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"From Sourah to Sourdough, Food Symbolism and Metaphor in Edna Ferber's Ice Palace"

Throughout her works, and particularly in "Ice Palace", Edna Ferber uses food imagery to reflect relationships with others, social position and historical setting.


From Sourah to Sourdough: Food Symbolism and Metaphor in Edna Ferber?s Ice Palace

Her achievements included a Pulitzer Prize, more than twenty volumes of literature, and eight collaborative plays. Between 1924 and 1958, eight of her novels became bestsellers; three were turned into Oscar winning Hollywood movies and one into the eminently successful Broadway play, Showboat.
Edna Ferber, the woman responsible for these accomplishments, was exceedingly popular in her own day, but is now virtually forgotten, a mere thirty-five years after her death. Ferber has been criticized for being too clich?d, too formulaic, and too middlebrow. While her style may have been geared toward commercial success, her characters, nevertheless, are both socially minded and motivated. Their lives and actions take on matters of public debate and importance on such topics as the treatment of Native Americans in Cimarron, the immorality of lumber barons in Come and Get It, and, in Ice Palace, even the debate over bringing Alaska into statehood. The treatment of these subjects is serious and passionate. To casually dismiss the value of Ferber?s writing on the grounds of melodrama or sentimentality is to miss the richness offered by the debates presented.
Ironically, in Edna Ferber?s larger than life novels, characters and plots often concern themselves with the more mundane aspects of everyday life, especially food and eating. Ferber shows an unerring sense for detail in her treatment of food consumption and such detail gives her characters plausibility and connects them with the reader. Her characters work, scheme, aspire, love, and, like the characters in a Dicken?s novel, they also eat. Within the social drama of Ferber's novels and stories, food takes on a pivotal role with characters revealing themselves through their culinary preferences. What is eaten and how it is consumed reflects relationships with others, social position and historical setting.
A very prolific writer, Ferber, interestingly, did not always write about what was already familiar to her. She chose instead a different region of the United States for each of her narrative venues. Critics are quick to note Ferber?s wide net and point out that her regional works usually solicited negative reactions from the local populace; but could this just be another example of ?the truth hurts?? In fact, Ferber researched and often visited each of the regions she was to write about. For example, she worked on Ice Palace for more than five years, while traveling to Alaska five times (Gilason, ?Edna?). Whenever she visited a locale, she took extensive notes on everything including speech patterns, clothes, and very definitely food, drawing on those powers of observation developed in her early years as a newspaperwoman.
Edna Ferber?s strong interest in food is articulated throughout her works, finding expression in titles, themes and imagery. Early works like Buttered Side Down and Half Portions are slice-of-life short story collections that rival those of O.Henry. The McChesney stories, first introduced in 1911, in a collection entitled Roast Beef, Medium, developed into a wildly popular series. In the forward, Ferber declares that Roast Beef, Medium represents not only a menu choice, but a philosophy for living, ?safe, and sane, and sure. It agrees with you? (v). In fact, throughout the McChesney stories, Ferber displays a marked tendency to equate food choices with moral values. At one point in her travels, McChesney meets a burlesque queen while on the sleeper train from Ottumwa to North Bend. Despite being broad-minded for her time, McChesney treats her new acquaintance, tawdry looking Blanche LeHaye, with a combination of pity and disdain, an attitude that quickly changes when LeHaye reveals her skill in a kitchen, of all places, where she not only demonstrates that she can make a caramel icing, but pitches in to peel potatoes and chop spinach, while reveling in the whole experience. By using the common bond of women cooking together to create common ground between characters that are seeming moral opposites, Ferber demonstrates, even in this early work, that her food references are anything but incidental.
It is in her last novel, Ice Palace, however, that Ferber exhibits the most sophisticated use of food imagery and symbolism. In Ice Palace, Ferber uses food as a metaphor for character, moral fiber, or the lack thereof, as well as a vehicle for illustrating cultural and philosophical differences, changing times and principles, and relationships between people.
Published in 1958, Ice Palace is the story of post war Alaska, and here, Ferber created a saga in keeping with the enormous geographical breadth and possibilities of America?s final frontier. Even the birth of the novel?s heroine, Christine Storm, delivered inside of a gutted caribou during a blizzard, is a life event bordering on mythic proportion. Orphaned as a baby, her Mother having died in childbirth and her father killed by a bear, infant Christine is nursed to health by a tough spinster, Bridie Ballantyne, and then raised by two grandfathers, diametrically opposed to each other, with Bridie acting as both a mediator between the men and as a negotiator on Christine?s behalf. The grandfathers themselves are no ordinary men. One, Czar Kennedy, is a wealthy entrepreneur and opportunist, who married for money, and who uses everything he can exploit in the pristine Alaskan wilderness to further his own interests. The other, Thor Storm, is an environmentalist who once had an Eskimo wife, prints a weekly newspaper, and fights for Alaskan statehood.
