Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table (Norton) gathers together twenty- six “food-inspired recollections,” all of them originally published in the New York Times Magazine. The list of featured authors, which includes Ann Patchett, Kiran Desai, Pico Iyer and James Salter, is impressively far ranging, and it would be nitpicky of me to point out that the editor, Amanda Hesser, hedges a bit by describing them collectively as “America’s leading writers” (Pico Iyer was born in Britain and Kiran Desai in India).
Whatever the national origins of the writers, their essays prove that Proust’s madeleine is not the only taste-memory to inspire literature. We have Kiran Desai remembering her failed attempt to make a soufflé while growing up in New Delhi; Yiyun Li describing a time during his Beijing boyhood when, seduced by a TV commercial, he developed an insatiable craving for Fruit Treasure (as Tang was then known in China).
However, memory is notoriously undependable, as Ann Patchett discovers when she tries to recall a meal eaten at Taillevent, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris. Dinner was dominated by the argument she had there with the man she later married; years later, all details of the food and wine are gone, but vivid memories of the argument still remain: “a tattoo on our relationship.”