Food, Monstrosity, and Liminality in Hannibal (TV Show)

Cooking with Hannibal: Food, Liminality, and Monstrosity in Hannibal

'Amuse-Bouche', 'Entrée', 'Trou Normand', 'Buffet Froid', 'Relevés', and 'Savoureux' – in a media environment in which chefs have ascended the Olympus of stardom, viewers have become used to hearing these words from popular figures such as Jamie Oliver, Emeril Lagasse, or Anthony Bourdain. However, the terms mentioned in the previous sentence are, in fact, episode titles of Hannibal's first season. These titles are taken from a thirteen-course French menu, whose rigorous structure serves as a template for both Hannibal's ritualized murders and the narrative that unfolds in the course of the show's first season. But the episode titles provide merely one semiotic dimension that highlights the importance of food to the NBC series which debuted in the spring of 2013.

Of course, food is 'an essential element' (Ferry 2003: 2) in human life, which is why 'the audience experiences rather than understands' (Ferry 2003: 7) it. Yet beyond the mere provision of nutrients, food, as Mikhail Bakhtin has stressed, functions as a medium through which humanity encounters the world. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin concludes that when 'man triumphs over the world', he 'devours it without being devoured himself. The limits between man and the world are erased, to man's advantage' ([1965] 1984: 281). Hence, food 'serves as a liminal object that passes from, and forces us to note the difference between, the outside and the inside' (Moore 2007: 146). While food, as Gaye Poole observes in his book Reel Meals, Set Meals, is a 'remarkably concentrated signifier' (1999: 3) that may communicate a wide variety of messages, my present exploration of Hannibal will develop from the aforementioned notion of food's liminal status, for Hannibal constantly occupies liminal positions, as he tests and transgresses boundaries.

Hors d'Œuvre: Cannibalism, Liminality, and Hannibal's Introduction

The significance of liminality to Hannibal is underlined in Dr Hannibal Lecter's introduction to the show, which doesn't occur until the first episode's twenty-one-minute mark. The cannibal's first appearance is decidedly obscured, for viewers are only allowed to catch glimpses of Hannibal and his (implied) actions. In a simultaneously well-choreographed and overly blatant sequence, the crime scene investigators Beverly Katz, Brian Zeller, and Jimmy Price have gathered around Elise Nichols's dead body while discussing the tiny bits of evidence they have discovered in her case. As they are examining the corpse, Brian notes that '[t]he liver was removed. He took it out. And, yeah, then he put it back in' (Slade 2013). This observation triggers Jimmy to wonder, 'Why would he cut it out when he's just gonna sew it back in?' (Slade 2013). FBI advisor Will Graham, located a few feet from the rest of the gang, quickly concludes, 'There's something wrong with the meat' (Slade 2013). Brian and Jimmy look up in surprise and Zeller remarks, 'She has [sic] liver cancer' (Slade 2013), which confirms Will's fear that they are dealing with a cannibal. The scene ends on a close-up of Will's face, followed by a black screen as the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations fade in. Slowly, the camera begins to move upward and finds a man taking a slice of meat from a platter before biting into the piece with great pleasure. Even though the camera lingers on the man's face for several seconds while he is pleasurably chewing, the lighting ensures that viewers cannot catch a clear image of his face. The montage, of course, implies that this man is the cannibal the investigators had talked about only moments earlier (somewhat misleading the audience in the process, for he is not this cannibal) and stresses how different he is from them, highlighted by his solitude in his dark and private dining room, which simultaneously radiates an atmosphere of life (represented by the colourful fruits) and lifelessness (dead meat) and which provides a stark contrast to the pathology lab’s light, public, and sterile setting.

This brief sequence clarifies that cannibalism provides a powerful symbol whose potential meanings easily transcend the rather mundane notion of eating human meat. First, conceptually, cannibalism is intricately related to barbarism, which stands at the beginning, or opposite, of civilization. As anthropologist William Arens has explained, cannibalism functions as 'a mythic marker in the progress of […] cultural development' (1979: 159). Lecter's introduction in 'Apéritif', however, problematizes this connection, for the character is both linked to the cultured taste of classical music and the barbaric taste of human meat; he is simultaneously a connoisseur of fine art and a brute driven by instinct and neither of the two. Second, and this is closely related to the previous point, the cannibal, according to Sigmund Freud, incorporates that which he 'long[s] for and prize[s]' ([1921] 2001: 105). The desired object, Freud continues, 'is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated' ([1921] 2001: 105). From this perspective, the cannibal emerges as an instinct-driven creature that cannot suppress his desires and thus appears to be a textbook example of the monstrous return of the repressed that Robin Wood considered characteristic of horror (1986: 75). At the same time, however, Lecter functions as a 'self-appointed guardian of the Symbolic order' (Creed 2004: 200) who carefully selects his victims. In this dual role, the character 'question[s] binary thinking and introduce[s] a crisis' (Garber 1992: 11) as much as the character, paradoxically, serves 'to normalize and to enforce' (Cohen 1996: 17) dominant norms and values. Finally, the use of the Goldberg Variations announces that the show not simply draws on earlier entries in the Lecter franchise, but rather cannibalistically incorporates them. This gesture transforms Hannibal's text into a monstrous one that heeds no boundaries.