The dichotomous nature of these two characters is further mirrored in their eating habits. For Czar Kennedy, money is no object. He even has a manservant, Gus, who doubles as a personal chef. Gus is described as ?dour? and ?resentful,? but is, nevertheless, a gifted cook. One has the impression that Gus is treated as a fixture, rather than a human. He is a Swede, ?imported? from the outside just as most of the food that he prepares.
As Christine grows up, she lives in turn with each grandfather. While Christine is pampered at Czar Kennedy?s comfortable house, she is also subject to his authoritarian nature. When, as a child, when she balks at eating her vegetables, Grandpa Kennedy stresses how expensive they are, being ?freighted all the way from Seattle.? Life is quite the opposite with Grandfather Storm, who lives in a log cabin and does his own cooking, his only utensils being a saucepan, kettle, and frying pan. Thor gets his granddaughter to eat her vegetables by teaching her about the importance of vitamins. It is Thor Storm, in fact, who not only teaches Chris how to cook, but how to be self reliant enough to live off the land if need be:
As a sort of game they scoured the countryside for their own greens. ?The Eskimos,? he told her, storybook fashion, ?go out and hunt for green stuff as though they were hunting for meat or fish or furs. There?s sourah, that?s the yellow stuff inside the pussy willow, they call it willow meat. And there?s wild chard, and there?s a plant they call asaluk, it grows in sandy places. . .? ( )
The grandfathers? antipathy toward each other is so fierce that they quarrel and fight over Christine?s upbringing even as she enters her college years. It is Grandpa Storm, viewing the situation with clarity, who points out the futility of further argument by using an element of cooking, the ordinary process of baking a cake, to describe Christine?s development:
Once you?ve baked a cake, you know, you can?t take the eggs or the milk out of it or the flour or the butter or the spice. They?ve baked in, they?re ingredients of the whole, they?re in forever, until the actual thing itself is destroyed . . . Christine is almost baked by this time, there?s only the icing to put on, plain or fancy (182).
In the end, it is Christine, herself, who shapes a compromise, with each grandfather providing two years of her higher education. Under Thor?s tutelage, she sees Alaska, and attends the local college in the Alaskan town of Baranof. Czar?s plans include two years of college in Seattle, where he hopes to affect a marriage between Christine and Bay Husack, his business partner?s son.
Just as Christine?s personal development was shaped by the conflicting influences exerted by her grandfathers, the face of Alaska was shaped by similarly divergent powers. While Czar Kennedy initially comes to Alaska as a businessman looking to capitalize on the gold rush and sell to the prospectors, ironically, it is the naturalist, Thor Storm who brings the financial potential of salmon to Czar?s attention, never dreaming that his new acquaintance would make untold wealth by canning and exporting this valuable commodity. In the novel, Czar Kennedy comes to symbolize the influential outside business lobby that would have Alaska remain a territory. In fact, powerful business conglomerates had established themselves early in the twentieth century. Absentee landlords, with names like J.P. Morgan and Simon Guggenheim, totally controlled the mining, timber and canning industries, and most of the steamship and rail services. Alaska may have been called a territory, but it was treated as a colonial interest and was at the mercy of a powerful outside lobby. Laws, such as the Jones Act of 1920, subjected Alaskans to higher shipping rates and discouraged competition from rail and bus lines, while the White Act allowed outside canning interests to continue the use of fish traps. The natural riches of Alaska were being shipped out, around the clock, for the ultimate profit of syndicates in Washington and California.
In Ice Palace, Ferber effectively used food imagery to focus on this injustice. Part of Christine?s higher education was a trip across the length and breadth of Alaska with her Grandfather Thor. She was to see all of Alaska, including the canneries, where she would witness the interminable exodus of one of Alaska?s natural resources:
For the first time in her life Christine felt disembodied, without dimensions . . . the line moved inexorably like the stream of life, there was no stopping it except by complete annihilation. . .The men at the long tables caught the whole fish as it flowed through the machinery stream, flowed as endlessly and unhurriedly through the air and metal as though this were a salmon?s natural element. Steam hissed, iron clanked, knives chopped, metal thumped, water swished, cans clashed. No one spoke, no head was lifted, the relentless process had a nightmarish pursuing quality (228).
