A Literary Feast

Gourmet Girl - October 23, 2013

A look at some classic books that will make you hungry...

October is National Book Month, so what better time to take a look at some of the great food  featured on the printed page? From the erotic feasts of "Tom Jones" and the dining tables of Charles Dickens' 19th-century England to the dining halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series and the delights concocted by Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," food has long played a prominent role in books that have become classics.

Did you know, for example, that American author Henry Melville devotes an entire chapter to chowder in "Moby Dick?" Read on...

“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt…..we dispatched it with great expedition.”

And who can forget the young orphan asking for more in Dickens' "Oliver Twist," the Christmas feast that Ebeneezer Scrooge buys for the Crachit family, featuring a goose, applesauce, mashed potatoes and Christmas pudding in "A Christmas Carol" or the rotted wedding cake still displayed in Miss Havisham's decrepit house in "Great Expectations?"

In "Remembrance of Things Past," Marcel Proust made the madeleine famous when he wrote about how savoring a bite after dipping the biscuit in hot tea resurrected childhood memories, the same way that Ian Fleming forever elevated the reputation of the martini by writing about it in his James Bond series.

One of the reasons I loved reading the Nancy Drew mysteries was because of the motherly housekeeper Hannah Gruen, who was always baking cookies, brownies, pies and other comfort food for the teenage detective and her chums Bess and George. Food also featured prominently in Louise May Alcott's "Little Women," with the heroine Jo retreating to the attic to comfort her heartache by eating crisp apples and her sister Meg trying to cook a romantic dinner for her new husband but burning it all to a crisp instead.

And just look at the critical role food plays in fairy tales like "Snow White," where the plot turns on a poisoned apple and Hans Christian Anderson's “The Little Match Girl,” who has visions of a Christmas feast with a goose stuffed with applies and dried plums before she freezes to death on New Year's Eve. And Winnie the Pooh would be nothing without his honey jar, and the hobbits would never have prevailed without their elfen lembas bread in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And don't forget the story of  "The Gingerbread Man"  as well as  the famous English nursery rhyme, “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”

In Agatha Christie's mysteries, her British characters are forever pausing in the middle of small-town murder investigations for tea and cucumber sandwiches, while in C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," it's a box of Turkish Delight that enchants Edwin and leads to all his trouble with the Ice Queen: “The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmond and never tasted anything more delicious.”

Then there are the books centered on food, like Joanna Harris' "Chocolat," which features an enchanting chocolatier whose creations cause havoc in a small French village, and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate," in which the protagonist cooks and  bakes her emotions into her food, evoking fateful responses from those who eat her meals.

When I was a kid, a family friend gave me a very odd children's book, “The House on Fairmont ” by William Mayne, in which a group of neighborhood kids find a house made entirely of candy in a vacant lot.  It was fascinating to read about how the kids literally ate the house to the ground, and the illustrations graphically supported the story.  I must have read that book a hundred times, and I could almost taste the chocolate railing,  butterscotch steps and the plum cake door full of currants and nuts.

I grew up in Princeton, N.J., and one of the town's famous authors just happened to write two of my favorite essays about food. In the title essay of his collection, “Giving Good Weight,” John McPhee pays tribute to farmer’s markets and wholesale markets in the New York City area, explaining that a vendor who who “gives good weight” is honest and provides customers with s a full pound plus when weighing out the goods. In another essay in the collection, “Brigade de Cuisine,” McPhee profiles a perfectionist artisan chef in upstate New York whose customers often drive several hours to dine on his food:

“The fifth-best meal I have ever sat down to was at a sort of farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn, in the region of New York City. The fourth-best was at the same place—on a winter evening when the Eiswein afterward was good by the fire and the snow had not stopped falling for the day. The third-best meal I've ever had was centered upon some smoked whiting and pale mustard sauce followed by a saltimbocca, at the same place, on a night when the air of summer was oppressive with humidity but the interior of the old building was cool and musty under a slowly turning paddle fan. When things come up so well, culinary superlatives are hard to resist, and the best and second-best meals I have ever had anywhere (including the starry citadels of rural and metropolitan France) were also under that roof- emanations of flavor expressed in pork and coriander, hazel-nut breadings, smoked-roe mousses, and aioli.:

I'm certain that I've left some of the great literary food scenes out of this blog, but I'd love to hear from you about the your favorite books with inspired food scenes.  Leave a comment in the box below!