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From Cather Studies Volume 8

Chocolate, Cannibalism, and Gastronomical Meaning in Shadows on the Rock

In a 1925 conversation with Walter Tittle, Willa Cather remarked, “Preparation of food is one of the most important things in life, and . . . in all matters of art and taste the French are older, more sensitive, backed by traditions of greater purity and age and are instinctively connoisseurs in the art of living, a gift that the English and Americans have not yet received.” She goes on: “Is cooking important? Few things in life are more so! My mind and stomach are one! I think and work with whatever it is that digests” (Tittle 83, 84).[1] For Cather, gastronomy and art were bound up together; food preparation and consumption were creative acts, choices that required sensitivity and thoughtfulness. This binding of the mind and stomach, of food and abstractions of culture and art, is consistent with her broader use of material reality in her writing. In Cather’s fullest articulation of her aesthetic ideals for the novel, “The Novel Démeublé,” she expresses the need for the writer to select real objects that convey meanings within the text, and praises Tolstoy for choosing material objects that “are always so much a part of the emotions of the people that they are perfectly synthesized.” With such a synthesis, she continues, “literalness ceases to be literalness—it is merely part of the experience” (39–40). Richard Millington notes that “the things and behaviors described in Shadows on the Rock. . . are there not as the props of a materialistic realism but as the instruments of meaning, the media of cultural identity” (28, 29, emphasis in original). This essay considers how food is such a medium, first, through a discussion of the general importance of cuisine in the lives of the Euclide and Cécile Auclair, with particular emphasis on their daily consumption of chocolate, and then, in contrast, on Cather’s use of food, consumption, and hunger to render aesthetically the fear and chaos lurking just beyond the sheltered hearth of the apothecary and his daughter.

Cécile’s transcendent understanding of what it means to give one’s life to the daily acts of living dominates many readers’ memory of food and cooking in Shadows on the Rock: “These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,—the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life” (227). Though food is undoubtedly part of this domestic ritual, its importance is felt more broadly. Varied descriptions of food consumption and preparation are central to the novel’s expression of meaning, for in her rendering of the Quebec community, Cather explicitly identifies food as a central component of that community’s cultural identity. When she first introduces Cécile and the home of the Auclairs, she does it with the odors, concerns, and resonances of mealtime. “I am so anxious about the poulet,” Cécile confesses to her father when he arrives, and her eyes show she is “excited” by the meal preparation. Auclair, we are told, takes his dinner ritualistically in the Paris fashion, after the day’s work is done, “at six o’clock in the winter and seven in summer,” even though his neighbors typically have their central meal in the middle of the day. Before eating, Auclair lowers the curtains over his shop windows, indicating to all that he was “not to be disturbed unless for serious reasons” (15). The regimented schedule of his daily meal suggests the cultural value of dinner in his household: food is a means to a well-lived life, an expression of the thoughtfulness and seriousness one ought to have when considering the habits of one’s days. In careful meal preparation, one finds both self-respect and sustaining power. “Your father has a delicate appetite,” the dying Mrs. Auclair told her daughter while preparing her for her new domestic role, “and the food here is coarse. If it is not very carefully prepared, he will not eat and will fall ill” (31). If dinner is not properly respected, one might not survive.

There are few specific foods in the novel that are given the attention and ritualistic value of chocolate. Drinking chocolate is a daily practice in the Auclair household, a regular part of their experience of the world. This drink is one of the objects that, in Millington’s words, has a “meaning-life,” or a “function within the field of meanings that this particular community composes” (29). When Cather mentions chocolate as part of the daily routine of the Auclairs, as she does at the beginning of book 4—“That morning the Auclairs drank their chocolate with all the doors and windows open” (195)—she inserts an object of great cultural complexity into her novel. Literally, the beverage probably consisted of water boiled with sugar, crushed cacao nibs likely formed into a dissolvable tablet, possibly some vanilla, cinnamon, or other spices, and sometimes milk. Ostensibly, chocolate is a part of French culinary tradition, and, indeed, it is likely that Cather understood it as such; she writes fondly from Avignon during her first visit to Europe (1902) that the morning there begins with a “soup bowl full of chocolate” (Willa Cather in Europe 141).[2] The meanings expressed by Cather’s inclusion of chocolate in the novel, however, are deeply nuanced, particularly when one examines chocolate’s role in the history of Europe and the Americas.

