Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

18 Feb 2011

(Short Story) The Kitchen Child by: Angela Carter

(Reaction) Just Desserts by: Antonio Conejos

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The titular kitchen child of Angela Carter's short story is unnamed and the reader does not know much about him except that he is essentially a product of the kitchen. This is clearly seen in the title as well as supported by the child himself, And that was the truth of the matter; who else could I claim as my progenitor if not the greedy place itself, that, if it did not make me, all the same, it caused me to be made?

The kitchen will have to stand as his progenitor as no one can recall who visited the kitchen child's mother that fateful day. No one knows who the father is, even the mother herself, 'Lawks a mercy, child,' says she. 'I never thought to ask' nor the kitchen staff who were present that day, Not one scullery maid nor the littlest village boy could remember who or what it was which visited my mother that souffle morning....

As so little is know of the kitchen child, even by himself; the story quickly takes on the form of a classic whodunit. Except instead of searching for a murderer, we are looking for a father; instead of a killing, we have the birth of new life. As with any good detective story, the premise is based on acts of deceit and regret.

The deceit though in this short story is not the child's manner of conception (mysterious and abrupt as it is, a pair of hands clasped tight around her waist... God knows what it was he got up to but so much so she flings all into the white dish with abandon); but the housekeepers spiteful lie that the duc did not enjoy the souffle, He said: 'Trope de cayenne,' and scraped it off his plate into the fire' she announces with a gratified smirk. This out and out lie (the duc confirms later that the souffle was the best I ever eat) drives the cook to the passionate preparation of the souffle which bewitches the duc at the end of the story, 'What dedication!' The man seems awestruck. He stares at my mother, as if her will never get enough of gazing at her.

Regret, in the form of an overspiced souffle, also forms the early basis of the story. But as she mixed in the lobster meat, diced up, all nice, she felt those hands stray higher. That was when too much cayenne went in. She always regretted that.

Deceit and regret though, while laying the groundwork of the story, also compel the kitchen child's mother to further hone her craft; which greatly impresses the duc later on and leads to the conclusion of the story, the wrapping up of the mystery. And when the ducal hands stray higher - not a mite of agitation stirs the spoon. For it is, you understand, the time for seasoning. And in goes just sufficient cayenne, this time. Not a grain more. The cook even wallops this new interloper to ensure that she will not be distracted from the souffle.

The duc, so impressed by this remarkable woman who cooks exquisitely and will brook no distractions, takes the cook as his wife. Thus, the story aptly ends with the kitchen child pronouncing the end to the mystery of his father. He says, a tad smugly, For am I not the duc's stepson?

There are a few sly hints that the kitchen child is more than the duc's stepson. The only thing anyone can remember of the kitchen child's father is that he was vaguely corpulent, some fat shape seemed to have haunted the place, drawn to the kitchen as a ghost to the dark. Similarly, the duc's size is also impressive, And I never saw a fatter man; he'd have given my mother a stone or two and not felt the loss. Round as the 'o' in rotund.

Imagery, made by the kitchen child, also link his mother and the duc. He describes his mother as round as the 'o' in 'obese' while the duc is (as mentioned above), round as the 'o' in rotund.

Sure the duc makes up some story that he had a valet when he first visited the house of the kitchen child. Everyone suspects that this valet is the kitchen child's father, I give him an account of what I took to be the circumstances of my conception, how his defunct valet wooed and won my mother in the course of the cooking of a lobster souffle. Yet conveniently this valet has died and thus there is no one to confirm or deny this suspicion. Please. Everyone who's ever read a mystery before knows that the butler didn't do it.

The kitchen child is quite explicit of his link to the kitchen. Conceived upon a kitchen table, born upon a kitchen floor... And indeed, is there not something holy about a great kitchen? Origins limit us and by doing so, define us. Thus the son of the kitchen makes the kitchen and food his way of life. But origins can also inspire us to expand our borders, to go beyond that which we have been born into. Thus, the son of a simple Yorkshire lass becomes the youngest (Yorkshire born) French chef in all the land.


This is a delightful story which mimics the characteristics of an excellent souffle; ie. its tone is light and the measurements of the characters is drawn perfectly that they'll surely elicit a rise from the reader.

I'm fond of Angela Carter's language, particularly the cadence she manages to work into her sentences. (On describing a werewolf in A Company of Wolves, Headless. Footless. Dying. Dead. She has fun with language here as well, First she wept for shame because she'd spoiled a dish. Next, she wept for joy, to see her son mould the dough. And now she weeps for absence.

My only, slight, criticism of the story, that little overseasoning of cayenne if you will, is that I'm incredulous that after the abuse the cook's souffle took the first time around (God knows what it was he got up to but so much so she flings all into the white dish with abandon), it still manages to grow. I've baked souffle and they're ridiculously fragile creations. Perhaps next time I bake I should have someone feeling me up in order to get a rise out of them.

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