If the salmon was flowing out of Alaska, so too were the cannery workers. They were hired from Seattle and San Francisco and at the end of the season they would return to those cities along with the wages they earned. The workers were brought in on vessels that the canneries owned along with the food that would feed them. Few local Alaskans were hired and the territory reaped nothing from the millions cleared by these outside consortiums.
In Ice Palace, these canning syndicates are represented by Czar Kennedy?s cronies in Seattle, characters like Dave Husack, who is not only red-faced and materialistic, but overweight as well. His penchant for costly, unhealthy cigars epitomizes his noxious and unwholesome business habits while his preference for expensive thick steaks is symbolic of his own personal greed. Rich food like this figures prominently at a Seattle dinner party hosted by Czar Kennedy, to celebrate, with the Husack family and Christine, the somewhat questionable retrofit of a once elegant ship into a salmon trawler. Martinis, champagne, imported caviar, three-inch thick steaks, and salad with Roquefort dressing are all on the menu.
While this is a celebration, the business partnership between Czar and Husack is often contentious and their power struggle manifests itself at the restaurant when Czar becomes angry with the headwaiter who mistakenly addresses Husack, a regular at this establishment, as the host. There is no doubt that Czar Kennedy is a man of power and control. He has even pre-ordered the dinners for his guests and although he offers them the option of changing his selections, even in this social setting, no one dares to question his choice.
The highlight of the evening is dessert, a vast baked Alaska:
Now the dessert arrived, a ceremony, almost a ritual, with three waiters and Emil as acolytes and priest. Baked Alaska, golden, mountainous, at once hot and cold in some miraculous way. Plates were being handed round.
?This is Alaska, all right,? Czar said as his fork went into the rich confection. ?Layer of cold and layer of hot. Cold and sweet, hot and sweet. Ice cream and cake. People Outside think it?s all cold. Well, let?em. We know better, don?t we, Dave!? (382).
Paradoxically, it is while the party is enjoying this decadent dessert, that Dave Husack is summoned to the phone, to find out that the ship has sunk because of the cheap, junk engines he had installed against advice. Although lives have been lost, it is the certain loss of future salmon profits that most concerns both Husack and Kennedy.
The symbolic link between Czar?s action of digging into his slice of dessert and his current business practices with regard to Alaska may seem a bit heavy handed. It?s important to note, though, that Baked Alaska originated at Delmonico?s Restaurant in New York City. Other versions of this dessert existed previous to the Delmonico inception and were credited to a wide range of people from Thomas Jefferson to the physicist Benjamin Thompson, and even to an unnamed Chinese chef in Paris. It would be the French born chef, Charles Ranhofer, however, who would create what he called ?Alaska-Florida?, which later became ?Baked Alaska? in commemoration of the Alaskan purchase. To celebrate what he believed would be a business coup, Czar Kennedy even chooses a dessert created on the outside, in this case by a foreigner at a New York establishment favored by the rich and powerful, and then further delights in comparing it with the territory of Alaska. What he fails to realize is that just as the ice cream core of the dessert cannot stand up for long under its hot meringue case, the true heart of Alaska, its people, cannot be contained for long under a web spun of outside interests.
Herein, lies the social debate of Ice Palace--whether Alaska should be admitted as a state, providing for stricter governance of its resources, or remain a territory, continuing a laissez-faire attitude toward the use of its natural assets. Ferber portrayed this dispute so effectively that she was recognized for bringing the matter to public attention and Ice Palace, has even been referred to as the Uncle Tom?s Cabin of Alaskan statehood (qtd. In Gilason, ?Edna?).
There is no doubt that Ferber succeeded in highlighting the opposing forces that dominated postwar Alaska. Christine?s trip across Alaska with grandfather Thor, for instance, is accomplished entirely by air. The importance of air transportation is also echoed in the person of Ross Guildenstern, who is half Eskimo, an accomplished bush pilot, and in love with both Christine and Alaska. Alaska, with a land mass twice the size of Texas, embraced aviation while it was still in its infancy. Alaska's first scheduled airline was founded in 1924, and by 1955 Alaskans were flying thirty to forty times more often than other Americans (Gilason ?Senator?). Distances were shortened from weeks to hours as air service brought the trappings of civilization, including newspapers, magazines, and advertising to the farthest and most remote corners of the Alaskan territory. Even the youthful Christine is surprised when she visits the fictional tundra village of Oogruk and witnesses the kitchen in Oogruk's only hotel:
?Chris!? Bridie called from the kitchen. ?Come and see this.?. . . But the Raffsky girls had propelled her into the kitchen under their own power-a kitchen that was modern, metallic and pastel as a Ladies Home Journal double-page ad (273).
