv–xv). This intangibility is much like “the over-tone divined”—it is a product of the artist’s ability to show without telling, to express without saying. This philosophy is wrapped up in the subtlety of the senses—an auditory trace picked up by the ears, the olfactory residue of plants and flowers, both crystallized in the mind and memory in precise yet indefinable ways.

Furthermore, Cather’s addition of the notion of “pleasure” in this excerpt resonates even more forcefully with the ability of the senses, specifically, to illicit a particular type of emotional response in the reader. According to Cather, a piece of literature written expertly should be able to imprint on the “sensitive” reader’s mind to such a degree that they can recall the sensations it elicits without the text in front of them. Like one’s ability to hear, to smell, and to see, one’s ability to taste (or imagine taste) would have been crucial to the creation of this type of intangible sensation or the “inexplicable thing not named”—such as recalling the smell of a roast cooked in a particular way by one’s grandmother, or imagining the fresh taste of cherries in the spring plucked from a specific tree, each one in its own way unique. Indeed, food in particular often conveys subtle and enigmatic emotions and experiences that cannot be captured in any other way in literature and is likewise tied inextricably to the body.

Cather openly linked food and cooking to art, pleasure, and the senses. In a 1921 interview with the Lincoln Sunday Star, Cather proclaimed, “Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. . . . Esthetic appreciation begins with the enjoyment of the morning bath. It should include all the activities of life. There is real art in cooking a roast just right, so that it is brown and dripping and odorous and ‘saignant’” (qtd. in Bohlke 47). Throughout this interview, Cather expounds upon her artistic philosophy, which emphasizes the relationship between the enjoyment of the culinary realm (as well as life’s other everyday sensations and sensory pleasures) and a writer’s ability to absorb and re-create the realities of life on the page. According to Cather, the enactment of this philosophy should then presumably lead to a more authentic art that can adequately capture one’s complex existence on the page.“Art must spring out of the fullness and richness of life,” Cather states later in this same interview.

There is ample evidence that Cather respected cookery as a legitimate and worthwhile art form and believed that food—and eating— deserved respect. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant once recalled: “Sharing a good meal with [Cather] remained . . . one of life’s serious pleasures. Conversation must never divert one from the quality of the food on the plate and the wine in the glass” (51). Indeed, throughout Cather’s correspondence, her views about the value of food and good cooking and cooking’s status as a form of artistry also frequently appear in relation to her longtime French maid Josephine Bourda, whose father ran a restaurant and who worked for Cather and Edith Lewis from the 1910s through the 1930s. In 1921 Cather wrote of Josephine in a letter,“Nobody can take care of me and the house as well as [Josephine] can. She knows just how I like things done,—and she too, is an artist in her way; most French people are. She respects my work, and I respect hers.” Not only does Cather identify cooking (and housekeeping, by proxy) as an art form in this passage but she also compares Josephine’s form of artistry to her own highly valued career as a writer. By writing “she too” and likening her work to Josephine’s, Cather subtly elevates her French maid’s daily practices in the home and in the kitchen to the level of serious artistic profession.

Strikingly, Cather’s emphasis on the artistic practice of simplification in “The Novel Démeublé” reappears, in a parallel register, in commentary about Josephine’s cooking techniques. On December 10, 1921, Cather wrote to Irene Miner Weisz, explaining that Josephine “gets us a delicious French dinner every night—the kind of food that is so simple, so honest, so truly elegant because it is not over-rich and showy.” Cather’s Francophilia aside, she once again characterizes Josephine as an artist and this time specifically through her cookery. Unlike the “over-furnished” fictional rooms of novels that fail to capture life at its core, food that is “over-rich and showy,” according to Cather, similarly lacks elegance, authenticity, and artistry. Indeed, Cather’s description and use of these terms ascribes a certain clarity of vision on Josephine’s part—an artistic vision that understands how to bring into being the wholeness of life in the practice of cookery and is not simply a pale imitation of a recipe or a needlessly ornate collection of ingredients.

