Books You Can Sink Your Teeth Into
The first of a here and there series of posts highlighting some of the food books I love.
While putting imaginary meals on the page, I have thought a great deal about the central role that food plays in our lives. Food is love. Food is conviviality. Food is politics. Food is religion. Food is history. Food is consolation. Food is fuel. Food identifies us and who we are. It can even help us make sense of our world. We live in a culture where #foodporn is one of the hottest hashtags, and seeking out the best new ramen or avocado toast trend is a more popular hobby than collecting stamps. And the “culinary enthusiasts” among us can’t get our fill of books about food.
THE ART OF EATING - M.F.K. FISHER
I mentioned in my last post that I became keen on writing about food after a friend recommended that I read M.F.K. Fisher decades ago. I devoured The Art of Eating and everything else she had written. In her books, I found both the exotic and the comfortable. I had never been to France or eaten escargot, but I reveled in her descriptions of food, in her use of simple phrases to evoke such specific sensations: “The air tastes like mead in our throats,” she writes in The Art of Eating. I hope to stir the same feelings and create the same sensory pleasures in others with my novels about famous culinary figures in Italian history.
Interestingly, M.F.K. Fisher didn’t consider herself a “food writer.”
"I don't think I'm a food writer any more than I am a love writer or a fish writer or a fowl writer. I just write about life."
And yet her view on life was very much driven by taste and pleasure and food:
It was then that I discovered little dried sections of tangerine. My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. I can only write how they are prepared.
In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al...
...After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but -
On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready...
...The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.
There must be someone, though, who understands what I mean. Probably everyone does, because of his own secret eatings.
I came across this video interview of the famous writer, which contains a zillion little soundbites from M.F.K. Fisher, not just about food but also about writing and publishing. I love when she talks about how she goes to London to meet her new publishers, and they were shocked to find out she was a woman. Her publisher hated her because of it. She tells a wonderful story about how she refuses to let him sit beside her on a train. Her advice on writing in this interview is truly wonderful.
When I’m teaching about the impact food can have on story, I often talk about her very short essay, A Thing Shared, which you can read here.
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THE FLOUNDER by Günter Grass
Now this is a book I can really sink my teeth into, I thought as I once read the opening paragraph of The Flounder by Nobel prizewinner Günter Grass.
Ilsebill put on more salt. Before the impregnation there was shoulder of mutton with string beans and pears, the season being early October. Still at table, still with her mouth full, she asked, “Should we go to bed right away, or do you first want to tell me how when where our story began?”
The rest of the novel, which tells the story of an immortal fish who meets an immortal man who falls in love with cooks over and over through the centuries, is just as delicious and delightful in its descriptions of food. To this day, it’s one of my favorite novels.
An epic feast of a book, The Flounder winds the reader from the Stone Age to the present day, mixing fantasy and history with dashes of actual recipes here and there. This novel is a long meal, full of the strangest stories, including talking fish and three-breasted women, but in every era and every chapter, there is a woman who is master of both man and kitchen.
The other thing that I love about this novel is that Grass wrote it as a gift to himself for his 50th birthday. It’s a long, meandering, weird, weird book, but that’s part of its charm. And there is SO much food. It’s sort of fun to play the game of: let’s open it to a page and see if there ISN’T any food on it. I don’t think I’ve ever won that one!
THE AUBERGE OF THE FLOWERING HEARTH by Roy Andries De Groot
I came by The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth many years ago, before I met my writing group fifteen years past. I know this because I gave a copy to my friend and writing partner, Anjali Mitter Duva, not long after we met, as a gift for having me over for her husband’s delicious cassoulet. My reasoning was that this was a family who loved both words and French food, and perhaps they might love this book as much as I do. It’s a cookbook, a history, and a memoir of sorts.
I picked up this book primarily because there is a story within of de Groot’s love of Chartreuse, particularly the V.E.P., which is made by the silent order of monks in the French Alps. Joe’s father instilled a love of the liquor in me, and I wanted, like de Groot, to know more about it.
