I read every scrap of food writing I can lay my hands on, spend a small fortune every month on books and periodicals on cooking and food books and food blogs are part of my daily diet. And then there is that genre of books that will probably be the biggest drain on my wallet ever … edible fiction or Food Fiction!
If you’d asked me what food fiction meant to me a few weeks ago I would have named the food descriptions in Enid Blytons books I read as a child. For the longest time, I was utterly fascinated by large wobbly jellies, iced tea, balcmange, scones, treacle pudding, ices, sausage rolls and liquorice. Children always came home to "hot, buttered scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam". It all sounded so exotic, so delicious. And so different from the Bournvita and ganthiya I got at snack time! Ironically, years later my dad actually brought back liquorice from his travels. I hated it! However, I did like most of the other dishes I grew up reading about.
Or maybe I would have listed Charlie and the chocolate factory. Essential reading in school this had to be the most delicious bit of schoolwork ever! This children's book by Norwegian-British author Roald Dahl tells the story of the adventures of young Charlie Bucket inside a chocolate factory. The description of the Chocolate Room with that Chocolate River, that mixes and churns chocolate by waterfall making as Willy Wonka proclaim that "There is no other factory in the world that mixes its chocolate by waterfall!" Pipes hang down from the ceiling and suck up the chocolate, sending it onto other rooms of the factory, such as the Fudge Room. But it isn’t just the thought of all tha molten chocolate that gets me goint, the fact that everything in that room is edible from the very pavements, bushes and grass to trees made of taffy that yield jelly apples, bushes that sprout lollipops, mushrooms that spurt whipped cream and pumpkins filled with sugar cubes, jelly bean stalks, sends me on a candy craving every time!
High school brought the menu of a midnight feast at St. Clare's or Malory Towers into my world. One description was all it took to convince me I wanted to go to boarding school! "Golly! Pork-pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé's milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger-beer!" said Janet. I think "Talk about a feast! I bet this beats the upper third’s feast hollow! Come on—let's begin. I'll cut the cake." (From Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare's.). I did go to boarding school at Mayo girls. The school did not allow students to keep ‘tuck’ or food but we had many an adventurous midnight feast, with food smuggled in from local stores on days out; chocolates, burgers and bun omelets, cans of beans and condensed milk, Maggi which we ate uncooked was a favourite as I recall and Wai Wai which came from Nepal substantiated with pickles and chapattis smuggled out of the mess. But the best feast were when someone had a visit from parents and in came home made treats like laddus, mathri – achar and even home made food. We ate so ravenously on those days, that mothers would have felt liberated watching us! Reading descriptions of the back to school feasts at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter really reminds me of those times.
Or perhaps I would say it was Like Water for Chocolate, the first book I read that was fashioned around food and I was captivated. As soon as I was done with it, I went looking for more! But my next find would have been a strong contender too. Chocolat! The chocolate theme seems to be a favourite with writers, I suspect because it is hard to resist as much as the treat itself. But if Charlie and the Chocolate factory gave me Candy cravings, Chocolat made me crave chocolate like never before. And not the industrial chocolate bar – I now have to have real handmade chocolate all the time! Written by Joanne Harris this is the story of chocolatier Vivianne Rocher who moves to the tiny French town of Lansquenet to open a chocolate boutique. But the hidebound local priest does not approve of Vivianne, and soon, a power struggle shapes up between the two of them. All of a sudden, strange things begin to happen. The townspeople begin to eschew the self-righteous gossip of small-town life, and they find the courage to break the rigid codes of provincial behavior. In short, they start enjoying life-all because of the sensual power of chocolate. When I want to indulge myself, I will make myself a cup of thick hot chocolate spiked with a little chilli and settle down to read it all over again.
Reading about food makes one hungry of course, but it needn’t always be a books centered around food that get you inspired. Two recent chick lit reads had me cooking up a storm in the kitchen. It all began with Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor. The protagonist Zoya Solanki is a client service rep with an advertising agency. Things start happening when she’s made to leave an ad film shoot, featuring SRK, to go to Dhaka to shoot stills of the Indian cricket team and the junior members of the team discover that they simply cannot loose a game after eating breakfast with her! Her birth at the exact time and date that India won the world cup in 1983 has a lot to do with this. The unbelieving team captain Nikhil Khoda adds chemistry to the story but even as I was laughing and crying my way through the book I also found myself inspired by the food described in it. I cooked up my version the ‘balls curry’ Zoya’s maid specialises in and spicy rajma pasta and pizzas with the works like Zoya’s aunt does! And as I dug into the results of my culinary experiments I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to sink into a story that only talked about food.
It was almost like the kitchen Gods were listening because a package turned up the next day bearing my review copy of The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. In this remarkable debut novel, Bauermeister creates a captivating world in which food becomes much more than simple epicurean indulgence. The story revolves around the protagonist, a respected chef and restaurateur called Lillian who has spent much of her 30-something years in the kitchen, looking for meaning and satisfaction in cooking. She believes that cooking and food have great healing properties and endeavors to pass that know-how to others through her cooking classes. The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class but it is soon obvious that each one is looking for more than just recipes and Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of their lives. One by one the students are transformed as they are brought together by the power of food and companionship, as their lives intertwine. I was lost in the sensual, lush narrative, captivated by the tender hopeful stories, and the magical realism that reminded me of the first food book I ever read all those years ago. In fact ever since I put it down, I have been hoping that pens stories of Lillian’s next class!
Eating is such a human enterprise – from heart to stomach - that it has been grist for many literary meals, feeding the imagination of poets and writers across the ages, offering them an infallible connect to their reader. After reading The School of Essential Ingredients, I find I want to explore his genre more.
Other books on my food fiction reading list
Atwood, Margaret - Edible WomanDe Blasi, Marlena - A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected RomanceFlagg, Fanny - Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop CafeHinton, Lynne - The Friendship CakeLanchester, John - The Debt to PleasureMayes, Frances - Under the Tuscan SunMehran, Marsha - Pomegranate SoupTemple, Lou Jane - The Spice Box
This article on food in fiction appeared in the April 2009 issue of Me magazine.
The Kitchen Thinker: picnic food A charming article by Bee Wilson in the Telegraph UK on the food in Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.