Aspects of Food Writing

The study of food has become a hot topic in the past 25 years or so.  Most people think of food writing literally, and there have certainly been millions of words – and photographs – expended on restaurant reviews, cookbooks, diets and food-themed travel. The list of food writers goes on and on and on. Think Anthony Bourdain and AA Gill, Stephanie Alexander, or Michael Booth.  

Food writing has also become a big deal in academia, with the study of national cultures and history through food, the philosophy of food and the art of eating, with the commentaries of Michael Pollen, Michael Symons, Barbara Santich and Marion Halligan.

Food has always had a role in literature, too, and it has been particularly prominent in women’s writing, as we write about our lives, both literally and figuratively. Even Virginia Woolf, who one might think of as more cerebral than sensual, writes in a Room of One’s Own, “One cannot think well, love well sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

So, let’s begin at the beginning with children’s literature.

When Norman Lindsay wrote The Magic Pudding in 1918, it was apparently in response to a comment from his friend and literary critic Bertram Stevens, who argued that children prefer to read about fairies rather than food. Lindsay disagreed, and so we have Bunyip Bluegum and his friends. Although, let’s face it, a cut-and-come-again pudding called Albert is pretty magical, too! Food, in children’s books like this one, was particularly potent during the 1930s and 40s, what with the Depression and war rationing.

Roald Dahl instantly recognized the appeal of food for children. Chocolate, in particular, has connotations of desire and greed, envy and lust, and a hundred other moral failings. In fact, Dahl’s characters in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory depict all the seven deadly sins, while illustrating the addictive quality of everyone’s favourite candy. Yet, by the end of the tale, its popularity remains intact, and the good boy is left holding not just the chocolate bar but the entire chocolate factory.

Dahl also loves to describe truly repulsive food, such as the ‘foulsome’ snozzcumber – all the Big Friendly Giant can find to eat in Giant Country. This ‘icky-poo vegetable’ has knobbles on the outside and large seeds on the inside and tastes like ‘frog skins and bad fish’ or ‘clockroaches and slimewranglers.’

JK Rowling taps into the love deprived ad hungry child in the Harry Potter series. Harry’s first experience of magical food on demand is described here, when Harry boards the train for Hogwarts, and buys a bit of everything from the ‘smiling, dimpled’ lady with the trolley, that contains everything from Bertie Botts Every Flavoured Beans, to Cauldron Cakes and Liquorice Wands.

In Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree there is again the potent combination of magic and food in the Land of Birthdays and the Land of Goodies at the top of the tree. Then there’s The Enchanted Castle, where E. Nesbit’s Sleeping Princess has a magic tray that turns bread and cheese into anything you would like.

Two of my childhood favourites – Little Women and Seven Little Australians – open with a chapter on the significance of food when you don’t have it. The March girls, after decrying the horror of Christmas without presents, then give their Christmas dinner away to a desperately poor family in the neighbourhood. While at Misrule, roast chicken in the formal dining room tempts the Woolcot children out of the nursery to beg for a share and incur the wrath of their father. And who could forget this passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, when the neglected orphan first arrives at Lowood?

The Rectory was a great, low ceilinged, gloomy room; on two long tables smoked basins of something hot, which, however, to may dismay, sent forth an odour far from inviting…[from] the tall girls of the first class rose the whispered words – ‘Disgusting! The porridge is burnt again!’

Generally, adult fictioncuts to the chase and skips the magic. Yet even here, the magic of food is used to create metaphors of love and lust, decadence, and poverty. Think of Joanne Harris in Chocolat:

There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s gold… the mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper, and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive… the court of Montezuma… the Food of the Gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.

Then there is Laura Esquivel in Like Water for Chocolate:

Something strange had happened… it was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meals aromas. That was the way she entered Pedro’s body, hot, voluptuous, perfumed, totally sensuous.

It would appear even from the titles that chocolate is fantasy food for adults and children alike.