Chocolate arrived in Europe as a product of imperialism, specifically Spain’s conquest of the Aztec people in Mesoamerica. Chocolate, unsweetened and flavored instead with achiote or annatto seeds and chilies, was a highly important drink in the cultures of many native Mesoamerican peoples, serving as an oftenconsumed beverage, a crucial component of rituals, and even, in the form of the nibs or seeds, as money. After the Spanish conquest, chocolate emerged as an important food in the cuisine of the Spanish colonists, albeit in a sweetened form influenced by European tastes. Demand for chocolate grew both among the colonists and in Europe, and production and exportation of cacao became a central part of the colony’s economic relationship to Europe (Coe and Coe, particularly chapters 4–6). Historians Sophie and Michael Coe speculate that chocolate first entered France from Spain as a drug (perhaps for the Cardinal of Lyon, Alphonse de Richelieu), as the substance was first consumed in Europe for its perceived medicinal qualities (156), and that the pre-eighteenth-century theories of chocolate’s medicinal effects are varied. Within the Galenic system of four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—chocolate was thought to be a drink that had cold, dry qualities and thus would be useful in treating fevers (Lopez 63). Other theories that dominated in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century focused on chocolate as a generally nutritious, energizing, fortifying beverage. Mixed with a variety of other ingredients, chocolate was, among other things, credited as being an antidepressant, an aphrodisiac, a laxative, an agent to strengthen the heart, liver, and lungs, and a treatment for hemorrhoids (Lopez 64–67).

In 1659 the first letters of patent were issued for the sale of chocolate in France, and throughout the next few decades chocolate grew in popularity among the aristocracy and was a regular offering at Louis XIV’s Versailles by the 1690s (Coe and Coe 157–60). In 1697, the year in which Cather’s novel begins, chocolate had been in France—and, by extension, its colony in Canada—for only a few decades. The chocolate drunk in Quebec in 1697 had most likely arrived after an extensive voyage: cacao plantations in Venezuela, worked by slaves brought from the west coast of Africa, produced cacao that was then shipped to Europe, either through Spain’s port of Cádiz or, possibly, through Amsterdam. From these markets, the chocolate made it to France, where it was then loaded up and taken back to the Americas, this time to the cool climate of the north (Coe and Coe 190–91). The chocolate in the cups of the Auclairs was shipped halfway around the world and back again, a New World product filtered through the tastes and markets of the Old World in Europe, and it underscores aspects of both European and colonial culture in the Americas: class distinctions, the correspondence between medicine and luxury, the exploitation of cheap slave labor, the participation in international markets, and the transitory nature of social customs.

The presence of chocolate in the Auclair home is, in the context of late-seventeenth-century French culture, a sign of both Euclide Auclair’s privileged status within the community and his role as apothecary, a self-described “guardian of the stomach” (148), and the details of chocolate consumption in Cather’s novel bear this out: only Auclair and Bishop Laval are shown to have access to chocolate in their homes (though undoubtedly Count Frontenac and other high-ranking members of the social order share this privilege). When little Jacques, who comes from Quebec’s underclass, gets to drink chocolate on All Saints’ Day with Cécile, his sense of chocolate’s glorious strangeness is palpable in the way his “nostrils quivered like a puppy’s” and he assumes that the Auclair home “was the only house in the world in which that comforting drink was made” (102–3). When his mother, ’Toinette, arrives haughtily on the scene, she regrets her approach, for if she “had been more civil” they might “have offered her some chocolate” (105). Jacques and ’Toinette experience chocolate as a part of someone else’s culture, a culture they encounter often but, due to their class status, cannot claim as their own.[3] In using chocolate to reinforce the social demarcation between the Auclairs and ’Toinette and Jacques, Cather also makes chocolate a vehicle for Cécile to cross that divide: she prepares chocolate for Jacques, who finds it a “comforting drink.” Chocolate is a way for Jacques to participate, however fleetingly, in the culture of the Auclairs. It allows him psychological entry in a way that even the cup holding the chocolate cannot. The silver cup with “Cécile” etched into the side said to Jacques that Cécile was “born to security and privileges,” that she had something with her name on it: “even if you died,” Jacques rhapsodizes, “it would still be there, with your name.” When Cécile suggests that Jacques use her cup, he refuses, for possessing the cup “was not at all what her cup meant to him. Indeed, Cécile could not know what it meant to him; she was too fortunate” (103–4). And yet the chocolate itself could be shared; the class divisions are profound, but not impenetrable.