Hannibal's introduction clarifies that neither Dr Lecter nor Hannibal's text can be '[c]onfine[d …] to a prison cell' (Slade 2014), as Hannibal puts it in one episode. Indeed, Hannibal is as much located in an indeterminable space somewhere between apparently opposite categories as the show's text is situated both between the franchise's past, its present-in-progress, and its future-to-come (embodied by Hannibal's next episode) and reality and fiction. My ensuing exploration of the NBC show will be guided by the idea that Hannibal's use of the liminal object that is food stresses the series's thematic concerns surrounding the transgression of borders. Liminality, one should remember, 'is associated with a transgressive middle stage of a ritual: it is often marked out spatially as a threshold, or margin, at which activities and conditions are most uncertain and in which the normative structure of society is temporarily suspended or overturned' (Hetherington 1997: 32). Due to its close affinity to liminality, food, I will demonstrate, aids in creating a monster that 'resist[s] capture in the epistemological nets of the erudite' (Cohen 1996: 12) and 'refuses easy categorization' (Cohen 1996: 6). In order to trace the workings of food in the show, I will follow Hannibal's actions from the procurement of food to its consumption. This tracking of Lecter's traces will, however, not unfold chronologically, for whereas my elaborations on procuring and consuming food will focus on the diegetic world and its meanings, the dimension of food preparation will function as a gateway to the real world, for the dishes Hannibal has prepared on the show have transgressed the borderlines between the diegetic reality of the show and the real world.

'He should've hopped faster': Procuring and Storing Food on Hannibal

Although Hannibal's hunger for human flesh is implied from the get-go, throughout the first season, viewers can never be absolutely certain whether Hannibal does, in fact, eat meat produced from human bodies. Indeed, only in the eighth episode does Lecter kill someone onscreen,1 and it takes until the second episode of season two that he is unquestionably seen preparing human meat. The fact that – paratextual knowledge aside – Hannibal's murderous activities are repeatedly hinted at, yet their depiction delayed help construct an 'attractive and mesmerizing' (Creed 2004: 200) monster which 'inspires fear and desire at the same time' (Halberstam 1995: 14).

The fear triggered by Lecter is, unquestionably, connected to the fact that he manipulates and slaughters human beings. This dispatching of human lives plays a key role in a foodways analysis of the show, for the cruel actions assume the function of food procurement, the process of 'obtaining the ingredients and items needed for a meal' (Long 2000: 145). As Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and Mark Bernard note in their book Appetites and Anxieties, in contemporary consumer society, food 'procurement is consistently presented as consisting of buying groceries at the market' (2014: ch. 1). Mainstream media, they continue, 'emphasiz[e] the convenient consumption of food', but 'consistently leave out the slaughterhouse labor required to transform living creatures into "food"' (2014: ch. 5). In this way, '[m]ass entertainment glamorize[s] the convenience-consumption ethic [and] mystifie[s] – or simply ignore[s] – the details of food production' (Belasco 1989: 157).

However, Hannibal's emphasis on murder brings these processes usually clouded by the excesses of consumption to the fore. In 'Œuf', for example, Hannibal presents 'a modified boudin noir from Ali-Bab's Gastronomie Pratique' (Medak 2013) to Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). Before taking the first bite, Crawford wonders, 'What am I about to put in my mouth?' 'Rabbit', responds Hannibal, which spurs Jack to quip, 'He should've hopped faster' (Medak 2013). Both men start laughing, as a fast cut accompanied by a non-diegetic screeching sound suddenly re-locates the action to a forest setting, where a man is running for his life and stumbles, followed by another fast cut to Hannibal's kitchen, where Lecter is flambéing meat. Of course, the montage implies that the 'rabbit' is, in fact, human meat, and that Hannibal hunted the man like an animal in the forest.

Similarly, 'Sorbet' features a brief flashback scene in which a man named Andrew Caldwell takes a blood sample from Hannibal. Following this brief scene, Lecter is scrolling through his rolodex in the diegetic now. He stops at Caldwell's business card and then looks at a recipe for crisp lemon calf liver. The scenery quickly switches to a dark, deserted road, where Caldwell’s car breaks down. As Caldwell moves toward the back of his car, he can already see a trail of oil on the road. Apparently, someone manipulated the gas tank (however, Caldwell thinks that he 'must have hit a rock or something' [Rymer 2013]). By the time Caldwell gets up again, Lecter's car is already closing in. Although the scene quickly fades to black, the eerie, foreboding score implies that Lecter goes on to kill Caldwell, a notion that is supported when Caldwell's dead body – missing the kidney and heart – turns up in the BAU lab soon thereafter. Although it becomes less obvious than in the rabbit analogy, Hannibal again symbolically assumes the role of a predator stalking and killing its prey. First, the predator selects its potential kill, wounds its target, and once the victim has lost so much blood that it can no longer escape, the predator moves in for the kill.2