The overwhelming effects of Post-war advertising can also be seen at the hotel owner?s dinner party, which, as Christine laments, is anything but frontier:
Not Harper's Bazaar. All this long flight up to Oogruk and now Harper's Bazaar indeed! The wilds of Alaska. I didn't come up here to eat ripe olives and ice cream with chocolate sauce and creamed mushrooms and turkey (281).
At the same time, in this post-war period of prosperity, Alaska was experiencing an unprecedented influx of outsiders. In 1930, native Alaskans accounted for 50.6% of the total Alaskan population. By 1960, native Alaskans were a minority of 19% (?Alaska Dept. of Labor?).
The Alaska portrayed in Ice Palace, therefore, is a much-changed place, especially for the older, native generation, who battled to preserve native ways against an outside onslaught. Typified by Ross Guildenstern's aged Eskimo Grandmother, elderly Alaskan natives struggled to maintain their traditions and Ferber illustrates this culture clash by using food imagery, juxtaposing the new, and certainly blander foods, against the more exotic native Alaskan diet:
She was justifying her existence, she was proving that she was useful still in a world of the swift and the young and the careless. This amiable and industrious little mummy could hold up her head in the presence of the great-grandchildren shouting and laughing in play outside the shanty, no matter how cleverly they read picture books and did finger-painting at school and ate lollipops and ice-cream cones and lettuce and hamburgers instead of muktuk and the leaves of wild green plants, and Eskimo ice cream made of grated reindeer tallow and seal oil beaten and beaten until the mass was white and fluffy, and, mixed with blueberries or low-bush cranberries, so delicious, to her way of thinking (300-301).
In post war Alaska, few people, native or otherwise, gathered or prepared food in this traditional manner. While Ross? grandmother clings to the old ways, the younger generation is busily adopting white man?s food. It is not just the pressure of assimilation, the intrusion of advertising, or the influx of outsiders that drives this change. The ready availability of food and the lingering specter of lean times in an unforgiving landscape are both catalysts in this transformation. Ferber reminds us of this in a poignant and telling depiction of a young Eskimo mother and her white mother-in-law onboard an Alaskan plane. The older woman is shocked when her daughter-in-law accepts a stewardess? offer of formula after the baby had just been fed:
The olive-skinned young mother thought this old lady, her husband's mother, must be a strange one. A bottle of food for the baby free--and not to take it!. . . she knew, too, that for centuries and centuries before this day the fathers, brothers and husbands of her people had wrested a bitter living from the snowy wastes, from the icy seas, often at the cost of their lives . . . To refuse offered food was not only bad manners, it was madness. When her own lunch came round on the cardboard tray--good thick cheese-and-meat sandwiches wrapped in wax paper; with deviled eggs and olives, carrot sticks, cake, hot coffee, a feast and free, she ate every crumb, drank every drop happily. She was horrified to see that her mother-in-law left more than half her food on the tray. She would like to eat that too, but good manners forbade (214-215).
This passage not only touches on the motivation behind the changing native diet, but it also illustrates the attitude of the new mother-in-law from the outside toward her dark skinned daughter-in-law. While the young mother eats everything set in front of her, the mother-in-law rejects at least half of the simple airplane food, and in doing so, sends a clear message of superiority and snobbery to her son?s choice of bride.
Interestingly, Ferber broadens this link between food rejection and snobbery to include attitudes toward whole groups of people. When guests of honor, Dave Husack, his son, Bay, and their entourage of political lackeys, attend a Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Nick?s Caribou Caf?, beef stew, dumplings, pallid string beans, and cole slaw are served. Chris Storm eats the lunch with ?the methodical thoroughness of a young healthy woman who has eaten worse food and would again? (97). Dina Drake, the Husack prot?g?e and personal secretary, who manipulates the elder Husack, while vying for the affections of the younger, rejects the food completely. Dave Husack is grooming his son to be Governor of Alaska as a stepping stone to the Presidency, and while Dina wants to be Mrs. Bay Husack, she sees Christine as a rival and Alaska as an inconvenient though necessary springboard for her own ambitions. Dina?s action of ignoring the meal presents not only a clear contrast to her perceived competitor Christine?s manners, but shows an unmistakable disdain for the host Alaskans.
In creating the character of Dina Drake, Ferber has drawn almost no allusion to food other than its rejection. Dina again reveals her condescending attitude toward both Alaska and Christine when she refuses Chris? hospitable offer of a sourdough pancake breakfast. Dina doesn?t know what sourdough pancakes are and makes it clear that she?s ?not the breakfast type? (70).
