Memorable Foods in Fiction

 

cheese

When I think back to memorable food I’ve encountered in my reading, the earliest is the lovingly described melted cheese on fresh bread in Heidi, and the warm, creamy milk.

Reading that book as an eight year old gave me the notion that goats’ milk was something like whipped cream.

And melted cheese over fresh bread was not in our fifties diet—the bread we all ate in my neck of the woods was Wonder Bread, full of preservatives, and American Cheese product in slices was the closest we got to cheese. I didn’t have real melted cheddar over fresh bread until I was in my twenties, and it was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined.

turkish delight

Then there was the mystery of Turkish Delight from the Narnia books. The way Lewis described it sounded so delicious! As I recall, I was in high school, attending a Mythopoeic Society meeting, when someone brought some and passed it around.

We all eagerly took a piece—and I bit into squishy marzipan, and gagged on the nasty, cloying stuff. I spat it into a napkin and slunk to the kitchen to toss it in the trash as people in the living room exclaimed in either praise or disgust.

The conversation about it turned out to be more interesting than the actual treat; one person had always assumed it would taste like peanut brittle. Another had thought it would be smooth and malleable and flavored like saltwater taffy. I had thought it would be like English toffee. Rock candy—exotic mints—people had imagined all kinds of things.

I came to the conclusion that some foods were, like the most handsome or the most beautiful characters, better left to the imagination, which could then wrap itself around what pleases us most.

synthofood

When I was a kid reader, science fictional meals were the boring ones.

The stories I read posited future food as either synthetic equivalent of dog chews, or else pills, which were supposed to be totally efficient. Like those uni suits that everyone wore that were supposedly to be so efficient, but it occurred to me that those stories were all written by men.

How efficient would it be for a woman to go to the bathroom wearing those front zipper things?

A few years ago someone suggested that those stories about the totally efficient future were written by guys who smoked and drank so heavily they couldn’t taste their food, so imagining that the populace would be content to ingest hamster pellets selves made sense. Whether that was true or not, for a long time, nowhere did I see future depictions of sumptuous meals easily available due to the marvels of technology!

Here’s what I did know: I didn’t want to live in those futures, even if I could get a hover car. Simple pleasures had been done away with in the name of Progress and Efficiency, the most interesting jobs were still run by white men, and there didn’t seem to be any fun in the future. People were drones in a huge plastic-and-steel hive.

What was my first good fantasy feast? Well, A Wrinkle in Time was arguably science fiction, though it always felt more like fantasy to me. In any case, the (imaginary) turkey dinner the kids were offered by the sinister man in the chair stuck with me for years. Even though it turned out to be fake, it was so delectably described for this hungry twelve-year-old reading secretly under her desk during the boredom of junior high classes, and the idea that one could mentally plant that turkey dinner in other minds was compellingly sinister.

medieval feast

Historical novels at least offered real food, but it tended to be generic—mighty feasts of roasted venison or bull, quaffing ale, tearing bread.

Sometimes the meals sounded like Weird Foods—heavily spiced meals pounded and shaped in such a way as to look like other foods.

And then there was my first encounter with Pepys’ diaries, and his meal ordered specially at an inn. He looked down at his slab of meat, and was annoyed at how shiny it was, with many tiny worms all over it. The only thing worse than certain old diaries and memoirs’ foods was their medical practices.

As I recall, the first food that sounded delicious was a Southern barbeque as described by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind.

Scarlett BBQ

The food sounded fantastic, but Scarlett wasn’t supposed to eat any of it because ladies with their seventeen inch waists were supposed to appear as if they lived on air.

One of the many, many reasons why I hadn’t the least desire to visit the time or place of that book. But it was interesting for the awareness of food in culture, and the importance of offering a big spread.

The hidden rules behind certain foods and how they were eaten revealed itself slowly as I read more deeply in nineteenth century fiction, memoirs, and diaries. The importance of a late dinner (even if you were too poor to eat much, you did it at the right hour, and with the right dishes), the importance of a dining room.

