Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hunger-Inducing Literature

I'm sitting in my family kitchen, typing away to stave off the hunger pains. Granted, there's plenty to nosh on, but the mere aromas of roasting turkey with fruit and wine, a simmering pot of fresh cranberries and pears, and a warm apple pie cooling on the windowsill, its juices oozing through the crust, I'm going a bit nuts. It's not unlike the experiences of reading a book with great descriptions of luscious food--I blame the extra 20 pounds I carried through childhood on all the books I was reading. So to get your appetite ready for this evening's meal, here are the major categories of food in literature. Yum.

Classically delicious dinners: Nothing like a great classic novel to give you a traditional appreciation of elegant food. In Charles Dickens' world, almost every important event occurred with a mug of ale and a slice of roast beef on the side. (Even the gruel in Oliver Twist sounds a bit enticing.) In Jane Austen's world, tea was central to key moments of courtship in the text, and there's a whole school of literature that is best when paired with tea. English literature is chock-full of culinary delights--proof that the best books and the worst food can come from the same kitchen. (The kidney breakfast at the beginning of Ulysses always freaked me out; however, I still find the muffins and cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest especially delicious.) Stories of early Americana also provides great descriptions of food: many chefs cite Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series for their first cooking inspiration (even if they weren't up to making oxtail stew.) But for me, nothing beats the descriptions of Southern food, be they from Mark Twain (ah, Huck's scavenged dining) or Fannie Flagg (fried green tomatoes and abusive husband BBQ, yum.)

In which the food is imaginary, but nevertheless enticing: I was a big fan of fantasy lit as a child, and the idea of "second breakfast" and "elevenses" from Lord of the Rings were especially appealing to me. The concept was simple: after breakfast, you were entitled to a second breakfast, and then at eleven o'clock, another morning meal to keep you tied over until lunch. But what really intrigued me was those foods that were not recognizable, or even real: foods from Brian Jacques' Redwall series, from the oddest entries (otter "rockcream" and seaweed grog) to strawberry and damson cordial and garlic and herb cheese bread. Jacques went into such ornate descriptions of the mice, rabbits, and badgers dining on these woodland delicacies, it was impossible not to get hungry. Other entries in this category include: Alice in Wonderland (ah, beautiful soup!) The Golden Compass, The Wind in the Willows, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series, and the Harry Potter books (butterbeer, anyone?) And of course who could forget Roald Dahl's The BFG, who reluctantly dined on snozzcumbers and rewarded himself with frobscottle?

In which food is the star of the show: Sometimes, food just needs to play the starring role. Novels like Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate make cooking the dramatic action of the plot, a means by which good people found happiness and bad people found their just deserts, pun intended. This tradition, of treating cooking like magic, a kind of culinary alchemy, carries over into popular novels today, including Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Muriel Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody. Food has become much more than just a way to add color to a novel, it has become its own subject worthy of literary digestion.

Hungry yet? I'm starving, and the turkey's nearly done. So I'm off to do something more fun than blogging--eating. Bon appetit!

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