Throughout her fiction and correspondence, Cather tends to characterize good food in terms of its simplicity and even its honesty, suggesting that her ideas about what constituted excellent literature carried over into her ideas about the aesthetics and quality of food. Cather favors and openly praises foods that are simple, whole, and unprocessed, foods that innately carry with them emotional, familial, and cultural significance. Like her emphasis on Josephine’s cooking techniques and artistry in the kitchen, Cather often notes the value of particular foods and ingredients, manifesting itself in the excitement of receiving fresh butter or the disappointment of not being able to get an “honest” beefsteak anywhere in New York City due to wartime food shortages in the 1940s. Food is also often a polarizing subject for Cather: while jam, roasted chicken, and vintage wines all appear frequently as objects of praise and delight, fish and especially lobster receive ample derision. In a 1945 letter to her brother Roscoe, Cather emphatically states, “I think God made a mistake when he created fish at all!” Nonetheless, the variety of ways in which Cather engages with food in her letters and in her fiction is striking: her work displays an ongoing emphasis on food as an object of pleasure, distaste, aesthetic significance, and cultural value.

In one memorable series of correspondence, Cather wrote repeatedly to Roscoe and his wife, praising marmalade they had sent her. On January 2, 1918, she wrote to Meta: “I have seldom been so much pleased with a present as I was with the box of jelly and marmalade you sent me. I had never seen it put up like that before, and the jelly is made of real fruit, dé-licious.” At the end of that same year, she wrote, “The box of jams and jellies that you and Roscoe sent me is perfect for afternoon tea—all done up in cunning little jars, and such strange and interesting varieties! So far I have tried only the Citrus Jam, and it is delicious!” In early January of 1919, Cather was still eating the jam and wrote this time to Roscoe, “Tell Meta I am still eating that delicious jam on my toast at tea every afternoon when I have tea at home. I have finished the scuppernong jam, and am now on the pineapple.” Cather’s repeated return to the jam she received from Roscoe and Meta suggests not only a love of life’s simple pleasures but also a propensity toward thinking and writing about food as well as a proclivity for foods that were “real” and carried with them familial and intimate significance.

These trends—Cather’s classification of cooking as an art form, her appreciation of simple and quality ingredients, and the connection she draws between food and intimate relationships, thereby acknowledging food’s intangible value—coalesce in a memorable letter she sent to her mother in 1916, its date suggesting that these notions were alive in Cather’s concept of the culinary very early in her life. In this letter, Cather writes affectionately of a Christmas dinner party put together by Isabelle McClung: “She had cooked all the dinner herself right there in the tiny closet-kitchen opening of the parlor, and it was delicious; real terrapin soup, a leg of mutton beautifully cooked, plain boiled potatoes in their skins, grapefruit salad, good wine, and for desert [sic] a chocolate cake bought at an excellent bakery. Very little, but everything the best of it’s [sic] kind.” All at once praising Isabelle’s toil over the meal’s preparation (akin to the writer or artist laboring over their artistic product), highlighting the quality of the product in its simplicity and authenticity—the “real” terrapin (or turtle) soup, the “plain” boiled potatoes in their skins, and the mutton “beautifully” prepared—Cather’s budding artistic philosophy becomes evident precisely in her writings about food. Isabelle’s dinner, much like Cather’s own careful drawing of imagery and use of simplification throughout her writing, both eventually offer “very little, but . . . the best of its kind.”


Orchards appear frequently within Cather’s fiction, often as a symbol of creative growth and human vigor, and alternately as a space in which tragedy occurs, or precariously looms. Certainly, it is easy to recognize Cather’s orchards as important generative spaces, such as the life-giving beauty of Ántonia’s orchard at the conclusion of My Ántonia, where she stands, her hand on a crab tree, making Jim “feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last,” while she is described as “a rich mine of life” (261). Yet orchards are also often places where unbearable dangers lurk, such as in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, when Nancy is assaulted by the rapacious Martin Colbert. Right before he tries to violently pull her down from the top of a cherry tree where she is gathering fruit into her basket, he says suggestively, “I don’t want cherries. They’re sour, and I want something sweet” (178). In these scenes, spread across the span of Cather’s oeuvre, orchards reveal themselves as both promising and dangerous, full of emotional and sensory significance, in one case signaling the potential growth of immigrant families like Ántonia’s, in the other, an unwelcome yet necessary reminder of the violence of slavery.