While the act of food rejection illuminates the snobbish attitude and innate prejudice of characters like Dina Drake and the new mother-in-law from the outside, it will be food preferences that will clearly define Christine Storm. Chris? sourdough pancakes, in fact, are the most referenced single food item in the book and Chris is proud of her starter:
. . . that sourdough starter makes Chris the leading Alaska heiress. She got it from her Grandpa Thor Storm, and he got his from an old prospector who?d been living up in the hills for twenty years using the same starter (70).
In Ice Palace, sourdough clearly has important connotations. The early prospectors and pioneers who settled Alaska depended on sourdough as a leavening agent and became so associated with it that they became known as ?sourdoughs? as opposed to ?cheechako? or tenderfoot. Just as their sourdough grew and fermented, these tough pioneers stayed and became a viable force in the territory of Alaska.
In Chris? case, her sourdough pancakes are her forte:
Later Baranof boasted that Chris Storm could pilot a float plane, drive a car, mush a team of nine huskies, paddle a skin boat, handle an outboard motor, cut up a seal with ulu and make the best sourdough pancakes in Baranof. Only this last accomplishment made her the envy of the town?s more solid citizens (192).
Why is Chris? accomplishment of making sourdough pancakes so important? Perhaps it?s because she makes them differently ? and better. Hers are not the thick, heavy ones like ?old flannel poultices? of the pioneer settlers, but feather-light and delectable (232). Metaphorically, sourdough pancakes define Christine?s character and moral fiber. Just as Chris values her old sourdough starter, she values the natural resources of Alaska. She?s improved, however on the original pancake recipe and knows that Alaska?s resources must be actively protected. Characters like Chris Storm and Ross Guildenstern perform a balancing act between two worlds; Ross, between his Eskimo and western heritage and Chris between Alaska and everything outside, each drawing on the best of both, in essence epitomizing the spirit and outlook of postwar Alaska.
Even as food references abound in Ice Palace, it is interesting to note that they are conspicuously absent from any description of the character, Bayard Husack, Dave?s son, and the man favored by both his father and Czar Kennedy to marry Christine. On Ferber?s part this is no accident. Bay leads a comfortable life, but one for which he has no real enthusiasm. He is a bored, shallow fellow with few ideas of his own and food, after all, even the rejection of it, implies life.
Food is indeed the life and fiber of the characters in Ice Palace. As evidenced in the portrayal of Dave and Bay Husack, Dina Drake, Chris Storm, and both grandfathers, food preferences or even the lack of them reveal the sympathies of the major characters and often the relationship between these individuals. In the case of the two grandfathers, Czar Kennedy and Thor Storm, their food selections not only serve to illuminate their personalities, but also highlight their opposing philosophies. For the native Eskimos, food choices are part of a cultural battleground and symbolize the struggle to retain traditional customs amidst the inexorable press of outside encroachment.
By underscoring the changes in the Alaskan diet brought about by advances in transportation, increased advertising, and population shifts, Edna Ferber has managed to construct an effective picture of the forces that shaped postwar Alaska. In fact, if she is to be criticized, it would be because she is factual to the point of didacticism. Looking deeper, however, it becomes apparent that Ferber?s elaborate food descriptions, from a detailed report of the salmon canning process, to a complete account of the creation and purpose of a native seal poke, to the theatrical presentation of a Baked Alaska, illustrate a complexity that is essential to the language of plot, which in this case is Alaska?s quest for statehood.
Ironically, while most novels fail to deal extensively with eating or meals, food, as Ferber has demonstrated, is at the core of our existence. How food is procured, prepared, cooked and eaten reflects the depths of cultural and societal psyches. Few authors have paid as much attention to food mores as Edna Ferber and a revival of interest in this once hugely popular American author is long overdue. Throughout her works, she used food as an effective metaphor for human nature and its associated accomplishments and failings. That Edna Ferber has been largely forgotten is an implicit loss for both the food aficionado and scholar alike. Her literary works provide a rare opportunity to study food representation as it contributes to the nuance of fictional writing and in doing so, present a compelling case for further study of this often overlooked facet of literature.

Works Cited:

Alaska Department of Labor. FAQ ALASKA Project. Sep. 2001. Fairbanks North Star Borough Library for the Alaska State Library. 23 Sep. 2003.
Ferber, Edna. Ice Palace, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958.
- - -. Roast Beef Medium, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1913
Gislason, Eric. AEdna Ferber=s Ice Palace: >The Uncle Tom=s Cabin of [email protected] The Capitol Project. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 23 Oct. 2003.
- - -. ASenator Ernest Gruening: >Let Us Now End American [email protected] The Capitol Project. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 23 Oct. 2003.








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