Whereas Hannibal's procurement of the raw materials for food production has so far only been hinted at, the process of transforming limbs and internal organs into meat has been on graphic display in the show. The most telling – and arguably disturbing – scene of this kind is also the first time that Lecter graphically reduces a human body into nothing but a source of vital proteins. As usual, viewers can first only infer that the psychiatrist goes on to murder his fellow serial killer John Gray after locating him in a corn silo. When the FBI discovers Gray with his left leg amputated just above the knee,3 the viewers' suspicion that Lecter slew and ate (in fact, will eat) the 'muralist' is substantiated. When, later in the episode, the crime scene investigators and Crawford are discussing the reason, or reasons, for Gray's missing lower leg, the by-then conventionalized jumping between the BAU lab and Hannibal's kitchen unfolds again: To the tune of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Lecter unpacks a lower leg, thus finally confirming that the structure of intercutting dead bodies with Hannibal in his kitchen or dining room, indeed, implicates him in the murders in question. The serial-killing psychiatrist calmly saws off the foot and then removes the knee, as he engages in the process of 'chopping, marinating, and otherwise readying food to be cooked' (Long 2000: 145) usually shrouded in mystery in our consumption-oriented, capitalist society, before making 'veal' osso buco and sitting down at his dinner table. Similarly, in 'Sorbet', Lecter not merely readies meal for cooking, but, while preparing a dinner party, stores pieces of liver, lungs, and brain in his freezer, thus demonstrating 'strategies used for keeping foods frozen or fresh and storing them until needed' (Long 2000: 145).

Carson, Baron, and Bernard have demonstrated that cannibal horror movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) 'reveal[ …] class differences through characters' food behavior', for they put a spotlight on the 'the labor that must be expended before a meal is consumed' (2014: ch. 5). In this way, these movies simultaneously highlight and scrutinize 'the boundaries between "normal" (the middle-class young people) and "abnormal" (the working class cannibal family)' (2014: ch. 5). From such a class-oriented perspective, it becomes apparent that Lecter is economically positioned in the (upper) middle class. His cultural capital, on the other hand, situates him in the upper class. Whereas (certain elements within) the working class may have to procure their food in a rather direct way, Hannibal chooses to – sometimes – hunt and prepare his food himself. Although economic class only plays a subordinate role in the series, Lecter's desire to leisurely procure food communicates an important message: Namely that as a member of the (upper) middle class, he may decide to procure food from a butcher or a farmers' market, but he may also choose to spend several hours hunting, as he has the economic power to do so. While it could be argued that, with its focus on the middle class, Hannibal, like the profit-oriented television industry in general, 'minimiz[es] the visibility of the working class' (Butsch 2011: 101), the show's depiction of the procurement, readying, and storage of food unveils not only practices usually mystified in capitalist society, but also links its main character to activities traditionally associated with the working class, problematizing binary thinking in the process.

'I broadened their palate': Consuming Food, Food Rituals, and the Monstrous Family

Binary constructions – and the transgression thereof – also assume a key role in the final step of the food circle, the consumption of food. The activity of consuming food is often framed by the contexts of rituals. Interestingly, according to Freud, rituals and cannibalism are closely intertwined, for cannibalism is at the heart of civilization, which transforms barbaric into symbolic acts. Civilization, argues Freud, starts with the sons' murder and subsequent consumption of the father ([1913] 2001: 142). Eating the father serves as a ritualistic act through which the sons pronounce their belonging to an emerging imagined community (whose primitiveness is clearly Othered vis-à-vis early-twentieth-century Vienna).

More 'civilized' feasts assume the same ritualistic function. Consider the probably most 'American' of American holidays, Thanksgiving: As James Oliver Robertson has rightfully noted, the 'celebration of Thanksgiving Day is a ritual affirmation of what Americans believe was the Pilgrim experience, the particularly American experience of confronting, settling, adapting to, and civilizing the New World' (1980: 15; my emphasis). Within this context, the turkey conventionally served for dinner takes on a mythical scope, for as a bird 'native to America', it symbolizes 'the bounteous richness of the wilderness' (Robertson 1980: 15).4 The feast thus affirms inculcated ideas of what America is (supposed to be) and unites the otherwise heterogeneous groups of people in the imagined community that is America. The way in which Americans traditionally experience Thanksgiving (and thus America) proves key to the ritual – Thanksgiving is a family holiday, which 'invests the value of family ties with an aura of religion and patriotism' (Siskind 1992: 168). As a result, the family functions not only as a 'prop of bourgeois capitalism' (Williams 2014: ch. 1) that introduces young human beings into the larger society, but also as a 'sacred, social institution, ordained by Heaven, to be productive of the greatest happiness to mankind' (Halttunen 1998: 144).