Reading orchards primarily through the lens of ecocriticism, much like the prairie or garden in Cather’s fiction,[4] leads to various interpretive and symbolic possibilities. Indeed, characters’ connection to the land itself, their identities as farmers and cultivators, and the realities of westward expansion are all crucial themes in much of Cather’s work, especially in her novels and short fiction set in the plains. However, what remains less explored is the notion of Cather’s orchard as an artistic space and the orchard as a space in which the sensory qualities of food and eating are consistently present. After all, before Martin attacks Nancy, she lingers dreamily over the cherries, consuming “the ripest ones” (177), drawing plea- sure from a simple human act. I suggest that in Cather’s fictional orchards, one can often observe the strain of her artistic philosophy where she values the senses for their ability to capture the impossible, elusive, and memorable complexities of life. More specifically, food imagery—which so often wordlessly communicates various emotions and sensations that otherwise are impossible to relay—operates in Cather’s orchards and elsewhere to help create the narrative effect that Cather states as her aim in “The Novel Démeublé”: the creation of “whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there.” To be sure, throughout Cather’s oeuvre, orchards are often the very spaces in which this elusive narrative effect comes alive.

Roger L. and Linda K. Welsch aptly observe that “two berries dominate Cather’s writing, the mulberry and the cherry” (128). Indeed, when examining food imagery in O Pioneers! and Sapphira—two of Cather’s novels that characteristically brim with descriptions of food and consistently evoke the senses in the process—this statement becomes especially prescient. From the white mulberries stained red by the blood of two lovers, to the ripe cherries that a young woman pleasurably consumes, both pivotal moments evoke a set of indefinable emotions, precisely because of the sensory effect produced by food mixing with bodies, indicating in turn nourishment and decay. The orchard in both novels then becomes a crucial space that houses this relationship, wherein the body encounters and becomes fused with the sensory qualities of fruits, berries, wheat, and other edible objects. Likewise, food in both novels reveals Cather’s attitudes toward food preparation and consumption, reinforcing the notion that food is something to be appreciated, enjoyed, and treated with care.


Cather herself openly appreciated this tension between bodily vigor and destruction, between pleasurable and devastating encounters, which, for her, generated art. As James Woodress chronicles, O Pioneers! came about by Cather’s putting together her unfinished manuscript “Alexandra” and the short story “The White Mulberry Tree,” the latter which she penned after a trip to Red Cloud (231). Woodress quotes Sergeant, who elucidates Cather’s creative process: “She said she could only describe this coming together of the two elements . . . as a sudden inner explosion and enlightenment. She had experienced it before only in the conception of a . . . poem. Now she would hope always for similar experience in creating a novel, for the explosion seemed to bring with it the inevitable shape that is not plotted but designs itself” (qtd. in Woodress 232). The explosion and enlightenment that Sergeant ascribes to Cather’s ultimate creation of O Pioneers! is essentially the pairing together of a beautiful if benign tale with one of tragedy and darkness. Many readers would agree that in doing so, Cather creates for the first novel in her Nebraskan Plains trilogy an aura of the inexplicable, the unexplainable, or “the inexplicable thing not named.”

Yet the “inexplicable thing not named” in O Pioneers! exerts itself in myriad ways beyond Cather’s pairing of these two divergent stories. To be sure, O Pioneers! is brimming with food imagery and descriptions of cooking and eating that on their own provide memorable sensory experiences that defy categorization. Mrs. Bergson’s penchant for preserving is described as “almost a mania,” as she forages for fox grapes, goose plums, ground-cherries, and garden tomatoes, turning only to pickling when she runs out of things to preserve (14). Marie, at one point, showers guests with “delicate little rolls, stuffed with stewed apricots” with “a delicious hot fragrance” (102). Meanwhile, Alexandra’s Swedish house girls “chatter and cook and pickle and preserve all summer long” (41). Together, these moments pinpoint food preparation as an emotional and meaningful endeavor, conjure up the smells of fresh pastries, and draw readers into the bustling space of Alexandra’s kitchen, bringing to life sensations and emotions that are not immediately apparent or might have otherwise remained unexpressed.

