Book lover, faithful reader, and occasional contributor Meagan discusses culinary novels. Thanks, Meagan!
I have a complicated relationship with culinary novels; kind of a love-hate thing going on. Back in high school I stumbled on Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel in my mother’s library and was completely seduced. Every chapter started with a recipe that somehow led into the story of Tita, whose life was defined by cooking and her forbidden love with Pedro, her sister’s husband. Throughout the story Tita’s emotions leak into her cooking, mouth watering dishes of Christmas rolls, Chabela Wedding cake, Quail in rose petal sauce… And yes, that is a real recipe no matter what Julie Powell says. I swear I’ve never had a book make me so hungry.
Usually it’s the other way around; what I’m eating will actually put me in the mood to read a particular book. Not necessarily the whole thing, just a few chapters. To this day I can’t eat a burger without wanting to flip through The Princess Diaries. Don’t ask me why. I’m as mystified as anyone else. But that’s a different story.
It was a terribly romantic introduction to cooking. Being a ‘modern woman’ and all, plus having a mother around to serve all my meals, the only cooking I’d ever attempted was toasting frozen waffles. Reading about it, everything sounded so simple, so natural. So when I attempted it myself, I was a bit disappointed.
Being utterly incapable in the kitchen is especially embarrassing as a woman. I at least, grew up on the myth that we were all naturals, as if something in that extra ‘x’ chromosome held all the secrets of timing and seasonings. One time on impulse I decided to make brownies. I wasn’t fool enough to try and make them from scratch. I had the Betty Crocker mix, so everything went along smoothly until the actual baking part. I don’t know how, but the batch came out burnt on the outside and gooey on the inside. I can’t truly say I’ve entirely recovered from the experience. It’s really a pity too because I love to eat.
No, I’m serious. I really love to eat. Every night I turn into a cavernous vacuum. Chips, ice-cream, donuts, cake, nothing escapes the wrath of my appetite. Then to make matters worse, I happen to be one of the most suggestible people you’ll ever meet. If someone casually mentions pancakes in a conversation, I start salivating and eventually try to convince everyone around me that we need to go to IHOP immediately. At this very moment, I’m now thinking about the pancake mix in my cupboard and the fact that I just got a new bottle of maple syrup and all the sweet, fluffy goodness that awaits me if I just get up and find the frying pan. That’s how bad it is. I can’t even think about food without getting hungry.
Taking such weakness into account, a wise person would stay away from food lit. Yet how can I possibly resist? Good plots and characters aside, there’s just something lovely about the language of cuisine.
Last summer I finally swallowed my utter loathing of Hemingway and read A Moveable Feast, persuaded after listening to Nicolas Cage quote it in ‘City of Angels’ one too many times.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
It nearly broke my heart when I realized such imagery was merely a garnish, used sparingly rather than a staple of the memoir. Obviously Hemingway knew the effect it could have, or it wouldn’t have shown up in the book at all. He knew that describing the taste would resonate with people and allow them to understand more so than anything else how he was able to slip back into happiness again. Who wants to hear about the sights and sounds of Paris for the six hundred millionth time?
I’d much rather hear about the tastes. That’s why in my book, Julie Powell trumps Hemingway every time. It’s really rather ironic that an unstable New York secretary found more to write about French cuisine than a professional writer who had actually lived in France. Of course, he was a starving writer at the time so perhaps he didn’t get to sample it enough to be an authority on the subject. It would be truly sinful if Hemingway had eaten the amazing sex-steak and neglected to inform the world about it. Did I mention Julie/Julia’s sex-steak?
One of the featured Julia Child recipes in Julie & Julia is steak with a beef marrow sauce. Sounds like a good enough meal but nothing awe inspiring. Yet, this inconspicuous dish inspired one of the greatest lines of imagery I have yet to come across.
“The taste of the marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly too-much way. In my increasingly depraved state, I could think of nothing at first but that it tasted like really good sex.”
Vegans, eat your heart out.
Granted, it’s not quite Shakespeare. It’s more titillating, more sensually evocative than that. Kind of like smut. Really well written smut.
It’s impossible not to love the genre. Which is precisely my problem. I can’t not love food lit. So I read it and end up consumed with envy. It’s extremely inconvenient to be incompetent in the kitchen when you’re drooling on the pages. One day I may just snap and buy and real cookbook. Until then I suppose I’ll just remain conflicted. And very hungry.