The social stigma of cabbage! I discovered that in reading Mrs. Gaskell’s superlative Wives and Daughters. The doctor’s wife, ambitious to be accepted above her place, was furious if the cook fixed cabbage, though her husband loved it, and dissolved in tears when some society women assumed she was eating an early dinner, and not partaking of an elegant tea as a break before a fashionable dinner hours and hours later.

feast

By the time I ventured into British fin-de-siecle and twenties comedies of manners, I was wary of trying things hailed as fashionable and delicious by those inside the pages I read. Absinthe, for a time the ultimate in sophisticated drinks, sounded cool, but when I actually sipped some, it tasted like rat poison mixed with gasoline.

Far more interesting were the lovingly described meals made by Anatole, the chef at Brinkley Manor, in P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories. He was a French chef, and the food sounded divine.

haute cuisine

Fantasy of the last few years—actually most genres—have been penned by writers who really appreciate food, and understand the importance of meals not only for gastronomic pleasure but as rituals for so many of our important moments. I love reading stories that include good meals, and I also enjoy seeing how those meals bind people together, or divide them, or what they signal to themselves and to others.

What are some memorable feasts from your reading?

 

 

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Memorable Foods in Fiction — 64 Comments

  1. I think C.S. Lewis is very good at food generally – I vividly remember not just the Turkish Delight but also the apples wrapped in bear meat in Prince Caspian and the hot buttered toast Lucy eats with Mr Tumnus. I suspect it’s a rationing thing – the glory of food is so intensely imagined because of its absence in real life.

    It’s not a feast, but Heimito von Doderer does wonderful things with coffee in The Strudlhof Steps. There’s a marvellous scene where a man and a woman who are falling in love in 1920s Vienna take the train out to the woods by the Danube on a boilingly hot day and go swimming. Afterwards, she says the one thing that could make this day even more perfect would be coffee and he, a former soldier of the Habsburg Empire, produces a tiny portable Turkish coffee set. For coffee-lovers, it’s irresistible – the heat, and the water, and the miraculous appearance of really strong coffee (better yet, for complicated reasons it’s not part of a build-up to a romance – the story goes in other directions, but that one perfect moment remains).

    • CS Lewis is quite good at food, which is what makes the Turkish Delight Episode so odd. Not only doesn’t it taste as wonderful as we might expect, but it is, author A.C. Wise suggested at World Fantasy 2014, a more adult taste — not a child’s candy. A.C. and I got into a really great discussion with Diana Peterfreund and Brenda Clough on the topic, and we started wondering if part of Edmund’s desire for the stuff is because he’s trying to seem more adult.

      That discontinuity with turkish delight was my first experience with an unreliable narrator: once I read the story, I had to try the food. I determined then and there that Edmund was a food liar, and thus not to be trusted.

      He redeemed himself, later.

      Sherwood, this is wonderful! I’m looking forward to talking with you and Rachel soon about food in your books too on Cooking the Books!

      • Yes, that was a -great- panel. The other thing I wonder about is the break between British and American palates. I noticed that everything in Britain is just a tad sweeter than it is here in the US. Rationing of sugar probably had its effect in Lewis’s time. And there’s also an availability thing — in a time when sugar was expensive, people really craved it. Do you remember in FARMER BOY how Almanzo Wilder and his siblings ate an entire barrel of white sugar while they were Home Alone? No kid would do that today.

        • When my first wife and I went to Canada, our first host asked us to drive down to the US (from Toronto, via Niagara Falls, and get some Oreos for her. The Canadian ones weren’t sweet enough. The US border guards thought that very suspicious and gave us the third degree, while the Canadian borders guards laughed when we told them what we had done.

  2. My own culinary takeaway from Heidi was that Grandfather fried cheese. Fried cheese? What on earth did that mean? It is not impossible that I tried tossing slices of cheddar into a frying pan to try to understand it. Certainly it was not till I was an adult that I came across halloumi, and thought “Oh – I wonder if that’s what was meant…?”

    And growing up in the UK in the sixties, “Turkish delight” was a candy bar, chocolate coating a gooey sweet centre. It took me the longest time to understand what Edmund was so excited about.

      • I also wonder if we aren’t all getting a faux Turkish Delight, a cheap fake cobbled together for foolish foreigners. If you went right to the source, to Istanbul or something, would it be different? Better? The way dim sum are best in Hong Kong.