Just as potent, the aura of the “thing not named” is created by the sensory landscape of the orchard: what grows there and can be smelled, tasted, and consumed. These sensory qualities appear and reappear throughout the novel, first welcoming readers into their enticing spaces and ultimately compounding the tragic death of lovers Marie Shabata and Emil Bergson under the white mulberry tree.

Of course, orchards and the land they occupy in O Pioneers! have practical and economical significance, too, as Alexandra’s claim to her inherited land empowers her and potentially other women like her.[5] In part 2 of O Pioneers!—which takes place sixteen years after John Bergson’s death—Cather describes Alexandra’s new mastery over her land and her house, where despite its “unevenness,” there is “beauty and fruitfulness . . . order and fine arrangement . . . all over the great farm” (40). There is a certain simple symmetry, a logic, to it all. When Cather first describes Alexandra’s orchard, she writes, “South of the sweltered swale, surrounded by a mulberry hedge, was the orchard, its fruit trees knee-deep in timothy grass” (41). Presented as a space of growth and prosperity, the orchard with its fruit tree knees appears personified, engulfed by the surrounding grass. The orchard here is not only notable in its sensory beauty but also significant because of its pivotal role in Alexandra’s success.

Later, Alexandra and Carl Lindstrum visit Frank and Marie Shabata’s orchard, which was once the Linstrums’ property. The orchard is filled with apple trees, their prosperous growth the product of Carl’s backbreaking work as a young man. The orchard is also the reason why Marie and Frank purchased the land to begin with. Marie leads Alexandra and Carl to “the northwest corner of the orchard, sheltered on one side by a thick mulberry hedge and bordered on the other by a wheat field, just beginning to turn yellow. In this corner the ground dipped a little, and the bluegrass, which the weeds had driven out in the upper part of the orchard, grew thick and luxuriant” (69). Idyllic and generative, lush and growing almost out of control, Marie’s orchard is filled with and surrounded by growing, fragrant, beautiful edible objects, from wheat to mulberries. A refection of her buoyant personality and equally complicated situation, the uncontrolled growth within the orchard and the hedge that borders it symbolically convey her life’s constraints.

Alexandra, Carl, and Marie sit in the spot where Marie routinely finds refuge, and the image is picturesque. Carl admires Marie’s eyes, and Cather uses several food metaphors here, writing that their color is like “sunflower honey” and that they have “the effect of . . . two dancing points of light, two little yellow bubbles, such as rise in a glass of champagne” (70). Marie then runs to the trees bearing fruit and brings back with her “a branch she had broken from an apricot tree, laden with pale-yellow, pink-cheeked fruit” (70). Alexandra explains that when she and Carl were younger, a traveling circus gave them the apricot seeds, and the trees had only just borne fruit after all these years.“And now he’s come back to eat them” (71), Marie says of Carl.

In this scene, the cyclical nature of the fruit trees’ yield mirrors Carl’s return to the farm his family once owned but couldn’t make prosper, and Marie’s suggestion that Carl has returned to eat the fruit he once planted with Alexandra in their youth portends the possibility that he may consume more than the food the trees bear. The apricot trees have finally begun to yield fruit, just as Alexandra is becoming ripe for the picking, though, of course, of her own pace and free will. Waiting for the apricot trees to bloom has been rewarding, just as Carl and Alexandra’s eventual union will be. Throughout these scenes, Cather’s emphasis on the tactile elements of the orchard—the weeds “thick and luxuriant,” the apricots “pinkcheeked”—accentuate natural objects that can be touched, smelled, seen, tasted, and incorporated into the body.

The theme of bodily nourishment continues in the buildup to Emil and Marie’s final encounter, as he races through the farmlands toward her, where “everywhere the grain stood ripe and the hot afternoon was full of the smell of ripe wheat, like the smell of bread baking in an oven” (136). Perhaps there is a connection between the wheat fields’ enticing odor and the hot delicious smell of Marie’s rolls stuffed with stewed apricots, suggesting once again a certain viable ripeness. Either way, the smell of the wheat is jarringly comforting, perhaps in an effort to destabilize the reader’s expectations about what is to come. Cather continues describing Emil’s journey to Marie: “When he reached the orchard the sun was hanging low over the wheatfield. Long fingers of light reached through the apple branches as through a net; the orchard was riddled and shot with gold; light was the reality” (136). Finally he finds Marie under the white mulberry tree and sees in her eyes “his own face and the orchard and the sun” (136), suggesting that in her is reflected the very land and its edible bounty.

