I'm always looking for the moment in which a character must stop to eat because, for me, the very mention of food humanizes a story.
When I first left home at the age of twenty and embarked on what turned out to be a largely nomadic existence, my grandmother gave me a small jar containing a packet of salt and a piece of bread. There was, she told me, an old Jewish folk tale about a traveller who is given such a gift by an angel so that he will never go hungry; and so that I too would never lack food, she wanted me to carry the jar wherever luck might take me. After countless homes in more countries than I care to remember, the jar sits now on a high shelf in what I hope will be my last kitchen. The jar serves as a reminder that literature is not the only food for the soul.
I have always been attracted to stories about food, or rather to stories in which the characters stop for a meal, spend time at the stove or gather around a table. I wanted to know whether there was such a thing as the pie in which Peter Rabbit’s father sadly ended his days, and what was that mysterious substance called “jelly” that appeared so often in Enid Blyton’s books and of which we, in Buenos Aires, knew nothing. When Captain Nemo serves Monsieur Aronnax and his companions a sumptuous breakfast twenty thousand leagues under the sea, I too wanted to taste “what you believe to be meat and is nothing but fillet of turtle” and “dolphins’ livers which you might take for ragout of pork,” followed by “conserve of holothuria, . . . cream furnished by the cetacea, . . . sugar from the great fucus of the North Sea, and lastly . . . anemone preserve, which equals that made from the most delicious fruits.”
One summer during my adolescence, lost in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I came upon the Vales of Anduin, which, as everyone knows, are guarded by the Beornings. These rather unfriendly people are vegetarians: their main dish is a wonderful kind of honey cake. I decided I had to try it. The house we had rented for the summer had an ancient German cookbook, freckled with splattered butter and mottled with chocolate fingerprints, and in its venerable pages I found the recipe for Lebkuchen. Perhaps these spicy hazelnut honey cookies were not what Tolkien had in mind: I didn’t care. I measured and mixed and cut and baked, and in the end I had a batch of Beorning honey-cakes that allowed me to munch my way across magical landscapes, as I lay on a lounge chair under a jacaranda tree in the garden.
There are those who will say that the charm of a book should be allowed to work unaided. W. H. Auden refused to read in the same setting as that of the story; he therefore avoided reading limericks in drawing rooms, for instance, or the works of the Wiltshire naturalist Richard Jeffries in the Wiltshire Downs. I, on the contrary, like to have the magic reinforced. I’ve sat in Kew Gardens in London reading Virginia Woolf’s essay on the place, and I’ve listened to Schönberg while reading Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann’s novel inspired by the composer’s life. Context and contents mix in my imagination, and the taste of food eaten by one of the characters in the book I’m reading brings me, so to speak, into that fictional world. When later I discovered, in the Aeneid, that those who descend into the Underworld must tame the three-headed guardian dog Cerberus with honey cakes, I remembered my Lebkuchen and felt I knew exactly what the spicy taste was that had silenced the barking monster.
We identify with the books we love; we become in some sense the character whose life we follow on the page. Perhaps it is difficult to undertake the same travels as Lemuel Gulliver or to share Madame Bovary’s ill-fated love or to be present at one of Jay Gatsby’s exquisite parties. But there is no reason not to taste Mrs. Cratchit’s Christmas pudding “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy” or to savour the cucumber sandwiches Algernon devours in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. A Bombay writer friend of mine gave me his mother’s recipe for vegetable curry and I was able to share the first meal that Kim procures for his Lama in Kipling’s memorable novel; another, in Madrid, showed me how to cook duelos y quebrantos, “sorrows and distress,” a runny mixture of eggs, chopped peppers and bacon that Don Quixote (we are told in the very first paragraph) ate on Saturdays. How many times have we come across a certain scene and suddenly thought, “That’s what happened to me,” or “I’ve felt like that myself,” and all at once the story acquires an autobiographical flavour, a cry from the page that says, “You are not alone.”
One day, to please a friend who was a Virginia Woolf enthusiast, I decided to prepare for her Mrs. Ramsay’s sumptuous boeuf en daube, from To the Lighthouse, hoping that “an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice” would rise “from the great brown dish.” “It is a French recipe of my grandmother’s,” Mrs. Ramsay explains. “Of course it was French. What passes for cookery in England is an abomination... It is putting cabbage in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables.” There are many recipes for boeuf en daube, a beef casserole that, like so many peasant dishes, varies according to the place in which it’s cooked, the ingredients at hand and the inventiveness of the cook. When I served it, my friend recognized immediately the literary reference and, after the first forkful, exclaimed, like Mrs. Ramsay’s guest, “It is a triumph.” Then, over the meal, she spoke of her love for Virginia Woolf and of the first time she read To the Lighthouse, as a young girl, and felt the intimate connection that every adolescent must feel with that moving chronicle of frustrated hopes and restorative memory. My friend spoke of visiting the places that Virginia Woolf had known, and trying to see and touch and smell the things that her favourite author had known and had described purposely for her, my friend felt. And though she had tasted boeuf en daube before, and thought of To the Lighthouse, it had not been put in front of her as a specific memorial to her literary love, and she said the words on the page came back to her, line by line, as she cut and scooped her way through the scented brownness. That boeuf en daube sealed our friendship.