        • I found a recipe for theoretically-authentic Turkish Delight once, in one of the books in the Time-Life Good Cook series — it involved fruit juice and gelatin, mostly, and I thought about it for a while and came to the lowering realization that what I was looking at was the ancestral form of the Jello Jiggler.

          • Augh! No, no no!!

            Real Turkish Delight (Lokum) is made from sugar syrup and cornstarch with a little lemon juice and rosewater for flavouring. Totally different consistency than the gelatin abomination that commonly passes for the confection.

            I think it may be one of those “either love it or hate it” kind of things, or perhaps an acquired taste. I’ve always loved it. But then again, I also love liquorice, which is also one of those “either love it or hate it” kind of things.

            Of course, the benefit of loving things that other people won’t eat is that you never have to share…!

    • I too was fascinated by Heidi’s grandfather’s cheese and bread when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the dish is actually raclette, that 1960s Swiss ski lodge handmaiden to fondue. It was instantly recognizable: a large piece of raclette cheese held in front of an open fire until the surface was bubbling, then scraped onto a plate alongside bread, but with the addition of boiled potatoes and pickles.

      Actually, the Grandfather’s air-dried meat (goat meat?) actually intrigued me more, as did the blind grandmother’s soft white rolls and huge sausage from Klara. All this weird Teutonic food seemed really strange and wonderful to a kid from LA.

      However, the most memorable dish to me from any children’s book was Chocolate Stale Bread Pudding from Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians by Mary Nash. I loved the idea so much that a [very adult] version of it became one of the mainstays of my repertoire when I became a pastry chef. The book also contains one of the greatest descriptions of a traditional mid-20th-century American Christmas dinner I’ve ever read.

  3. Funnily enough, I’ve had a long-running email conversation with my mother and aunt about Heidi’s cheese. For me, I assumed that it was a hard goats milk cheese, because what else would it be, but they’d assumed Gruyere. It actually resulted in them re-reading it in German (I’ve only read an English abridged version) to see if it was clearer! Anyway, the Swiss do make aged goats milk cheeses as well, so I still maintain I am right.

    CS Lewis’s marmalade rolypoly with the Beavers is one of my favourite things (and delicious), but when I first tried rice with chicken livers a la A Horse and His Boy I was a bit horrified. As I’ve grown to love chicken livers, I should revisit it!

    Also, Marmaduke Scarlet’s feasts in Elizabeth Goudge’s A Little White Horse. All of them!

    • Heh! I should reread Heidi in German, that’s a very good idea!

      I remember Lewis’s marmalade, though I finally had some, and thought it much too sweet. But he did describe food so wonderfully.

    • Marmalade. Now that’s a true “either love it or hate it” thing. Like beer and ale, I love the idea of it because it’s described so lovingly by so many authors. But, blecch. Too bitter for me.

      I’ll stick with Heidi’s crusty fresh bread and cheese. Mmm…

      Isn’t it amasing how many of us have that mouthwatering image ingrained in us from our earliest reading experiences!

  4. I think you’re right for me–Heidi was my first description of food foreign to me that I wanted to try. I’m a supertaster, so goat’s cheeses are mostly too strong for me, but I remember the toasted cheese and fresh bread, and a slice of real Swiss Emmentaler and fresh sourdough bread is still marvelous today. I was famous in my childhood for attacking the toaster oven.

    Reading about “teas” sparked my interest in authentic tea time, both high and regular. I still have not reached the UK, but I became a serious thrower and attender of teas, and make scones that my friends dream about and request for their birthdays. I was amused and pleased to find out that a fan of my Alfreda books took the “ingredients” of my chicken dish in Night Calls and created “Night Calls Chicken” from it. I was charmed, but did not dare ask for the recipe. I should have asked!

  5. There are some wonderfully elaborate and elegant meals in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, with the added excitement that a good fraction of the food is deadly poison to the human viewpoint character. I’m particularly fond of the pizza scene in one of the earlier books in the series. In the second trilogy, which takes place mostly in space, the spaceship humans are used to bland ‘sci-fi’ food and are easily seduced by the delights of planetary delicacies such as fruit-flavored candy.

  6. There’s a scene in Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave when young Merlin finds himself in Count Ambrosius’ house after enduring seasickness on the voyage from Wales to Lesser Britain. He’s ferociously hungry, and her description of the meal that the kitchen boy serves him makes my mouth water every time I read it.

