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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?