Hannibal's season one episode 'Œuf' cleverly interconnects its exploration of the family with food rituals.5 In the episode, the FBI is confronted with two murdered families. The agents first discover the Turners, who were killed during a family dinner. Some time has passed since the murders, as maggots and worms are devouring what once was a delicious-looking meal. As they are investigating the house, Jack points out that one of the sons was probably abducted one year earlier. Will remarks, 'False faces in family portraits. Layers and layers of lies betrayed by a sad glint in a child's eyes' (Medak 2013). Graham's utterance emphasizes how the first glance of the Turner family suggests an ideal family (the attentive viewer will identify the missing child, though); however, the second glance reveals a family that has probably been suffering from the loss of Jesse, a loss that had the potential to tear the family apart. The second dead family, on the other hand, was about to unpack their Christmas presents when the killers entered the house. Another apparently harmonious family life destroyed. Whereas the Turners were engaging in what may be assumed to be a daily family ritual, the Frists were in the midst of an annual family (and, arguably, national – if not Western) tradition, Christmas.

The monster of the week is a woman who 'is looking to form a family' (Medak 2013) by kidnapping young boys and forcing them to kill their families. Tellingly, the first time she is displayed with her abject family of young abductees-turned-killers, they are sitting in a diner, highlighting this family's difference from the 'normal' American family through their relation to food: Whereas the Turner family was about to eat (what appears to be) a self-prepared dinner, the family surrounding the unnamed mother figure merely consumes, similar to the way in which the female kidnapper simply incorporates new members into her family. She stresses, 'The family you’re born into isn't really family. Those are just people you didn't choose. You have to make family' (Medak 2013). However, her propagation of a notion of familial bonds not based on blood ties comes to a rather sudden end when she is stopped by the protectors of the status quo wearing FBI jackets. The end of this non-traditional family foreshadows that the family Hannibal seeks to found later in the episode is doomed to failure, as well.

This attempt at forming a family is again connected to food imagery, for Hannibal prepares food for Abigail Hobbs, the daughter of a serial killer dispatched by Will Graham in the pilot. Lecter is 'making breakfast for dinner' (Medak 2013) – sausage and eggs. It seems too simple a dinner for Hannibal's refined taste, but he has a good reason for choosing this exact meal, which goes beyond the boundary-defying gesture of having breakfast for dinner. After all, '[s]ausage and eggs was the last meal [Abigail was] having with [her] parents', but '[i]t's also the first meal [she's] having with [Hannibal]' (Medak 2013). Lecter's utterance implies that he will assume the role of the father figure in Abigail's life,6 a notion accentuated by the meal he is preparing on another level, for he turns to a classic comfort food variation by having sausage and eggs for dinner. Hannibal's culinary gesture taps into the stereotypical assumption that fathers would not be good cooks; sausage and eggs, however, is a dish that anyone can prepare. In this way, Hannibal evokes the image of the traditional American family, with its clearly defined gender roles. In addition, the meal highlights the fact that Abigail stands on the threshold between her old family and a new one, a 'liminal phase between […] separation and re-incorporation' (Aguirre, Quance, and Sutton 2000: 7), while Lecter, likewise, is transitioning from the role of Abigail's psychiatrist and mentor to her (spiritual) father. That the cannibalistic serial killer succeeds in (momentarily) creating the (illusion of a) family is further emphasized when Abigail, upon seeing Hannibal and his fellow psychiatrist Alana Bloom gathered around the table, notes, 'I see family' (Medak 2013).

Clearly, sharing food, jointly engaging in rituals, emerges as an entryway toward establishing familial bonds in this scene. Like the Turners, the trio of Hannibal, Alana, and Abigail share a family dinner. Like the mother figure's abject family, however, the three form a family unrelated to blood ties. Yet they also have some murderous tendencies with the kidnapper's family in common – Hannibal is a serial killer, while Abigail not only killed a boy who apparently attacked her, but she also baited girls for her biological father to murder. In this way, the Lecter family is simultaneously linked to the traditional ('good') families encountered in the episode and the monstrous ('bad') one, questioning Manichean divisions into good and evil in the process.

In addition, the dinner at Hannibal's place functions as an attempt to establish what Eric Hobsbawm called an 'invented tradition' that 'seeks to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition' (1983: 1) and to 'free' both Abigail and Hannibal from their temporary states of familylessness. As far as viewers can tell, it remains a mere attempt, though, for Hannibal, Alana, and Abigail are never again seen dining together. Symbolically, the dining room functions as a liminal space, an 'area of ambiguity' (Turner 1982: 24), in this scene, for the three characters 'waver[] between two worlds' (van Gennep [1909] 1961: 18) – those of life prior to the forming of the Lecter family and the new order represented by said family. Even though Hannibal fails in his attempt to create a family here, viewers may remember that Will drew attention to a phenomenon called 'capture bonding' earlier in the episode: 'It's a passive psychological response to a new master. It's been an essential survival tool for millions of years. You bond with your captor, you survive. You don't, you're breakfast' (Medak 2013). In light of Graham's words, Lecter, however, succeeds in establishing order and creating an even more unconventional 'family' in season two, for he manages to instil fear in Abigail, who cooperates in his plot to fake her death soon after and, effectively, becomes his 'daughter' (she even lives in his home), and to manipulate and seduce Alana, who, unknowingly and involuntarily, becomes the mother figure in Hannibal's family construct.

