Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writing About Food

I recently shared this link on my Facebook page. It's an NPR article about Dinah Fried's book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals. Drawing on literary scenes that invovle food and meals, Fried cooked, staged, and photographed corresponding dishes. As is so often the case with online articles, the reader comments were just as interesting as the article itself. Maybe Fried's photos were sterile and overly arranged. Regardless, my main take away (in addition to the fact that she had a cool idea and saw it through to fruition) is that her work helped me remember how much I love food descriptions in literature.
Dinah Fried cooked, staged, and photographed literary food scenes.

I was inspired to re-read passages from the first works that sprung to mind as containing notable food writing. Luckily, I own copies of each of the below, and quickly took the excuse to comb my bookshelves and flip pages.

"Wilbur stood in the trough, drooling with hunger. Lurvy poured. The slops ran creamily down around the pig's eyes and ears. Wilbur grunted. He gulped and sucked, and sucked and gulped, making swishing and swooshing noises, anxious to get everything at once. It was a delicious meal - skim milk, wheat middlings, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a gingersnap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello."
- E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

"He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of the dressing curling out. The sound of Father's knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier.

   He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.
   He swallowed hard and tried not to look any more. He couldn't help seeing the fried apples'n'onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn't help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie's flaky crusts...
   The tender pork fell away in slices under Father's carving-knife. The white breast of the goose went piece by piece from the bare breast-bone. Spoons ate up the clear cranberry jelly, and gouged deep into the mashed potatoes, and ladled away the brown gravies."
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

"Arrayed on the Ladies' Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar. I hadn't had time to eat any breakfast at the hotel cafeteria that morning, except for a cup of overstewed coffee so bitter it made my nose curl, and I was starving...

   Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn't ooze off and ate them."
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

What does all this lovely food writing provide the reader (besides an appetite)?

It makes the characters feel human.
These characters experience hunger, as well as enjoyment and satiation from food. This rounds them out, elevates them from existing as author creations written into a page. In Charlotte's Web, the food description gives recognizable human attributes to an animal. Humanizing Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider are significant aspects of the story.

"Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was
tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in
every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of
milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin further
in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.

He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin,
dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and
all his mouth and nose were spicy."

- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy
Illustration by Garth Williams
It clues us into the world the characters come from/live in/encounter. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo and his family work chores and their land from dawn to dusk. The passage above describes their Christmas meal - the best dinner of the year. A rare chance for leisure, a bit of indulgence. A much-earned break from the hard labor of farming. It also speaks to a time when children were to be seen, not heard. Almanzo had to patiently wait for his turn at the end of the serving order.

The Bell Jar selection above also hints at an expectation for following societal rules. What fork to use, what interests young women were supposed to pursue. Sneaking in under the fancy glasses and silverware - the sounds of her peers acting "normal" - Esther eagerly dives into a bowl of caviar. Esther equates the action to spreading peanut butter (perhaps a nod to her working-class background), which stands in contrast to New York high society and the preppy world of her college.

In the NPR article, Dinah Fried talks about the special way imagination ignites when we read as children. As a child, I gleefully ingested the food passages in Charlotte's Web and Farmer Boy. When I think of those books, I always remember my enjoyment of the food descriptions.

Food descriptions often carry an air of unguardedness and innocence. There may be darkness and sadness in the literature, but the food descriptions can brim with pure enjoyment. A homage to the primal, simple things in life. Sometimes you have to make cheese toast, or brew tea with lemon and honey. Enjoy a small moment fully, take a break. 

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