All writers, at some point in their works, mention the food their protagonists eat, though many times in a cursory way, as they would mention closing a door or crossing a street. Other times, however, the food is described in loving detail, as if the whole nature of the characters depended on an extra pinch of spice or a sensual splash of vinegar. Sometimes they even provide the recipes. I don’t mean in a book such as John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, or Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, that self-consciously includes instructions on how to cook a certain dish, but rather that parallel literature of straightforward recipe books that accompany certain writers’ literary work. Colette, Dürrenmatt, Rex Stout, Günter Grass and Georges Simenon have all left us, together with their mouth-watering descriptions of meals in their novels, their best recipes.
One of my favourite novelist-cooks is Balzac, whose girth attested to his fondness for more than spiritual nourishment. Nineteenth-century diners delighted in long, elaborate meals whose menus read like a catalogue of works of art, from the dainty amuse-gueueles (appetizers) to the final gourmandises (after-dinner sweets), and Balzac’s novels often include magnificent banquets or intimate tête-à-têtes in which characters pass from one intricate dish to the next, their taste buds presumably developing apace with their life stories. But not all of Balzac’s cuisine is overwhelming. In The Peasants, for instance, he mentions “the fleeting but powerful virtues” of vegetables “when eaten, as it were, intact.” His recipe for a winter dish, aumonières de légumes oubliés, “alms-purses of forgotten vegetables,” is wonderfully simple: late winter root vegetables fill little “purses” of filo pastry, which, when opened, are sprinkled with an aromatic cream of various herbs. Recipes like this one allow me to extend a book’s life beyond the page: the aumonières de légumes oubliés is not mentioned in Balzac’s vast Human Comedy, but its appearance in his private recipe book allows me to imagine that what the author ate might have been shared by, say, Père Goriot, old and alone, betrayed by his awful daughters.
And so I eat my way through books. My children have known of this weakness of mine and taken unfair advantage of it. After we started reading The Wind in the Willows, they persuaded me (it didn’t take much) to have a picnic like the one Mr. Rat offers his new friend, Mr. Mole, and one sunny Toronto day we carefully packed “a fat, wicker luncheon basket” with “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkin
saladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesoda water” exactly according to the text. When we read the Sherlock Holmes stories, “the pâté de foie gras pie” in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” attracted their attention, and they made me promise to find a recipe. This proved rather complicated, until I discovered, in Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, that what Watson meant was in fact a Strasbourg pie, an expensive but exquisite dish that calls for goose livers and white truffles. I never got around to baking it, but years later, travelling in Alsace, we ordered it in a small restaurant in Colmar, and we were taken back to Baker Street and to the Master’s adventures in foggy London. The children’s most challenging request, however, was for a meal described in one of the Tarzan books (I can’t remember which): it consisted, among other things, of a stewed elephant foot. Obviously, even if it had proven possible, we weren’t going to prepare such a monstrous thing, but I did find a recipe for the dish in that strangest of all cookbooks, Alexandre Dumas’ Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, which begins: “Take one or several young elephants’ feet . . .”
Food enhances the reality of fiction. I’m always looking for the moment in which a character must stop to eat because, for me, the very mention of food humanizes a story. I am moved by the “chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable” that Huck and Jim eat when escaping on the raft; by the nuts, roots and berries that Frankenstein’s monster places on the fire for his breakfast, only to find “that the berries were spoiled by this operation, and the nuts and roots much improved”; by the “bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh . . . and a little remainder of European corn” that Robinson Crusoe rescues from his shipwreck; by the chowder “made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt” that the innkeeper serves to Ishmael and Queequeg before they set off on the white whale quest. I am utterly convinced by the sorrow of Ulysses and his companions, who, even as they mourn their friends whom the Cyclops has slaughtered, take a moment to eat and drink, filling themselves with “mutton flesh in incredible abundance and with sweet wine.”
Under all manner of guises, from the elaborate feast of an Arthurian romance to the simplest dinner eaten in a Mavis Gallant story, all food (literature tells us) is in essence proof of our common humanity: bread to remind us of the earth from which we’ve all come and salt to remind us of the earth to which we all must return.