While the attempt of forming a family by way of introducing an invented tradition fails, Hannibal's dinners still serve to constantly (re-)stage a ritual, which centres on serving human meat to his unwitting guests (much like the Native Americans were unknowingly exposing themselves to Pilgrim values at the mythic first Thanksgiving). By serving dishes whose ingredients his guests are unaware of, Lecter does, however, not 'inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour', but rather questions society's values and norms of behaviour. Michael Owen Jones, Bruce Giuliano, and Roberta Krell have stressed that 'there is perhaps no more fundamental act than that of sharing food', since it is 'used as the basis of, as well as the justification for, interacting with others' (1983b: 91). However, sharing food also implies a social contract; that the joint consumption confirms the 'perceptions of the natural and social environment' (Jones, Giuliano, and Krell 1983a: xii).

Dr Lecter, however, breaks the trust generally conferred upon the host. 'You and I probably sipped wine while swallowing the people to whom we were trying to give justice', remarks Will when talking to Crawford at one point (Hunter 2014). Indeed, Lecter undermines society's rules with style. On the outside, he appears as the most cultured individual in the show, an aesthete and an arbiter of manners. For most of the people in his social circle, this superficial image is what defines Hannibal. Removing Lecter's mask may not be an easy task, but if one succeeds, one is confronted with an individual who takes great pleasure and pride in killing human beings (but even this face may just be another performance, further veiling the cannibal's persona) and who joyfully tests and transgresses boundaries. Again, Hannibal occupies a liminal role: he promotes traditional notions of behaviour, manner, and taste and subverts these very ideas at the same time.

Indeed, the fact that Hannibal serves human meat to his guests transforms culture into a weapon that fires at different targets. First, he 'exposes the affinity between barbarism and civilization' (Kilgour 1998: 249) by demonstrating that a cannibal lurks inside of even the most cultured human beings. Second, Lecter capitalizes on what Kenneth Burke termed mankind's 'naïve verbal realism' – humanity's 'refus[al] to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality' ([1963] 1966: 5) – and thus attacks the entire semiotic system by not just highlighting but utilizing the chasm between sign and reality, effectively creating a new reality founded upon signs (and their manipulation) in the process. Finally, the psychiatrist's actions 'reflect the fact that food consumption in consumer society is fraught with uncertainties', for 'people do not know what they are eating', nor 'where their food comes from' (Carson, Baron, and Bernard 2014: ch. 5). This commodification of food, following Karl Marx, 'conceals the social character of private labour' ([1867] 1990: 168). While Marx argued that commodity fetishism leads to the workforce's alienation from their labour, Hannibal suggests that it causes social alienation on a much larger scale.

'Honor[ing] the Taste and Aesthetic of What We Eat': Preparing and Fetishizing Food

Hannibal's (admittedly veiled) critique of consumer culture echoes György Lukács, who perceived 'the problem of commodities' as 'the central […] structural problem in capitalist society in all its aspects' ([1923] 1972: 83). Whereas Lukács and Marx's historical materialism focused their analyses on the question of production, Jean Baudrillard turned the focus of critical attention from use-value to what he termed 'sign-value'. This sign-value is generated in the moment of consumption, which Baudrillard describes as 'the stage where the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as a sign-value, and where signs are produced as commodities' ([1972] 1981: 147). The 'central structural problem in capitalist society' is thus re-located into the semiosphere and contributes its share to the proliferation of signs and the attendant 'accumulation of spectacles', which culminates in a state of existence in which '[e]verything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation' (Debord [1967] 2014).

Indeed, Hannibal highlights these processes through its excessive depiction of food, which transforms objects needed in order to satisfy basic human needs into visual spectacle. Spectacle, Tom Gunning argues in his seminal piece on the 'cinema of attractions', 'directly solicits spectator attention, incit[es] visual curiosity, and […] emphasiz[es] the direct stimulation of shock or surprise' (1986: 58–59). In the case of Hannibal, the affective dimension of visual spectacle is even supported by the unmediated way in which representations of food seem to operate – an illusion of immediacy that results from food's 'primacy in our lives', which 'precedes literacy' (Bower 2004). However, a paradox emerges from this experiential primacy within the context of a TV show – these are not actual pieces of food, but just televisual representations thereof (which, to top it off, are inedible in the 'real' world). The way in which Hannibal showcases food thus contributes to the excess of reality in the hyperreality characteristic of the contemporary media environment. This environment, notes Baudrillard, is 'an artificial world that expels [human beings] from it' ([2006] 2008: 25). In this artificial world, Hannibal can simply disappear behind the gustatory promises of his gastronomic creations and practically ceases to exist. Hence, Hannibal, who constantly eludes categorization, leads a simulated existence, which only becomes tangible in brief moments. In other words, there is no 'real' Dr Hannibal Lecter, but only a series of carefully crafted and temporary performances. Hannibal's character thus takes Noël Carroll's argument that 'monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening', for they 'are in a certain sense challenges to the foundations of a culture's way of thinking' (1990: 34) to the extreme, for Lecter disappears in a world of simulacra, where his subjectivity forever remains liminal.