  7. My first experience of food in books as a child was the Bible, and the echoes have stayed with me ever since. I think my first ‘food lie’ was Esau. Lentil Soup! It’s worth selling your rights as firstborn for! And it was… bland. Disappointing. Not disgusting, but certainly not worth it.
    Of course, the immediate follow-up was Lamb meat, as Rivka makes for Isaac and served by Jacob, described as ‘savoury meat, such as his father loved’, and Lord, did I understand why Isaac would bless anyone who brought him that kind of meat. It was scrumptious.

    Also, my first fantasy book that I read had a group of people meeting at a tavern (par for the course, in those days) and drinking ale, making me think ale was some wondrous drink. I have yet to find any kind which I enjoy.

    • making me think ale was some wondrous drink. I have yet to find any kind which I enjoy.

      I am one hundred percent not a beer person. I am also not a wine person, so there goes that touchstone, too. I first heard of metheglin in The Dark Is Rising (1973), though, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Cooper’s enthusiasm—”an unrecognisable taste that was less a taste than a blaze of light, a burst of music, something fierce and wonderful sweeping over all his senses at once”—I’ve been pretty happy to discover in the last couple of years that, whether it comes spiced or straight, I really do like mead.

      • We served mead at our wedding. (Not that I love it, though good mead is a nice taste, but it was impossible for the dedicated alcoholics on both sides of the family to get wasted on it.)

  8. There’s a scene in Caroline Stevermer’s ‘A Scholar of Magics’ where the protagonist is being tempted away from his allegiance with the offer of beer and toasted cheese, so lyrically described that it is believable that he almost succumbs.

  9. Klah, the ubiquitous coffee substitute on Pern, always sounded good to me—lovingly described as a thick spicy cinnamon-chocolate brew with a high enough caffeine content to wake you up in the morning—until it turned out that caffeine was the cause of the intermittent migraines I had been suffering for years, at which point I knew I was never even going to make the mocha-ish Earth version from Jody Lynn Nye’s The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern (1989) because it would wreck me. At this point in my life coffee is no longer an appealing scent or flavor since it is linked so strongly with brutal facial pain, nausea, light-sensitivity, and lying in a darkened room for eight hours until the whole thing goes away—it’s a warning sign. Fortunately, I’ve decided that the herbal masala chai I can drink, being heavily spiced and sweetened, fits the profile.

    The fictitious dessert which I pursue to this day is the butter-pie from Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City (1987): “everything buttery and creamy she had ever tasted, with just a hint of toffee, and twenty other even better tastes she had never met before, all of it icy cold . . . But at that moment, she bit through into the middle of the butter-pie. And it was hot. Runny, syrupy hot.” Lila and I were working on reverse-engineering them for a while. We successfully made a baked Alaska last year, so we have hope.

    • Oh, I want butter pie, too!

      Yes, I lost the ability to drink coffee many years ago, though I still love the smell of fresh ground. (But I do not have those terrible associations!)

  10. There’s a ball and buffet in Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting that I thought was the most elegant thing ever. Not least because the narrator was fairly unsophisticated, and (for a book without magic) endowed the food with an almost magical quality.

    • There’s an amazing restaurant meal in Madame, Will You Talk?, too; and a picnic lunch in The Moon-Spinners that is luscious at first, and then devolves into stale leftovers that are all the characters have to eat, a really remarkable way to show the dilemma they are in. That book has a lot of great food in it, actually, some of it with sinister connotations.

      P.

  11. For the last trilogy but one I made up a Southeast Asian country. So I made up a cuisine for it too. The characters barge around through time and space, complaining that the noodles are just not right here in ancient Gaul.

  12. Agreeing with everyone about C.S. Lewis and food. I always wanted to try the fruit that grew from the toffee candy that Digory buries when Narnia’s still reverberating with Aslan’s song, that grows into a toffee tree, in The Magician’s Nephew. A fruit that was like a candy–but juicy. I remember musing on that.

    But I also liked the description of the smell of bacon frying when Jill and Eustace at last break out from underground in The Silver Chair–it made me want bacon right away. (But also speaking of The Silver Chair, I wanted to try squeezed ruby juice from Bism.)

    There really was delicious food in each book.