Sadly, there is a shortage of Chartreuse right now, and the V.E.P. is near impossible to find. Over the last year, I’ve found two restaurants, one in Venice, and one in Boston, that had V.E.P. on the menu (well, I asked at the Italian restaurant because they had some in years past) and it felt like drinking liquid gold.
But back to de Groot. He trekked up to the Alps not long after I was born (the book came out in ‘73) to research how the monks made their glowing beverage. And while the book tells the tale (and it’s a wild one!), it also is a story of the two women who ran the auberge (an inn for you non-Francophiles) he stayed in. He describes the auberge and its kitchen in great detail, and the heart of the book is all the recipes he shares.
I fell in love with the food, but also the writing. An example.
“I found myself in the sun-splashed forest, surrounded, it seemed, by an orchestra of a thousand birds singing in harmony a hundred songs. The trees parted, as if they were a stage curtain, to bring me, for the first time into the extraordinary valley of La Grande Chartreuse. Within a few minutes, I was sitting at a perfectly laid table, with a snow-white cloth, the warm October sun reflected from the wine glasses, the porcelain plates and the silver in the garden of the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth. . . . A bright Alpine Crepy was poured, flashing in the sunlight. A plate was placed before me with a feather-light soufflé of the local Alpine velvety rich Beaufort cheese, accented by farm butter churned this morning. My story had started…”
I really didn’t know anything about de Groot when I first read the book. I had no clue he was a food journalist for the New York Times, Esquire, Time, and many others. He wrote cookbooks as well. But what absolutely stunned me the most was the fact that he was blind.
But wait! How on earth could he have written the scene above? Turns out he had two assistants that went everywhere with him and described everything in great detail. Wild, huh?
Countless chefs were inspired by this book, including Julia Child, Alice Waters, Eric Reipert, and many more. If you want to give a few of the recipes a go, here is a starting point:
Gateau de Savoie - David Lebovitz
Creamy Mushrooms on Toast - Hunt, Gather, Cook
Endive Salad with Bacon - The Domestic Front
In reading these sumptuous works of culinary devotion, I’m reminded of something dramatist George Bernard Shaw once said: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” It’s a statement to which I think we could all gladly raise a glass.
More rambling about food books to come in future posts!
Portions of this post were originally published in LitHub as part of a piece I wrote, Why We Hunger for Novels About Food.
A Follow Up About On Last Week’s Post About Food and Picky Eating
Something buzzing around the interwebs is this Food Disgust quiz. It’s not about whether or not you like certain foods, but what about food that may gross you out. As you can see, I’m really not partial to things like hair in my food, bugs, or rotten fruits and veggies! How did you fare when taking the test?
What’s Bringing Me Joy This Week:
I was really sad to hear about the death of actor Ray Stevenson this week. And while that gave me no joy, I was brought back into all the memories I had of him in my favorite show ever, HBO’s Rome (despite the toying it does with history). He played Titus Pullo, and he was magnificent. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth signing up for Max, if just for that. Here’s a scene with Pullo teaching a young Octavius how to fight.
u/WeirdLime on Reddit, used MidJourney AI to generate "the most stereotypical person in various European countries." I think Finland is my favorite.
Penrose is a cool non-linear prose narrative by doublespeak games. Scroll forwards and backward, switch narrators, make choices, manipulate the environment, explore every possibility, and unravel the mystery at the heart of everything. If you love interactive text stories, this one is for you.
Thanks for Joining Me
If you love food and love Italy, and haven’t read THE CHEF’S SECRET or FEAST OF SORROW, click the links to learn where to buy your copy! 🍒🍗🍷
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I think I first learned of mfk fisher when I ate here! https://www.mfkrestaurant.com/
My food disgust was low: 28.25%. I assume it's because I learned at an early age that people often ingest a lot worse things on a daily basis just by breathing and touching things.