In this way, Hannibal's visually excessive presentation of food preparation and consumption serves 'to communicate important aspects of characters' emotions, along with their personal and cultural identities' (Bower 2004), not to mention shed light on some narrative mysteries. However, the food shots employed in the show also function as, as Umberto Eco noted in an essay on cult texts, 'a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visionary icebergs' (1985: 4). No matter whether it is the foie gras au torchon with a late harvest Vidal sauce and figs presented to the Crawfords in 'Coquilles', the 'sacrificial lamb' accompanied by lobster, various vegetables, and fougasse shared with Will in 'Mizumono', or the table filled with savoury dishes prepared for a dinner party in 'Sorbet', the representation of food is just as much about creating an affective response and whetting viewers' appetites (and creating the illusion of desire) as the visuals are made to last in the contemporary mediascape.

A phenomenon that has only recently truly blossomed in this media environment is what has come to be known as 'food porn'. Food porn, Signe Rousseau explains, denotes '[e]vocative descriptions [and depictions] of food and eating in literature' and (audio-)visual media (2012: 748). In light of food porn's omnipresence, it is not surprising that a blog like Bon Appétit is devoted to displaying food screenshots and animated gifs from the show and YouTube videos such as Cooking with Hannibal unhinge individual frames or frame sequences and re-contextualize and re-assemble them. Yet whereas Rousseau argues that food porn fails to 'incite[] to action because there is simply too much of it available for us to "click, drool, repeat"' (2012: 750), fan interest in Janice Poon's work as Hannibal's food stylist and in recipes based on the NBC show indicates that the repeated spotlighting and excessive visualization may spur viewers to transform textual traces into lived experience.7 In this way, images of Hannibal's dishes cross the borderline between fiction and reality (for example, when they are featured in articles such as Vulture's 'Every Food Porn Shot from NBC's Hannibal'), but so do the meals per se. By recreating meals seen on the show in the real world, fans establish identities. The dishes, in this context, occupy not only a liminal space ('[b]etween the "textual" and the "extratextual"' [2002: 131], as Matt Hills describes fan practices at large), but also underline a liminal moment, as they mark the instant when the individual 'undergoes a creative stripping away of identity, as he is divested of the attributes of his former state in preparation for accession to another' (Aguirre, Quance, and Sutton 2000: 7). While I do not mean to suggest that 'cooking with Hannibal' were a practice needed in order to demonstrate allegiance to the global community known as 'Fannibals', activities such as these still present powerful 'communal effort[s] to form [an] interpretive communit[y]' (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007: 2). Indeed, considering that numerous scholars have acknowledged that 'in the postindustrial, high-tech age, subjects are constructed through all-invasive commodity relations' (Kaplan 1991: 26), Hannibal's ability to inspire viewers to get up from the proverbial couch and prepare food in their kitchens rather than simply consume the show and purchase convenience foods presents no small feat.8

'Eat the rude': Hannibal and the Semantic Power of Food

Food, as Anne Bower has stressed, is 'a powerful semiotic system that effectively communicates ideas about cultural formation and identity' (2004). While the essay at hand merely provided a fastidious exploration of food's meanings in Hannibal (ignoring such aspects as the dialogic relationship between food and murder in the show9), it should still have offered insights into the symbolic workings of food. In the case of Hannibal, food seems an especially appropriate tool for conveying the show’s core ideas, for food is a liminal object that human beings literally incorporate. Hannibal's anthropophagy problematizes '[t]he development of standards of "civilized" behaviour around eating and table manners represents a desire to avoid the animalistic nature of humanity, to emphasize and assert the importance of culture over nature’ (Lupton 1996: 22), while Lecter's cultured and exquisite taste stands in stark contrast to the animalistic drives that apparently guide his actions, thus blurring the boundaries between the two concepts. Similarly, whereas the 'barbaric cannibal' is traditionally employed in order to 'clearly distinguish[] the boundaries between good and evil, between me and you' (Berglund 2006: 8), the fascination and attraction radiated by Hannibal (and, arguably, actor Mads Mikkelsen), which is frequently linked to the delicious meals he prepares, also complicates the binary of good vs. evil – not the least because Lecter repeatedly murders serial killers with a less refined taste than his.

Yet whereas Hannibal critically engages with all of these (and more) binary constructions, there remains one dimension of Otherness that the televisual incarnation of Hannibal truly embraces: Lecter's foreign origin. Neither Anthony Hopkins's nor Brian Cox's performance as Dr Hannibal Lecter thrives on the character's difference the way Mikkelsen's, with his thick accent, does.10 Obviously, Hannibal is not an American, but living and freely moving in the sovereign territory of the United States. By featuring a foreign 'cannibal presence' in the United States, the NBC show 'estranges familiar, homey national narratives' of a united nation 'by highlighting divisive historical and contemporary practices that preclude the many from becoming the one' (Berglund 2006: 24), for 'cannibalism threatens' both an individual's and a community's 'sense of integrity' (Berglund 2006: 8). But at the same time, fans across the world have embraced the show, a fact that speaks volumes of American popular culture's power in the global sphere, where it has long cemented its role as 'an international iconographic language' (Kroes 2001). Rather than thwarting unity, Hannibal (and, arguably, Dr Hannibal Lecter's liminal presence) thus emerges as a unifying anchor for fans' identities. Since numerous of these fans have been proven eager to transfer elements from the show into the real world, one question, however, remains: Are we all cannibals?


