A Feast of Words
Literary food scenes that keep us riveted
Food and literature: two great subjects that go great together. It’s a hot topic on Chowhound, with responses all over the literary map. Our list leaves off low-hanging fruit, such as Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate, and Babette’s Feast, and no doubt there are other favorites we’ve skipped—but perhaps this list will spur some more ideas.
1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare, 1600-1602. There is no shortage of food descriptions in the works of Shakespeare, including pivotal feast scenes in Macbeth, Henry V, and Romeo and Juliet. But in Hamlet, the opening banquet scene that celebrates the marriage of Hamlet’s uncle to his mother just weeks after his father dies is particularly lavish. When talking to his best friend Horatio, Hamlet sarcastically states the reason for such a spread: “Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral bak’d meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”
2. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1836. There’s so much feasting in Dickens’s first novel that an actual medical condition, Pickwickian syndrome, was named after one of the characters called “the fat boy” who falls asleep after consuming massive amounts of food. Delicacies included pigeon pie, broiled ham, oysters, cheese, teas and coffees, and all manner of sundries.
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, 1851. Melville turns his legendarily detailed powers of description (how many ways can you say sailing mast?) to clam chowder: “It was 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.”
4. My Àntonia by Willa Cather, 1918. In the category of “girl pioneer story” à la Little House on the Prairie, My Àntonia includes many outdoorsy food discoveries (a trademark of the genre). I’m sure I would have loved reading in middle school about this first taste of fungus: “That night, while grandmother was getting supper, we opened the package that Mrs. Shimerda had given her. It was full of little brown chips that looked like the shavings of some root. They were as light as feathers, and the most noticeable thing about them was their penetrating, earthy odour. … I bit off a corner of one of the chips I held in my hand, and chewed it tentatively. I never forgot the strange taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously, were dried mushrooms.”
5. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, 1929. Apparently I’m not the first person to notice Papa’s elaborate food descriptions. Here’s a great roundup of food scenes from his fiction and nonfiction. If you read the dinner scene in A Farewell to Arms and are intrigued by the mention of the woodcock dish, dig up the Esquire article Hemingway later wrote on how to eat woodcock. There’s also a Hemingway Cookbook with lots of recipes from the writer’s novels and life.
6. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, 1933. Orwell’s unnamed narrator is an impoverished writer who scrapes by as a restaurant dishwasher. When he and his roommate, Boris, finally get 60 centimes after going hungry for two days, they spend it on a half pound of bread, plus a piece of garlic to rub on it. “The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently,” writes Orwell.
7. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, 1940. Sometimes a simple food description can be as noteworthy as an ornate one. Though Chandler’s best-known protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is fussy about the way he brews his coffee (coarse ground, no filters), he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what he eats. For the most part, he has the same meal every day: black coffee, soft-cooked eggs, and Scotch and soda.
8. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1999. Many reviewers noted Jhumpa Lahiri’s food descriptions and their importance in her writing. One of her stories from this collection, “A Temporary Matter,” even includes a helpful tip: “Shukumar gathered onion skins in his hands and let them drop into the garbage pail, on top of the ribbons of fat he’d trimmed from the lamb. He ran the water in the sink, soaking the knife and the cutting board, and rubbed a lemon half along his fingertips to get rid of the garlic smell, a trick he’d learned from Shoba.”
9. Saturday by Ian McEwan, 2005. Bouillabaisse figured prominently in each of McEwan’s last two novels, Saturday and On Chesil Beach. In Saturday, a pivotal scene is composed around the main character’s preparation of the evening meal of bouillabaisse. Adam Gopnik later tried to re-create that dish in a New Yorker piece on fiction and cooking. On Chesil Beach makes sly reference to the same stew, which represented sophistication to the novel’s naive narrator.
10. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, 2006. It’s not a novel, but it deserves to be part of this list—after all, an entire third of this best-selling memoir is given over to a recounting of Gilbert’s trip to Italy and the sumptuous enjoyment of food. In this passage, she has just watched her friend’s soccer team lose its match: “Luca and his friends didn’t go out to a bar to cheer themselves up. They went to a bakery. A small, innocuous bakery hidden in a basement in a nondescript district in Rome. The place was crowded that Sunday night. But it is always crowded after the games. The Lazio fans always stop here on their way home from the stadium to stand in the street for hours, leaning up against their motorcycles, talking about the game, looking macho as anything, and eating cream puffs. I love Italy.”