In the context of the novel’s celebration of domestic ritual and its evocation of old customs and things, it is interesting to note the way chocolate both underscores and complicates that vision. When Madame Auclair did what she could “to make the new life as much as possible like the old” life in France (30), she made preparation of chocolate a daily ritual. However, this component of what was considered the “old” life had only relatively recently become a part of the lives of French citizens and was not yet an established part of their culinary tradition. Because chocolate is a crucial part of the ritualistic life of the Auclair household, Shadows on the Rock illustrates the migratory, transitory, and permeable qualities of national culture and undermines any claims of cultural autonomy. While feeling isolated on the rock of Quebec, the Auclairs, by drinking chocolate, participate in the economy and politics of the world. Simultaneously, chocolate demonstrates the power and function of personal rituals, as the Auclairs are able to transform this new fad food into a symbol of solidity and dignity for their family. To the Auclairs, chocolate does not feel like the bounty of conquest; it feels like home.

On the opening page of the novel, Cather refers to kitchens as a place where one faced the “stern realities of life” and those realities emerge continually and in a multitude of forms throughout the novel. The “climate within a climate” that is created by Cécile and anchored in the Auclairs’ kitchen,[4] though central to the gastronomy of the novel, is countered by scenes of eating that suggest food’s ability to carry meaning beyond the scenes of Cécile’s hearth and into the bewildering wilderness of the forest. In book 2, Auclair goes to see Madame Renaude to buy an ample supply of lard in which to store his wood doves for the winter. Reprimanding him for his largess in lard use, Madame Renaude exclaims, “You forget you are not in France, monsieur. Here grease is meat, not something to throw to criminals” (59). Madame Renaude’s claim for the culinary centrality of grease—something affirmed in other sections of the novel—suggests a significantly different gastronomical existence outside of the Auclairs’ “climate within a climate,” an existence that cannot afford to view food as a civilized part of daily reality, but must evaluate it based upon its availability and ability to keep the body alive. When Frichette and Father Hector St. Cyr are traveling through the woods to get back to Frichette’s dying brother-in-law, they carry “smoked eels and cold grease” with them as provisions. Cather’s use of “cold grease” or “cold lard” to describe a basic staple of a certain Canadian cuisine, though historically accurate (in their notes to the Scholarly Edition, Murphy and Stouck quote from the Jesuit Relations that such a practice was learned from the native population [433]), also functions as a potent counterpoint to the delicious chocolate drunk in the Auclair home. Cold, congealed animal fat is highly unappetizing, and its presence in the novel evokes, as does the dark forest surrounding the town, the frightening wildness sensed by the colonists, the thin line separating the succulent wood doves and wine of the hearth and the cold grease of the forest.

Cold grease, however, is the least of the challenges of food and consumption noted in Shadows. It is through acts of eating that Cather communicates some of the novel’s most terrifying narratives, stories of exaggerated repulsion and culinary outrage. Eating irregularities are introduced mildly enough through the character of Blinker, the displaced handyman who depends upon his neighbors for food. When Cécile feeds Blinker after she and Euclide have finished their fine meal, the weight of his distress and embarrassment is felt in the act of chewing: “Eating was difficult for him,—he had once had an abscess in his lower jaw, it had suppurated, and pieces of the bone had come out. . . . He knew it distressed Cécile if he gurgled his soup; so he struggled between greed and caution, dipping his bread to make it easy chewing” (19–20). Other instances, though, are more horrifying. Here I point to two specific narratives contained within the text: the story of the siege of Paris, and the struggles of Father Noël Chabanel.