01 In the fifth episode, a black-and-white flashback sequence clarifies that Crawford's past trainee Miriam Lass was, in fact, one of Hannibal's victims. Although season one strongly implies that she died two years prior to the diegetic now, in season two, Hannibal's Chesapeake Ripper persona leads Crawford to a lone cabin in Virginia, where Miriam has been held captive for two years. | return to main text |
02 Lecter's animal-likeness is emphasized by his uncanny ability to smell cancer. A recent German study has shown that dogs can smell some organic material that is indicative of lung cancer in the breath of human beings (Ehmann et al. 2011). | return to main text |
03 Two episodes later, Beverly notices that Gray's kidney is also missing. | return to main text |
04 However, the bird was prepared according to European customs, turning the food served at the feast into a symbol of the transcultural encounter between Pilgrims and Natives. | return to main text |
05 The episode was scheduled for broadcast on 25 April 2013. Spurred by the Boston Marathon bombings (and related shootings) on 15 April, showrunner Bryan Fuller asked NBC to pull the episode and instead show episode no. 5, 'Coquilles'. Fuller has, however, repeatedly stressed that the Boston Marathon was only the final factor in a long line of reasons influencing the decision, for he has primarily linked the decision to the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. NBC published a special cut of 'Œuf', which focused on the storylines directly relevant to the main characters, as a six-part webisode. The full episode was released through iTunes on 30 April and is also included on the DVD and Blu-Ray box sets of season one. | return to main text |
06 In episodes two and three, both Will and Hannibal express paternal feelings for Abigail. While these episodes imply that the two men and the girl might form an even more non-traditional family, Will is entirely absent from the family picture drawn in episode four. | return to main text |
07 In an interview in August 2014, Fuller announced that a Hannibal cookbook was in production (Bibbiani). As of early May 2015, the book has not been officially announced. | return to main text |
08 I don't mean to attest a progressive or revolutionary impetus here, however. At the end of the day, cooking dishes based on Hannibal's meals is merely a re-creation of 'reality' based on signs. | return to main text |
09 Note that already Bakhtin observed that 'death and food can be perfectly compatible'([1965] 1984: 283). | return to main text |
10 Gaspard Ulliel's performance in Hannibal Rising is not mentioned, for the young Hannibal has not moved to the United States yet. In addition, it should be stressed that in the books, descriptions of Hannibal put much more emphasis on his Otherness. When first meeting Lecter, Clarice Starling, for example, notes that his 'middle finger [is] perfectly replicated' ([1989] 2002: 25). | return to main text |


