Xena Meets Iron Chef

Cover photo courtesy of Karen Dudley

A Review of Karen Dudley’s Food for the Gods (Turnstone Press, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Make sure to eat a large meal before you read Karen Dudley’s Food for the Gods. Dudley sets her novel in the ancient Greek world where mythology and Athenian life mix. Nothing prepares an ancient Greek chef for a life of cooking more than being made into a meal for the gods. Celebrity chef Pelops was sacrificed by his father Tantalus and made into a meal that was offered to the gods as Tantalus’ attempt to mock the gods. Dudley’s story takes place once Pelops has been reconstituted from this primeval stew (missing only a piece of his shoulder that was eaten accidentally by Demeter and replaced by a prosthetic shoulder of ivory) with a new, very personal understanding of the cooking craft… one could say that his blood was infused with good taste. Having turned down the love of Poseidon, Pelops was forced to find a non-watery solution for cooking in – allowing him to instead use the gifts of Athene and Dionysus (olive oil and wine) to infuse his food with new, rich tastes that set him aside from other chefs.

Having been served as food to the gods, Pelops has the ability to see the gods, and Dudley infuses her work with the divine presence. Food for the Gods combines a mystery plot with a reality-TV-like plot of a celebrity chef insider view… and a hefty dose of ancient gods and furies. Her plot plays with ancient Greek notions of moira (fate), hubris, and miasma (the contaminating quality of polluted acts), challenging her readers to think in an ancient Greek mindset and envision a world where negative deeds are seen as being able to be transferred by touch or by proximity to others. She also interjects the gods into every aspect of life from boiling water to drunken revelry – who would have known cooking could be so divine.

Dudley infuses her work with her incredible sense of humour, combining a serious plot of mystery and intrigue with humourous interludes and several posters advertising anything from advice books on preparing a dinner party to advice on how to properly interact with prostitutes. Her style of humour is clearly influenced by the ancient Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, blending body humour, social commentary, and philosophy/theology.

Although infused with humour, Dudley’s work also challenges modern notions of the stability of morality structures and introduces aspects of the ancient Greek world that would be considered taboo or outsider narratives in modernity. Dudley discusses sex workers as normative and unthreatening, and, unlike many narratives today, humanises her prostitute characters rather than casting them as social outlaws or social problems. Rather than casting her prostitute characters as drug-addled criminals with complex and problematic histories, Dudley displays prostitution as an employment option and even portrays one of the prostitutes as the love interest for her story.

Dudley’s plot exemplifies the ancient Greek comfort with queer subjectivity, and does not feel the need to narrativise queer lives or to construct reasons why her characters are queer. The homosexuality of her characters is just another part of their existence and is not complicated as something outside of the norm.

This novel encourages the reader to think outside of the temporal subjectivity (outside of the tendency of modern society to think of itself as superior and “the only way things could be”) and question whether modern methods of viewing the world are better than those of the past.

Dudley combines the playful engagement with mythology of Xena with the culinary interplay of celebrity cooking shows, and a healthy dose of mystery and crime-solving. By the end of reading this, you will find yourself reading Homer while eating a gourmet meal and pondering about the crimes in your city. I look forward to more of Dudley’s work with a fork in one hand, a spyglass in the other, and ancient Greek pottery on the table.

Warning: Do Not Read On An Empty Stomach. May Cause Hunger.

To read more about Karen Dudley’s work, visit her website at http://www.karendudley.com/ . Visit RavenStone Press (an imprint of TurnStone Press) for Food of the Gods at http://www.ravenstonebooks.com/

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