I love good food. I love good writing. Therefore, I adore good food writing.
Last week in my creative writing class, the professor passed around a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth (both of which are on my to-read list). The story was called “Indian Takeout” and it described the passage of Lahiri’s family’s best-loved native foods from India to New Jersey in a silk-lined trunk. The discussion that arose after the story was read focused around the author’s description of the foods and spices, the tastes and aromas. It was a story for all of the senses, but especially for the taste buds.
Writing about food captures my attention the way no other description does. An author can describe a setting so beautifully that I can see it before me, make me sniff at the air for the aromas in the scene, direct my ears to hear a sound that’s nowhere near me, and force my fingertips to feel what the character touches beneath hers. All of these abilities are the mark of a great descriptive writer, and all are what make entering the world of a well-written book more visceral and more completely encompassing even than a 3D movie. But none of these can compare to a writer who can make you taste. Feeling, hearing, seeing and smelling- those are all outward sensations. Taste is entirely an inner sensation. When you taste, you absorb the sensation into yourself. Taste nourishes the soul in the most intimate way. Making a person taste something through mere words is magic.
I tend to remember books about food very well, even if the characters or story aren’t compelling. There’s a book that I’ve read twice, about a woman cake-maker who owns a bakery in Seattle. She finds herself in a rut with her baking creativity, and decides to go to Japan to study with a baker master. I have no idea what the name of this book is. I don’t remember what the main character’s name is, or what the other characters were doing in the story, or anything about the bakery or Japan. But I do remember those cakes. I remember tasting them as they were described: carrot cake with thick cream cheese frosting; pecan spice cake; deep, velvety chocolate ganache. I’d love to read that book again, just to experience those cakes again.
(If anyone knows the book I’m describing- though I doubt anyone will- please tell me what the title is!)
Similarly, I read a light, fluffy book recently, about a girl who flees Texas for the safety of her estranged grandmother’s Manhattan penthouse after a scandal involving her sorority and her fiance. I thought the main character was vapid and ditzy, and the grandmother was bland and boring, but the tie that bound them together was the fact that they both baked cupcakes. Oh, the recipes, oh, the varieties! It was just like the book whose name I can’t remember. In fact, it was exactly like that book, because I don’t remember the title of this one either. But no matter. The cakes and cupcakes are glued to my taste buds, even if my brain couldn’t hold on to the names.
One of my favorite pieces of food writing is the short story “The Three Fat Women of Antibes” by W. Somerset Maugham. I’ve owned Volume 1 of his collected short stories since I was ten, and it’s survived many moves and used bookstore purges solely because of this story. The story is about three large women, Beatrice, Frank and Arrow, who go on a dieting “cure” together and subsequently rent a house in Antibes to encourage each other in their weight loss habits. They get on very well without alcohol, bread and dessert until Frank’s cousin Lena comes to visit. Lena is thin and has been told by her doctor that she needs nourishment. The cook at the house makes wonderful meals for her: “macaroni sizzling with cheese and butter… peas swimming in cream and potatoes cooked in all sorts of delicious ways.” The three women find themselves at each other’s throats, sick with jealousy of Lena, who can eat all she likes and not gain weight. The climax of the story finds the three women at a cafe on the water, competing with each other to engorge themselves with indulgences, such as croissants with chocolate, hot rolls and cream, fried potatoes, and martinis. They “crunched the delicious crisp bread voluptuously… They did not speak. What they were about was much too serious. They ate with solemn, ecstatic fervor.”
Anyone hungry? I think I need to make myself a snack. I hope I have fresh French bread, English cream and frosted cupcakes in my kitchen.