The capacity of fruit, berries, and wheat to feed and enrich one’s body, fusing with it, is soon followed by a more sinister relationship. Sharply contrasting these earlier scenes of plenty, the concluding portions of the novel illustrate the orchard as an ominous space when Frank Shabata murders Emil and Marie for their indiscretion. When “Crazy Ivar” stumbles upon the bodies, the scene is grim: “The story of what had happened was written plainly on the orchard grass, and on the white mulberries that had fallen in the night and were covered with dark stain” (141). Ivar encounters the lovers lying together, Marie’s cheek on Emil’s shoulder. Whereas in the previous scenes Carl and Alexandra are offered the possibility of nourishing their bodies with the shy-growing apricots that now burst from the trees, and Emil’s journey through the fragrant wheat fields recalls Marie’s delicious breads, in the novel’s concluding moments readers witness bodies broken apart, lying underneath the mulberries, their blood mixing with the berries so characteristic of this orchard space. Marie then goes from joyously plucking one edible object from the orchard in celebration of its beauty and endurance to decomposing alongside another, in both instances her body inextricably connected to the earth.


Although in Sapphira and the Slave Girl orchards feature less prominently throughout, the novel is full of food imagery and scenes of sensory significance surrounding food. Ann Romines discusses many of these instances in her essay on southern food in Sapphira, writing that “food and food service are a major subject and subtext throughout” (86). Romines goes on to point out that the novel begins and ends with food—its inaugural scene shows Henry Colbert joining his wife at breakfast, and ultimately the reunion between Nancy and Till occurs in the Cather family’s Virginia home, featuring “a literal portrait of the kitchen at Willow Shade” (87). Not unlike culinary threads that run through Cather’s other works, these crucial scenes and settings signal that the novel is serious about the cultural and practical role of food and its deep impact on everyday life.

Beyond these bookends, the novel provides plentiful culinary imagery evoking the senses, such as the dinners Rachel Blake cooks for her husband. Rachel spends all day preparing her husband’s favorite dishes and feeding his pleasures, using local animal products and fresh, abundant produce ranging from wild ducks to Baltimore lobsters, from asparagus to strawberries (139). Elsewhere, foods like freshly ground coffee, sugar cakes, “light” bread, ice cream, ham, eggs, fresh mushrooms, and maple brown sugar appear, peppering the novel’s landscape with sensory imagery. As Romines argues, the novel “demonstrates how southern food is deeply implicated in histories of race and class abuse and, at the same time, retains a delicious appeal that is alluring to both blacks and whites” (102). Indeed, my focus here is on the “delicious appeal” or, more accurately, how this sense of deliciousness and its elusive sensory appeal gets conveyed in the space of the orchard in order to produce the effect of the “inexplicable thing not named.”

As with O Pioneers! this sensory effect is inevitably wrapped up in the body and its ongoing and complicated relationship to nourishment, sexuality, and decay. The space of the orchard provides its characters both pleasure and pain, although in Sapphira these sensations are generally compounded into a single scene. Building up to this pivotal moment and continuing through it, meanwhile, is Cather’s establishment of Martin Colbert and Nancy as opposite poles of how one can—and should—appreciate food, from appetite to attentiveness.

Prior to Nancy and Martin’s encounter in the orchard, Cather highlights Colbert’s insatiable appetite—an unrestrained desire to consume that is both literal and figurative. On multiple occasions he dines with Henry and Sapphira, eating and drinking copiously. He “helped himself to sandwiches” (153), liberally drinks the family’s “best Madeira” (159–60), and on the morning assaults Nancy in the orchard “forgot everything except that he wanted his ham and eggs” (176). Colbert’s relationship to food illustrates his lack of sensitivity when it comes to distinguishing between quality ingredients and products (he downs the Madeira), as well as his skewed relationship to food’s various pleasures. He enjoys food because of its abundance and because it is there for the taking, not because it is an aesthetically and emotionally valuable thing in and of itself, an experience worth savoring and appreciating.

