The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Tonight, We Feast! Eight Literary Moments to Savor

Shel Silverstein’s poem, Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out, captivated me as a scrappy ten-year-old tomboy. Silverstein’s cautionary tale about sloth, wrapped in vivid descriptions of fanciful narrative, fastened the poem to my developing psyche, and made me always rather eager to volunteer to take out the trash out. The idea of “…coffee grounds, potato peelings, brown bananas, rotten peas, chunks of sour cottage cheese…” filling the can, covering the floor, cracking windows, and blocking doors was, well, terrifying.

Luckily, not all food descriptions have proven as traumatizing. Good prose has a way of transposing our senses: we see what the characters see, smell what they smell, and even, taste what they taste. Today, we’ll explore some of literature’s most memorable food moments---from Proust to Hemingway---for you to savor.

1) "Consider The Lobster" by David Foster Wallace

This essay was originally published in Gourmet magazine in 2004 and later included in a collection of essays under the same title. The piece startled most readers of the magazine, but Wallace's review of the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival went well beyond the typical critical review. The post-modernist writer touches on the historical history of lobster feasting:

"Up until sometime in the 1800s, though, lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats..."

It also lends a critical, cultural review of the ritual:

"They come up alive in the traps, are placed in containers of seawater, and can, so long as the water’s aerated and the animals’ claws are pegged or banded to keep them from tearing one another up under the stresses of captivity, survive right up until they’re boiled...".

If you're a Wallace fan or not, his essay not only addresses the feast but also the source in all its gritty truths----an idea that dominates contemporary sustainable culinary practices, albeit, less frank.

2) Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard 

Part memoir, part recipe book, Lunch is Paris is a whimsical read. Bard recalls her transatlantic move and marriage to a Frenchman, as well as her acclimation to the City of Lights through food, en plein air Parisian markets, and simple French recipes. In doing so, the reader follows the young American woman’s journey into adulthood as she discovers what it means to be at home and still successful. I must divulge that Bard’s Springtime gathering recipe for poached cod with wilted leeks, and a homemade Dijon-mayonnaise is, in a word, divine:

When we sat down for lunch…Nicole mashed up a bit of cod with her fork and combined it with a dab of mayonnaise. I did the same. The result was a revelation. The mayonnaise was silky without being oily; it didn’t really taste like anything, but it made everything taste better. I felt like Moses, wandering for years in the culinary wilderness, finally come home. Clearly, I was not in the land of Hellman’s anymore.”

3) The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

As new immigrants to America, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli remember their homeland through their memories, stories of their relatives and experiences, but also, very vividly, through the native food of Calcutta. In fact, the opening scene of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel---and new Big Read book---centers on the street food of Calcutta:

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen…combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones.”

4) Swann’s Way (Or In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust

Most of the reading world is familiar with and has savored Proust's madeleine cookies from Swann’s Way. Not only does the madeleine scene offer a beautiful explanation of the taste, smells, and sensations of a well-baked French pastry dipped in tea, but it also serves as the catalyst that Proust uses to disembark into the past, and speaks to the power of food as a trigger of memory:

“She sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell...I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate then a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses…”

5) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The description of food in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is as much about hunger and starvation than the bounty of America’s farmland. The piles of oranges, peaches, and other fruits that torment the farm laborers in Steinbeck’s novel are left to decay while whole families starve during the Great Depression. It is the lack of food and the desire for nourishment that help tell the tale of the Joad family, and paint a picture of the entire Dust Bowl era:

Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground…a million people hungry, needing the fruit…there is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize…people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get dumped organs, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch…in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

6) A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

This short story from Hemingway takes place in a café and was first published in Scribner’s Magazine in the 1930s. An old, deaf man remains in the dim restaurant, sipping brandy, as two waiters discuss the scuttlebutt surrounding their final patron of the evening. While food is not the center of Hemingway’s short story, the cultural custom of the restaurant as a refuge for the lonely relates another part of the café experience for anyone who has ever eaten in solitude:

"We are of two different kinds," the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. "It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe."

"Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long."

"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well-lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves."

7) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter makes it to Hogwarts in the first installment of Rowling’s beloved young adult series and is met with the many magical experiences that come with living in an enchanted boarding school. However, it is his first feast in the Grand Hall that brings to life the delights of Hogwarts:

“She [Professor McGonagall] pulled the door wide…Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs…Harry piled his plate with a bit of everything except the peppermints and began to eat. It was all delicious.”

8) I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

A staple of Eastern European literature, Bohumil Hrabal is a cherished Czech writer who explores the life of a dedicated hospitality worker in I Served the King of England. The story uses the food and restaurant industry as a means to catapult the main character from rags to riches and ultimately, to rags again. In a scene where the main character serves the Emperor of Ethiopia, Hrabal’s use of culinary curiosities reaches new heights:

“We were shocked when they had two antelopes brought in from the zoo, already gutted, and they quickly skinned them and roasted them in the biggest roasting pan we had, with huge chucks of butter and a bag full of their spices, and we had to open all the windows because of the fumes. Then they put stuffing in the half-roasted turkeys, and the turkeys into the antelopes, and hundreds of hard-boiled eggs to fill in the empty spaces, and they roasted everything together…”



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