    I’d like for someone to make some really delicious lembas bread, too. With some faint spice flavor.

  13. I love the food in Steven Brust’s Taltos novels. It’s clear he’s a foodie–I never knew there were so many kinds of pepper in the world. A lot of the books have major scenes set in restaurants, and there’s this link between great food and the art of assassination that’s both lovely and a little dissonant (in a good way).

    I haven’t thought of Heidi for years, and now I’m back to wanting toasted cheese and goat’s milk!

  14. Food seems to taste better in books than it does in real life. For me, only sourdough bread comes close to the literary promise of “fresh bread.” Alas, though, I can’t eat it nohow, or any wheat bread.

  15. You all are making me hungry. I craved “tea” both the drink and the meal from reading the Alice books and other British tales. I developed a move of mushrooms because of LOTR and I wanted to be like the Hobbits–except for the smoking.

  16. My first intriguing experience with strange food (habits) was with Enid Blyton. Food is very important in the books, but somehow the “best ever” was canned fruit. Everything had to be canned. Whereas in my childhood (80s Germany) canned food was supposed to be low quality, far too sweet and not someting you would eat at all. The kids in the books would burrow the emptied cans somewhere – envorinment sin number one! I finally realized that the importance of food in Enid Blyton had to do with the books written in a time when everybody knew food deprivation and one was immensely grateful to have food at all. Like all my elderly relatives who kept stuffing us kids with food because they had lived through times when they didn’t have enough to eat for years.

    Eating habits and what you like is so much rooted in your eating experiences: All the creamy, fat-rich, oily stuff eaten in post-war times was marvelous to people who had gone hungry for so long, but nowadays you feel sick just by looking at such stuff. When I was a child, large cakes were so important, nowadays sweet stuff is so easily available that I can’t really put the same sort of cake before my guests. Better go with fruity and exquisite instead of cream cream cream.

    There are many food things I got very disappointed with on my first try: English tea, olives, red wine, fish and chips, goat cheese, … I only got over my dislike of olives by trying again and again. I still can’t understand the appeal of English tea. My three years in England were very hard on me…

    A very positive food experience was with all the desserts in the Harry Potter books. I always thought them wizardy thought-out dishes. But then I was in England and ordered treacle tart for the first time ever! It was such a unreal moment, me sitting in this English pub actually eating Harry Potter’s favourite pudding, of which I had up to then assumes, it was imaginary! The taste of it filled Harry Potter with live for me, like living in England on the whole let me to understand the books much better.

    • I think you are right about the post-war period and all that rich food.

      But . . . not liking tea! I’d never had good tea (it was Lipton, ugh, in L.A. when I was a kid) until I got to London. After that I was addicted. (Just like I’d never tasted good beer until I got to Vienna.)

      • Oh dear, yes. Tea. Milk or not? With milk the tea tastes just like nasty water to me.
        And ditto on the Liptons–but I took what I could get, and our society is still not very tea friendly.

  17. I actually always liked English food even when it was not fashionable to say so (but then I was never fashionable, so it wasn’t a problem). Even better for me than Marmaduke Scarlet was Ezra Oak in Linnets and Valerians–Goudge always had a great sense of food making the story more solid. When I first realized that there were pubs in LA and I could go whenever I wanted, it was a revelation, a connection to my childhood far more compelling than any of my mother’s legendarily rotten cooking. And the Swiss cheese sounds quite delightful–I must investigate.

    As far as the juice from fresh rubies in Bism, that’s another thing I was quite taken by. Whenever I got hold of a pomegranate, I imagined that they came from Bism! (Maybe the underworld great enterprise to supplement income, what do you think?)

  18. I, too, have strong gastronmical memories of Heidi’s melted cheese on bread (and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to try it out myself)–I agree now, in hindsight, that it was probably raclette.

    But my other strong ‘foodie’ memory comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series, especially Farmer Boy, with the vivid descriptions of excess. I’ve since read speculation that she dwelled so fondly on the food, especially those eaten by the Wilders while Almanzo was growing up in New York, because of her years living meagerly and especially the near starvation of the Long Winter.

    In college, I stumbled on a recipe of Bird’s Nest Pudding while taking a seminar on Beatrix Potter–a favorite dish described in Farmer Boy. It is a rather unique and tasty riff on apple desserts.