Elsewhere, Cather describes how Colbert loses a tooth when attacked by the brothers of a girl with whom he has a sexual encounter, a conspicuously blue tooth put in to replace what was forcefully knocked out. Cather writes of Colbert that “this ignominious brand [showed] every time he opened his mouth” (175), locating his past indiscretion and the inevitability of his future ones in the sensory space of his mouth. Indeed, Martin is morally bankrupt, and he devours everything in sight. The site of his mouth, each time it opens, reveals its capacity for destruction and symbolizes the physical and psychic pain that he inflicts upon others.

In contrast, Nancy’s consumption of the cherries in the orchard reveals her humble and joyful relationship to food, as well as the value of obtaining food at its source, gathering it whole. The fresh cherries that Nancy picks from the trees stand in stark opposition to Martin’s greedy consumption of meals that have been prepared for a group of diners by the Colberts’ slaves. Cather writes of Nancy: “[She] scrambled nimbly up to the first big limb, where she could sit comfortably; could reach the cherries shining all about her and bend down the branches over her head. The morning air was still so fresh that the sunlight on her bare feet and legs was grateful. She was lighthearted this morning. She loved to pick cherries, and she loved being up in a tree” (177–78). Cather continues: “She was in no hurry to pick the cherries. She ate the ripest ones and dropped the hard ones into her basket” (178). Unlike Colbert’s wolfish consumption of culinary and bodily pleasures, Nancy takes her time and is discerning, gentle, and playful, appreciating the simple beauty of the cherries and their sensory delights.

Nancy’s consumption of the cherries is, of course, interrupted by Colbert’s arrival. The cherries quickly transform into objects portending danger, as their meaning is remade through Martin’s aggressive and suggestive language: “Good morning Nancy Cherries are ripe, eh?” (179).[6] The ripeness of the cherries first symbolize Nancy’s girlish self-exploration, but are quickly oversexualized by Colbert, imbued with a host of tensions. It is precisely this juxtaposition of Nancy’s exploratory relationship to the cherries and Martin’s view of the cherries (and Nancy) as objects of facile consumption that makes this scene feel simultaneously possible and impossible, beautiful and ugly, dreamlike and horrific. The cherries themselves—and the orchard that bears them—become the vehicle through which this delicate yet violent negotiation occurs.

Throughout O Pioneers! and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Cather utilizes food imagery, especially within the space of the orchard, to awaken the senses. Furthermore, it is in these moments where Cather’s artistic process of simplification and the creation of the “thing not named” are most readily expressed. The pale-yellow pink-cheeked apricots, the ripe cherries, and the white mulberries covered in dark stain—each one of these images presents itself as whole yet complex, highlighting in the process precisely how the body remembers without saying, without naming. Indeed, food, cooking, and eating are all significant for Cather, and she treats the culinary process seriously, with a sense of purpose, recognizing in it the capacity for artistry. Returning for a moment to Sergeant’s memoir, she recalls a memorable dinner with Cather at the famed French restaurant Delmonico’s in New York City. During this dinner, Cather “requested that tea be served “hot, Hot, HOT,” with “Brioche, petit fours, a Napoléon, two babas au rhum,” and “the best China tea.” Cather then turned to her companion and said,“You’re not superior to the sense of taste, are you?” (60).[7]


