Alexandre Dumas, in his Grand Dictionary of Cuisine, defined dinner as “a major daily activity, which can be accomplished in worthy fashion only by intelligent people. It is not enough to eat. To dine, there must be diversified, calm conversation. It should sparkle with the rubies of the wine between the courses, be deliciously suave with the sweetness of dessert, and acquire true profundity with the coffee.”
Dumas may have set the bar rather high for ordinary mortals at their daily bread but, in literature, meals are often an occasion for transcendence. While researching my anthology, Stories from the Kitchen, I sampled scores of literary works in which food plays a starring role. Immersing myself in so many tantalising fictional feasts was hungry work. But in narrowing it down, I found that the most memorable meals are those in which much more than food is at stake. Taste, according to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, is “that one of our senses which gives us the greatest joy … because it can mingle with all other pleasures, and even console us for their absence.” When exceptional culinary and literary artistry combine, the results are satisfying in more ways than one.
Below is a tasting menu of 10 delectable literary meals, a balanced mix of savoury and of sweet, of the humorous, the poignant, and the profound.
Long practice has taught me that one pleasure leads to another.
The French epicure who declared: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”, was the author of one of the most famous food books ever written, The Physiology of Taste. Published in 1825, it includes a delicious account of what he calls “the lengthiest meal I ever ate in my life”. What begins as a breakfast demonstration of his technique for egg-and-cheese fondue turns into an impromptu day-long affair as he presses more and more food on his delighted guests. Brillat-Savarin’s wit and love of life are on full display here, and I challenge any reader to resist coveting his simple yet exquisitely described squares of buttered toast.
And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion – a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival.
The dish in this scene is Boeuf en Daube, a French stew that Mrs Ramsay’s cook has spent three days preparing. Mrs Ramsay is relieved that the dish is a triumph, its meat tender and its flavours fully melded, but working against its comforting properties are the discordant undercurrents of emotion and conflict that swirl around her table. Woolf mines every detail of the dinner for its deepest significance, but the reader remains grounded; at the centre of all those famously elaborate and luminous streams of consciousness, after all, is a hearty beef stew.
I saw her in the back-kitchen which opened on to the courtyard, in process of killing a chicken; by its desperate and quite natural resistance . . . it made the saintly kindness and unction of our servant rather less prominent than it would do, next day at dinner, when it made its appearance in a skin gold-embroidered like a chasuble, and its precious juice was poured out drop by drop as from a pyx.
When one thinks of Proust and food, the first thing that comes to mind is the famously evocative madeleine (revealed this month as recooked: in early drafts it was both honeyed toast and a biscotto) dipped in tea. However, an equally significant moment occurs in the kitchen of Proust’s childhood home. The young narrator loves to observe the family cook, Françoise, preparing dinner – he admires the ethereal beauty of the asparagus and the platoons of peas drawn up in orderly ranks – but when he comes down too early one evening he is shocked to discover the cruelty and violence that lie behind the pleasures of the table. Innocence is lost, and it tastes like chicken.
4. The manager of The Kremlin by Evelyn Waugh
Half a minute later he stood on the kerb with exactly three francs in the world. But it had been a magnificent lunch, and he did not regret it.
When a young Russian cadet, a fugitive from the Russian revolution, turns up in Paris with his last 200 francs in his pocket, he grimly assesses his situation. He appears to be facing starvation, and he can either scrape by for another two or three weeks before running out of money – or he can spend it all at once on one last extravagant meal. His choice has unexpected consequences in this short story; perhaps nowhere else in literature has a luncheon of caviar and crepes suzettes so changed the course of a life.
They promised one another that for their little sisters’ sake they would, on the great day, be silent upon all matters of food and drink. Nothing that might be set before them, be it even frogs or snails, should wring a word from their lips.
In Dinesen’s marvellous story, a pious sect of 19th-century Norwegians who have renounced the pleasures of the flesh are invited to a meal prepared by a foreign woman who is (unknown to them) the former chef of a famous Parisian restaurant. Babette, once hailed as “the greatest culinary genius of the age,” has spent a dozen years in impoverished exile among people who eat only the plainest of fare. Winning a lottery allows her a chance to exercise her artistry one last time – in a sumptuous performance before a comically uncomprehending audience.
6. A Kitchen Allegory by MFK Fisher
As she chopped herbs and sliced asparagus and poured boiling water and added the magic dash of brandy to the mixed soft meat, she kept thinking, but not in a frantic way at all, about never seeing two more people again … All she wanted to do was make them full of her love, her food, but they could not swallow it.
Pre-eminent food writer MFK Fisher, author of such influential books as Consider the Oyster and The Art of Eating, also wrote fiction. It is ironic that one of her most moving short stories involves a lavish and lovingly described meal of which not a single bite is eaten. A Kitchen Allegory is a heartbreaking tale of an ageing mother facing the fact that no one needs her any more.
7. The Flounder by Günter Grass
When you are feeling cold inside – try the walls of the cow’s second stomach. When you are sad, cast out by all nature, sad unto death, try tripe, which cheers us and gives meaning to life.
Nobel prize-winner Grass’s inventive novel ranges across centuries and features a vast array of characters, including a mystical talking fish and a great many cooks. In one scene, a 16th-century abbess finagles the right to cook a last meal for her father before his execution for heresy. She invites the officials responsible for his death sentence; they eagerly accept. The abbess prepares her father’s favourite dish – peppery stewed tripe – but takes care to spice it liberally with vengeance.
8. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
If I had it to do over again, I would have made a different kind of pie. The pie I threw at Mark made a terrific mess, but a blueberry pie would have been even better, since it would have permanently ruined his new blazer, the one he bought with Thelma. But Betty said bring a key lime pie, so I did.
This bitingly funny novel about the breakup of a marriage is narrated by Rachel, who writes cookbooks for a living. For my anthology, I selected a section in which Rachel muses about the relationship between potatoes and love. But for an account of a memorable meal, I would instead direct the reader to an indelible scene late in the novel, when Rachel finally gets up the nerve to confront her philandering husband – in the middle of a dinner party. Her revenge is satisfyingly accompanied by her recipe for key lime pie.
9. Best Quality by Amy Tan
I was not too fond of crab, ever since I saw my birthday crab boiled alive, but I knew I could not refuse. That’s the way Chinese mothers show they love their children, not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab.
In Amy Tan’s story, an American daughter remembers celebrating Chinese New Year with her infuriating immigrant mother and a roomful of relatives. Crabs are served, but so are generous helpings of humiliation, competition, and resentment. It takes a maimed crustacean and a kitchen confrontation to lay bare the nature of her mother’s love for her.
10. Sorry Fugu by TC Boyle
She was warm. He was warm. The oven glowed, the grill hissed, the scents of his creations rose about them, ambrosia and manna. ‘Um, good,’ she said.
A merciless food critic meets her match in TC Boyle’s comic tour de force. Chef Albert knows he faces certain ruin when he is visited by Willa Frank, who wittily skewers every restaurant she reviews. But Albert finds the way through her stomach to her heart when he manages to lure her into his kitchen. Boyle’s story highlights the inherent sensuousness of food and probes the relationship between art and criticism. But what will stay with you are the author’s verbal pyrotechnics – which rival Albert’s culinary ones – in bursts of seductive, mouthwatering prose.
Stories from the Kitchen, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, is published by Everyman’s Library, £10.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £8.79.
The contents of the strapline were amended on 29 October, 2015, to better reflect the content of the article.
Source: The Guardian