The story of the siege is a brief one, contained in one paragraph, but it is important for the particular image of culinary disaster it leaves in the mind of the reader. In countering Cécile’s gullibility about an English sailor converted to Christianity through the surreptitious consumption of a tiny piece of a martyr priest’s skull, Auclair tells the story of the people of Paris running out of food while being besieged by Henry of Navarre. After all flour, hay, and straw had been baked into bread and consumed, the people took desperate measures: “Then some of the starving went to the cemetery of the Innocents, where there was a great wall of dry bones, and they ground those bones to powder and make [sic] a paste of it and baked it in ovens; and as many as ate of that bread died in agony, as if they had swallowed poison. Indeed, they had swallowed poison” (148). The terror of this moment works on multiple levels: hunger drives a society to an act that breaks a major cultural taboo, and that forbidden act of consumption directly tortures their bodies. Paris eats itself to death. It is a complete breakdown of the domestic rituals and gastronomical pleasures that signify comfort and home throughout much of the novel.

The narrative of Noël Chabanel, as told to the Auclairs by Father Hector St. Cyr, is a tale of suffering centered upon a man’s inability to adapt to the culture in which he has chosen to live as a missionary, and particularly his inability to eat that culture’s food. Chabanel lived in a state of perpetual nausea, offended by the odors, customs, homes, and general presence of the Hurons. “The food was so hateful to him,” Cather writes, “that one might say he lived upon fasting. The flesh of dogs he could never eat without becoming ill, and even cornmeal boiled in dirty water and dirty kettles brought on vomiting” (176). The biggest gastronomic outrage to Chabanel, however, happened after he had eaten some meat that was cooked upon the return of a hunting party. “After he had swallowed the portion in his bowl,” Cather writes, “they pulled a human hand out of the kettle to show him that he had eaten of an Iroquois prisoner. He became ill at once, and they followed him into the forest to make merry over his retchings” (177). Continual revulsion, vomiting, and an inability to eat define Chabanel’s experience among the Hurons; his gastronomical existence is marked by fear, disgust, and, to his greatest horror, cannibalism.

In both of these stories, Cather articulates narratives of suffering by combining multiple food-based horrors. Though nearing death through starvation is bleak enough, Cather introduces physical revulsion and cannibalism into her tales. Just as she uses food within the Auclair home to emphasize cultural stability and the pleasures of housekeeping, she uses it in other parts of the novel to signify cultural decay or alienation. The eating of the bone-bread and the resulting painful deaths suggest a community that has become a land of the dead, a bizarre inversion of the Paris known to the Western world as the home of the finest gastronomical traditions. Chabanel’s continual vomiting is a rejection of the physical world, more specifically repulsion of the Huron community that surrounds him, a bodily rejection relieved only in his death. Father St. Cyr finds inspiration in Chabanel’s story that sustains him in his mission: “No man ever gave up more for Christ than Noël Chabanel; many gave all, but few had so much to give” (178), he tells Auclair. Likewise, Auclair finds meaning in the story of Paris besieged: it is evidence, he tells Cécile, that the human body is not meant to consume the bones of others. In both tales, terror is held up as an instructive narrative, moments of human weakness, outrage, and self-immolation that can inform the construction of meaningful, sustainable, and supportive environments like the Auclairs’ home, the scene where both the stories are told.