In the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, dining rituals place their characters in a specific level of society. Edith Wharton, in The House of Mirth, describes the serving of afternoon tea that makes it quite clear Lily is a lady, not a farmer’s wife. In her journal, Katherine Mansfield writes of her studio lunch as she feeds her cat ‘a silver spoon of cream,’ while Jane Austen writes to her sister about the new cook, whose ‘good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.’ No one is going hungry here, but Pearl S. Buck draws a picture of the stark contrast between a Chinese market, where ‘there were such baskets of grain that a man might step into them and sink and smother and none know it who did not see it’  while starving families must beg for a bowl of ‘thin rice gruel.’  In A Christmas Carol, Dickens describes the unselfish and gracious delight of the Cratchit family at Mrs. Crachit’s meagre Christmas offering:

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

Thus, women sit at the tea table – or the kitchen table – their offerings symbolizing the epicentre of family and the creation of culture. This is beautifully described by another Lily, the English writer and Italophile, Lily Prior. Set in Sicily, this passage from Prior’s novel La Cucina describes the life-affirming nature of the kitchen:

La cucina is the heart of the fattoria, and has formed the backdrop to the lives of our family, the Fiores, as far back as, and further than, anyone can remember. This kitchen has witnessed our joys, griefs, births, death, nuptials, and fornications for hundreds of years…

La cucina is the sense of its past, and every event in its history is recorded with an olfactory memorandum. Here vanilla, coffee, nutmeg, and confidences; There the milky-sweet smell of babies, old leather, sheep’s cheese, and violets. In the corner by the larder hangs the stale tobacco smell of old age and death, while the salty scent of lust and satiation clings to the air by the cellar steps along with the aroma of soap, garlic, beeswax, lavender, jealousy, and disappointment.

Food is also a system of communication – a way to describe far more than when and what we eat. As Marion Halligan says, ‘food is a language we all speak.’ And ‘the great occasions of our existence are often marked by meals…it is where the rea dramas of the human condition enact themselves.’

Food Memoir probably began with a shell-shaped French biscuit: the madeleine, and Proust’s self-conscious attempt to link taste and involuntary memory in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which was published in 1922. Others rapidly followed suite. American food journalist, MFK Fisher, blends culinary history and parable in The Gastronomical Me. Julia Child and Elizabeth David are both renowned for a plethora of cookbooks, and both also wrote food memoirs – Julia’s prosaic My Life in France and Elizabeth’s more lyrical I’ll be with you in the Squeezing of a Lemon. But my choicest example of food memoir comes from British Indian food writer and TV personality Madhur Jaffrey who, in a memory of growing up in India, describes her school lunches shared with friends of every faith and every region of India, so that lunchtime

always filled us with a sense of adventure and discovery… [though] we never asked what we were eating. The food was far too good for that. I, a Delhi Hindu, tried to dazzle my friends with quail and partridge that my father shot regularly and that our cook prepared with onions, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, and yoghurt.

One of my favourite foodie memoirs has always been Elisabeth Luard’s tasty tale of adventurous anecdotes and family recipes:– Family Life: Birth, Death and the Whole Damn Thing. Disenchanted with life in London in the 60s, Luard leaves her peripatetic journalist husband and a tiny attic flat in Chelsea, throws her four small children in the back of a campervan and hits the open road for a primal life in a cork-oak forest in Andalucia. Here she learns to keep and kill a pig, and cook according to the seasons.

More recent writers have indulged in the romance of eating locally and seasonally, as before the invention of supermarkets. Barbara Kingsolver goes rustic for a year of eating home grown food in Animal Vegetable Mineral: A Year of Food Life. And Barbara Santich remembers her experiences in 1970s France in Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries, and avidly describes the joy of eating locally.

And finally, there is festival food, where I’m sure we can all think of a million literary references to the gluttonous joys, extravagances, and dissipation of the Christmas feast.

Yet as we all hit the shops with endless lists of rich Christmas recipes, it is Elizabeth David’s more constrained response to the overindulgences of the festive season that appealed to me.

If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham at a nice bottle of wine at lunch time, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening. This lovely selfish anti-gorging, un-Christmas dream of hospitality, either given or taken, must be shared by thousands of women who know it’s all Lombard Street to a China orange that they’ll spend Christmas morning peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming. That they will eat and drink too much, that someone will say the Turkey isn’t quite as good as last year or discover that the rum for the pudding has been forgotten, that by the time lunch has been washed up and put away it’ll be tea-time, not to say drink or dinner time, and tomorrow is the weekend and it’s going to start all over again.

As we can see from this brief synopsis of food writing, food can have a million different connotations and create a wide assortment of memories: from literary symbolism to literal recipes; from philosophical questioning about why we eat, to the cultural reflections on how and what we eat; from pure sensual entertainment to serious, cerebral analysis.

Now it’s over to you, and what you would like to add to this luscious, lascivious world of food writers…

*Most of these quotes come from The Joy of Eating, edited by Jill Foulston. Marion Halligan’s comments were copied from her book Taste of Memory. Thanks to Google Images for the pictures.

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