Aguirre, M., Quance, R., and Sutton, P. (2000), Margins and Thresholds: An Enquiry into the Concept of Liminality in Text Studies, Madrid: Gateway Press.
Arens, W. (1979), The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, New York: Oxford University Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. ([1965] 1984), Rabelais and His World (trans. H. Iswolsky), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Baron, C., Carson, C., and Bernard, M. (2014), Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Baudrillard, J. ([1972] 1981), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (trans. C. Levin), St. Louis, MO: Telos.
——— ([2006] 2008), 'On Disappearance' (trans. C. Turner), in D. B. Clarke, M. A. Doel, W. Merrin, R. G. Smith (eds), Fatal Theories, New York: Routledge, pp. 24–29.
Belasco, W. J. (1989), Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 1966–1988, New York: Pantheon Books.
Berglund, J. (2006), Cannibal Fictions: American Explorations of Colonialism, Race, Gender, and Sexuality, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Bibbiani, W. (2014), 'Exclusive: There Will Be a "Hannibal" Cookbook',, accessed 17 April 2015.
Bower, A. L. (2004), 'Watching Food: The Production of Food, Film, and Values', in A. L. Bower (ed.), Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film, New York: Routledge [Kindle Edition].
Burke, K. ([1963] 1966), 'Definition of Man', in Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 3–24.
Butsch, R. (2011), 'Ralph, Fred, Archie, Homer, and the King of Queens: Why Television Keeps Re-Creating the Male Working-Class Buffoon', in G. Dines & J. M. Humez (eds), Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 101–109.
Carroll, N. (1990), The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart, New York: Routledge.
Cohen, J. J. (1996), 'Monster Culture (Seven Theses)', in J. J. Cohen (ed.), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 3–25.
Creed, B. (2004), 'Freud's Worst Nightmare: Dining with Dr. Hannibal Lecter', in S. J. Schneider (ed.), Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, pp. 188–202.
Debord, G. ([1967] 2014), The Society of the Spectacle (trans. K. Knabb), Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets [Kindle Edition].
Ehmann, R., et al. (2011), 'Canine Scent Detection in the Diagnosis of Lung Cancer: Revisiting a Puzzling Phenomenon', European Respiratory Journal, 39: 3, pp. 669–676.
Ferry, J. F. (2003), Food in Film: A Culinary Performance of Communication, New York: Routledge.
Freud, S. ([1913] 2001), 'Totem and Taboo' (trans. J. Strachey, A. Freud, A. Strachey, and A. Tyson), in J. Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. VII: A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality, and Other Works, London: Vintage, pp. 125–243.
——— ([1921] 2001), 'Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego' (trans. J. Strachey, A. Freud, A. Strachey, and A. Tyson), in J. Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology, and Other Works, London: Vintage, pp. 65–143.
Garber, M. (1992), Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, New York: Routledge.
Gray, J., Sandvoss, C., and Harrington, C. L. (2007), 'Introduction: Why Study Fans?', in J. Gray, C. Sandvoss, and C. L. Harrington (eds), Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, New York: New York University Press, pp. 1–16.
Gunning, T. (1986), 'The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde', in T. Elsaesser & A. Barker (eds), Early Cinema: Space – Frame – Narrative, London: British Film Institute, pp. 56–62.
Halberstam, J. (1995), Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Harris, T. ([1989] 2001), The Silence of the Lambs, London: Arrow Books.
——— ([1999] 2000), Hannibal, New York: Bantam Dell.
Halttunen, K. (1998), Murder Most Foul: The Killer in the American Gothic Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hetherington, K. (1997), The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering, London: Routledge.
Hills, M. (2002), Fan Cultures, London: Routledge.
Hobsbawm, E. (1983), 'Introduction: Invented Traditions', in E. Hobsbawm & T. Ranger (eds), Inventing Traditions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–14.
Hunter, T., dir. (2014), 'Futamono', Hannibal, Season 2, Episode 6 [Blu-Ray].
Jones, M. O., Giuliano, B., and Krell, R. (1983a), 'Prologue', in M. O. Jones, B. Giuliano, and R. Krell (eds), Foodways and Eating Habits: Directions for Research, Los Angeles: California Folklore Society, pp. vii–xii.
——— (1983b), 'Resources and Methods', in M. O. Jones, B. Guiliano, and R. Krell (eds), Foodways and Eating Habits: Directions for Research, Los Angeles: California Folklore Society, pp. 91–93.
Kaplan, E. A. (1991), 'Popular Culture, Politics, and the Canon: Cultural Literacy in the Postmodern Age', in B. Braendlin (ed.), Cultural Power/Cultural Literacy: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film, Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, pp. 12–31.
Kilgour, M. (1998), 'The Function of Cannibalism at the Present Time', in F. Barker, P. Hulme, and M. Iversen (eds), Cannibalism and the Colonial World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 238–259.
Kroes, R. (2001), 'American Studies in Europe; Or: Brother, Can You Paradigm?', Transatlantica, 1:1, n. pag.
Long, L. (2000), 'Holiday Meals: Rituals of Family Tradition', in H. L. Meiselman (ed.), Dimensions of the Meal: Science, Culture, Business, and the Art of Eating, Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, pp. 143–159.
Lukács, G. ([1923] 1972), History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (trans. R. Livingstone), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lupton, D. (1996), Food, the Body and the Self, London: Sage.
Medak, P., dir. (2013), 'Œuf', Hannibal, Season 1, Episode 4 [Blu-Ray].
Marx, K. ([1867] 1990), Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (trans. B. Fowkes), New York: Penguin.
Moore, T. (2007), 'National Identity and Victorian Christmas Foods', in T. S. Wagner & N. Hassan (eds), Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century: Narratives of Consumption, 1700–1900, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, pp. 141–154.
Poole, G. (1999), Reel Meals, Set Meals: Food in Film and Theatre, Sydney: Currency Press.
Robertson, J. O. (1980), American Myth, American Reality, New York: Hill & Wang.
Rousseau, S. (2012), 'Food "Porn" in the Media', in P. B. Thompson and D. M. Kaplan (eds), Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 748–754.
Rymer, M., dir. (2013), 'Sorbet', Hannibal, Season 1, Episode 7 [Blu-Ray].
Siskind, J. (1992), 'The Invention of Thanksgiving: A Ritual of American Nationality', Critique of Anthropology, 12: 2, pp. 167–191.
Slade, D., dir. (2013), 'Apéritif', Hannibal, Season 1, Episode 1 [Blu-Ray].
——— (2014), 'Mizumono', Hannibal, Season 2, Episode 13 [Blu-Ray].
Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ.
van Gennep, A. ([1909] 1961), The Rites of Passage (trans. M. B. Vizedom & G. L. Caffee), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Williams, T. (2014), Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, Updated Ed., Jackson: University Press of Mississippi [Kindle Edition].
Wood, R. (1986), Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, New York: Columbia University Press.

Copyright Notice

This is the accepted manuscript of an article published in the European Journal of American Culture in 2015, published by Intellect Books, available online here. This essay is archived on my personal website in accordance with Intellect's Green Open Access policies.

Leave your comments


  • No comments found