 1. Andrew Jewell argues that Cather’s introduction of the kolache into the American culinary landscape reflects her distaste of Americanization. Similarly, Lisa Angelella suggests that Cather purposefully introduces Czech immigrant food, German American food, and French immigrant cuisine into the “American sensescape” (184). Alternately, Mary Marie Dixon uses food to argue that Cather promotes a “moderate approach” (228) for immigrants adjusting to new lands. (Go back.)
 2. For an examination of Cather’s work in relation to these pivotal culinary histories, see Allison Carruth, Susan Meyer, and Charmion Gustke. (Go back.)
 3. Jean C. Griffith has written most prominently about the significance of the orchard in O Pioneers! She suggests that the orchard initially symbolizes the value of mixing between ethnic groups but ultimately shifts to “a warning against impurity” (401). (Go back.)
 4. See Jan Goggans and Joseph Meeker for examples of ecocritical approaches to Cather’s fiction. (Go back.)
 5. In her introduction to the 1999 edition of O Pioneers! Marilee Lindemann outlines how Alexandra “claims ownership of her property and, by extension, of her self” (xi). (Go back.)
 6. While I agree with Romines’s reading that the ripe cherries signify Nancy’s own budding sexuality (95), I am more interested in the role of the cherries as a food object and especially how Cather uses them to convey the transfer of meaning from playful to sinister. (Go back.)
 7. I would like to thank Guy Reynolds and Beth Burke for providing invaluable feedback and editorial support on this essay. (Go back.)


Angelella, Lisa.“Alimentary Modernism.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2009.
Carruth, Allison. Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Ed. John J. Murphy. New York: Penguin, 1994.
—. Preface. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. Selected and arranged by Willa Cather. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925. 1:ix–xix. Using reprinted version, limited edition, the Franklin Library, Franklin Mint Corporation in arrangement with Houghton Mifflin, printed in Franklin Center, Pennsylvania, 1979, preface is numbered xiii–xx.
—. Letter to Irene Miner Weisz. 10 December 1921. Newberry Library.
—. Letter to James Cather. 4 May 1943. Charles E. Cather Collection (ms350), University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
—. Letter to Mary Virginia Boak Cather. 30 December 1916. Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection (ms316), University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
—. Letter to Mary Virginia Boak Cather. 26 November 1921. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Vintage, 2014. 305–6.
—. Letter to Meta Schaper Cather. 27 December 1918. Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection (ms316), University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
—. Letter to Meta Schaper Cather. 2 January 1918. Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection (ms316), University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
—. Letter to Roscoe Cather. 5 January 1919. Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection (ms316), University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
—. Letter to Roscoe Cather. 25 July 1945. Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection (ms316), University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.
—. “The Novel Démeublé.” New Republic 30 (12 April 1922): 5–6.
—. O Pioneers! 1913. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski et al. Historical essay and explanatory notes by David Stouck. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
—. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
—. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Historical essay and explanatory notes by Ann Romines. Textual essay and editing by Charles W. Mignon et al. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009.
Dixon, Mary Marie. “Willa Cather’s Immigrants: An Aesthetics of Food Strategies in Negotiating Displacement Anxieties.” Journal of American Culture 40.3 (2017): 227–34.
Goggans, Jan. “Social (Re)Visioning in the Fields of My Ántonia.” Cather Studies 5. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2003. 153–72.
Griffith, Jean C. “How the West Was Whitened: ‘Racial’ Difference on Cather’s Prairie.” Western American Literature 41.4 (2007): 392–417.
Gustke, Charmion.“Somewhere between Temperance and Prohibition: The Wandering Alcoholics in The Song of the Lark.” Willa Cather Newsletter & Review 54.2 (2010): 65–69.
Jewell, Andrew. “‘A Crime against Art’: My Ántonia, Food, and Cather’s Anti-Americanization Argument.” Willa Cather Newsletter & Review 54.2 (2010): 72–76.
—.“Chocolate, Cannibalism, and Gastronomical Meaning in Shadows on the Rock. Cather Studies 8. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2010. 282–94.
Lindemann, Marilee. Introduction. O Pioneers! Ed. Marilee Lindemann. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. vii–xxii.
Meeker, Joseph W. “Willa Cather: The Plow and the Pen.” Cather Studies 5. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2003. 77–88.
Meyer, Susan. “Sanitary Piggeries and Chaste Hens: Willa Cather and the Pure Food Movement.” Willa Cather Newsletter & Review 54.2 (2010): 38–46.
Romines, Ann. “The Double Bind of Southern Food in Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl.” Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways. Ed. David A. Davis and Tara Powell. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2014. 86–104.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Athens: Ohio UP, 1992.
Welsch, Roger L., and Linda K. Welsch. Cather’s Kitchens: Foodways in Literature and Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. New York: Pegasus, 1970.