Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG Archives. This one came from April 2009, when the skies were blue, the chocolate was delicious, and we were all so very, very literate.
Thanks, you guys, for all your suggestions from yesterday’s nonfiction food books post. They were wonderful to see. I’d never heard of Laurie Colwin before, and hereby pledge to get on the MFK Fisher tip immediately.
Today, as a follow-up, I thought I’d recommend my favorite food fiction. Like yesterday’s selections, the books might not have much to do with inexpensive, healthy meals, but all include important scenes and plot points involving edibles.
Have you read any of these? What about other novels with stellar food scenes? The comment section is ready and waiting.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Since main character Sethe is a cook, much of Beloved revolves around her post-Civil War era kitchen, where she prepares a series of biscuits, jams, and simple meals. Aside from that, though, there’s a flashback scene, vital to explaining the rest of the book, in which her family throws the world’s greatest picnic. It begins with a bucket of berries, and ends in luxury, celebration, and bitter feelings that affect the characters for the rest of their lives.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
For some reason, when I think of great literary food scenes, they tend to involve novels in which food is scarce. With no farming jobs to be had in the depths of the Great Depression, GoW’s Joad family heads west, and practically starves along the way. The skimpiness of their meals – when there’s even food to be had - makes a pivotal breastfeeding incident all the more powerful.
Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by JK Rowling
Yes, the Harry Potter series is fundamentally about kid wizards learning their craft, coming of age, and overcoming evil. But a good part their characterization comes from Rowling’s early descriptions of their relationships with food: Harry’s amazed at the surplus, Hermione's bewitched by its quality, and Ron’s just hungry. Later, the surplus of butterbeer and field trip takeout (such as it is) hints at the kids’ maturation. Good stuff. (Plus, Bertie Bott’s Beans, anyone? I’ll take one in vomit flavor.)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
On the whole, this book rules. As something that will make you immediately want an Indian buffet shoveled straight into your mouth, it rules even harder. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but my drool is shorting out my keyboard.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Many suspect the story of Francie Nolan’s BK childhood is actually Smith’s own thinly disguised biography. Either way, her perseverance in the face of occasionally crushing deprivation will charm your face off (and make you appreciate coffee a lot more). Also, if there’s a greater fictional mom than Katie Nolan, I’d like to know.
Also of Note
Bunnicula by Deborah Howe, James Howe, and Alan Daniel
A vampire bunny? That only eats vegetables? In a story told by a dog? Yes please. Growing up, this was one of my favorite books. Has anyone read it lately? Does it hold up?
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Much like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this modern memoir focuses on the author’s poverty-stricken childhood, though in a series of locations instead of just NYC. As Walls becomes increasingly frustrated by her parents’ inability to provide the basics (shelter, food, etc.), I became increasingly grateful for how good I had it in comparison. Powerful.
Remembering Needleman by Woody Allen (short story)
If only because it has one of the greatest opening lines in literature: “It has been four weeks and it is still hard for me to believe Sandor Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation and at his son's request, brought the marshmallows, but few of us could think of anything but our pain.”
Somewhat of Note
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Can you dislike a book overall, but really dig the way it does one thing? Okay, good. Because I appreciated SLoB’s food scenes. The honey-making was particularly interesting, not least because I never considered the cleanup involved. Never, EVER spill that stuff.
Not of Note
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Do not read this while eating. I mean it.
(Images courtesy of A Guy's Moleskin Notebook, stupid fool yet again, and UMBC.)