When, at the end of the novel, Cather provides relief from the dread, anxiety, and sadness that accompanies the death of the Auclairs’ patron, Count Frontenac, she does it through the meaning—which has been building in complex ways throughout the novel—affixed to a good meal. Pierre Charron arrives in the despondent atmosphere of the Auclair household one evening to be told that the only available food in the home, a home that has been preoccupied with death, is smoked eels. Charron, who is used to fine eating at the Auclair home, declares that such an option is “detestable” and that they shall dine on the haunch of venison that he has with him. Auclair, who has been depressed by the death of the Count (“It is worse with him than when my mother died,” Cécile says [304]), is shaken back into himself with the realization of the poor provisions in his home. He asks Cécile, “Are we really so destitute?” and immediately begins to “get anxious about his dinner” (306). Their dinner “lasted until late” and, in their enjoyment of wine, Charron sees an affirmation of life: “tomorrow it may be you or I; that is the way to look at death. Not all the wine in the Château, not all the wines in the great cellars of France, could warm the Count’s blood now. Let us cheer our hearts a little while we can. Good wine was put into the grapes by our Lord, for friends to enjoy together” (307). This “restoration of Cécile’s domestic security” (Romines 160) further suggests the way food conveys cultural meaning in Shadows on the Rock. It is the medium for expressing both human depravity and human love and communion.

In her published letter to Governor Wilbur Cross about Shadows on the Rock, Cather alternates between the tenacity and resignation of Quebec culture: “To me the rock of Quebec is not only a stronghold on which many strange figures have for a little time cast a shadow in the sun; it is the curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite.” She continues: An orderly little French household that went on trying to live decently, just as ants begin to rebuild when you kick their house down, interests me more than Indian raids or the wild life in the forests. And, as you seem to recognize, once having adopted a tone so definite, once having taken your seat in the close air by the apothecary’s fire, you can’t explode into military glory, any more than you can pour champagne into a salad dressing. . . . And really, a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages. (“On Shadows” 15–16) The last sentence of this passage, with its juxtaposition of salad dressing and the decimation of native villages, illustrates Cather’s concept of “society” as something beyond the establishment of political control. For her, it is the moment when a culture stabilizes enough to allow for the refinement of daily habits; it is when the conquerors’ bloody work is done that a “society” forms. The violence of domination is not the beginning of anything real or meaningful, her matter-of-fact language suggests, but when the arts of the kitchen are developed, then something is created that unifies a people and gives birth to “society.” Though Cather recognizes the existence of violence and cruelty, it is in the creation of community that she sees the foundation of sustainable human culture and locates the strength for its “curious endurance.” By making the scene of creative acts within Shadows the kitchen, Cather makes culinary art central to that endurance, reinforcing her own sense of bodily unity and claim that her mind and stomach are one.


 1. This energetic declaration of food’s importance was not a casual statement for Cather, but a standard part of her philosophy. She repeated her declaration that her “mind and stomach are one” to Allene Sumner of the Cleveland Press, and told the Omaha Society of Fine Arts in 1921 that “No nation has ever produced great art that has not made a high art of cookery, because art appeals primarily to the senses” (“Willa Cather” 146). Sumner’s article, which was published just a few months after the conversation with Tittle in Century, is striking in quoting distinctive phrases of Cather nearly identical to those quoted by Tittle: “my mind and stomach are one,” the “musical discord” in American food preparation, the way American speech touches “springs of memory,” etc. It is possible that these phrases were simply common ones Cather used when speaking to the press in 1925. It is also possible that Sumner drew upon the Century article to produce her piece for the Cleveland Press. (Go back.)
 2. Thanks to Mark Madigan and Amanda Kuhnel for bringing this reference to my attention. (Go back.)
 3. I am drawing on Millington’s discussion of culture for this claim. (Go back.)
 4. Though the Auclairs’ kitchen undoubtedly is the central locale of fine eating and culinary tradition within the novel, it is by no means the only example. Giorgio, the drummer boy, looks forward to a Christmas dinner with his family on the Isle of Orleans that includes “dainties” like blood sausages and pickled pigs’ feet (129), and the farmers on the Île are said to live “well” and grow “the best vegetables and garden fruits” (212). In another episode, Pierre Charron hosts a dinner party featuring tête de veau for Captain Pondaven. (Go back.)


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