Life Lessons from Literature About Food

Eating isn’t only for nourishing the physical body, it’s to keep an individual mentally balanced. Though well-prepared dishes are thought mainly to affect the visual and olfactory nerves, words depicting gourmet meals are also powerful ways to engage all the five senses. It’s intriguing how some authors can capture, in vivid detail, the personal and slippery concept of taste. When the writing technique is executed strategically, the reader can smell the house-brewed Butterbeer in Hogsmeade from Harry Potter, or feel the sting of the point and counterpoint of tastes in the fiery curry prepared by Hassan in The 100-Foot Journey.

Themes incorporating food are popular in visual arts, in hand crafts, and in film, but examine food in literature and it’s astounding how black letters on a white page can evoke the hues and shades, even the aroma of a dish, and provide a kaleidoscopic sensorial experience inside the reader’s mind. Sometimes reading about the dish is almost as good as tasting the actual thing. Sometimes, the descriptions outdo the dish. But as the authors demonstrate below, food isn’t only to be consumed, it’s also a tool for transferring knowledge and moral lessons.

Food As An Instrument of Instruction

Amy Tan, a Chinese-American author, fell in love with the minister’s son and prayed to look more American on the outside so he would like her. To her surprise, her mother invited the minister’s family over for a typical Chinese Christmas Eve dinner. Even more horrifying was when her mother prepared a strange menu for the guests.

“She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging fish eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A towel soaking dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings, so they resembled bicycle tires.” Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan.

Imagine being at a dinner party and dining on rubbery tofu, or swallowing squid that looks just about as edible as bike tires. Imagine picking up with your chopsticks pieces of fish that, only hours earlier, pleaded with its eyes to have its death sentence reversed. Imagine crunching on prawns with missing intestines. Sound delicious? Savoury? Aphrodisiac almost?

Amy Tan felt nauseated, ashamed of the meal they were serving the American guests.

Amy’s mother sensed her daughter’s apprehension. Once the guests had left, she reminded Amy that even though she wanted to be American on the outside, inside she was Chinese, and she must always be proud of her origins. Her only shame was to have shame. Amy realized this lesson years later when reflecting back on this horrendous meal; because for that Christmas Eve, her mother had actually prepared all of her favourite dishes.

During the 15th century, cooks studied recipes that didn’t have measurements or instructions. Written like rhyming poetry, chefs recited and memorized theses “recipe-poems” that not only included the descriptions of the ingredients to make the dish, but also moral virtues to live by.

For Baked Lampreys

First scald your lampreys fair and well,
As I told before, so have you bliss;
Then, raise a coffin of flour so free,
Roll in the lamprey, as it may be;
Take minced onions thereto, a good quantity,
But first take powder of pepper, anon
Of maces, cloves and grains of paradise also,
And dates all whole you take thereto,
Pour red wine thereto you shall,
Color it with saffron and close all.
In the middle of the lid an opening you make,
Set it in the oven for to bake;
Carefully take it out, feed it with wine,
Lay on the opening a very fine paste,
And bake it forth, as I teach you,
To serve in hall before good men.

The Liber Cure Cocorum. A cookbook written in the 15th century.

Since the recipes contained no instructions or measurements, it was up to the cook to prepare the dishes based on his observations, experience, and instinct. It was assumed that the cook knew what was meant by “scalding a lamprey well” or the approximate quantity of minced onions to be used. The following lines dictate that the cooks should have learned how to prepare the lampreys before wrapping them in pastry. Since they already know the technique they should be in perfect bliss about it. In other words, no need to panic.

“First scald your lampreys fair and well, As I told before, so have you bliss; Then, raise a coffin of flour so free, Roll in the lamprey, as it may be;”

Afterwards, the cook is to make a crust out of flour to wrap the lamprey in “as it may be”, then it is to be seasoned well before being baked. Once it’s ready, the dish is “To serve in hall, before good men.” And the hall was probably where the bearded patriarch sat at the head of the table with the lords and ladies seated beside him, all laughing and toasting to each other while feasting on baked eels. At a closer reading, it seems that the recipes in the Liber Cure Cocorum were not only instructions for cooking, but instructions for perfecting technique, for character development, and for building relationships. Food was merely a by-product of these teachings, a medium of instruction.

Food as Inspiration

Most people liken food to energy for the body as gasoline is to a car; something to burn to keep the engines running. Neil Flambé, child chef prodigy of the young adult series The Neil Flambé Capers by Kevin Sylvester present different perspectives on what it means to eat and cook. Food isn’t only fuel, it’s inspiration. It’s life.

“Neil slid the rest of the cake into his mouth and chewed happily. He could feel life coming back into his body. That was what good food did. It’s didn’t just give you energy –heck, a raw potato could achieve that much — but it excited all your senses. It inspired you.” Neil Flambé and the Duel in the Desert by Kevin Sylvester.

Neil wolfs down a slice of cake and feels his body being recharged. Life was coming back to him, and that was what good food was supposed to do. Good food is inspiring, fulfilling, uplifting. Good food isn’t purely for energy, it should make you smile.

As Colley Cibber, the playwright of The Lady’s Last Stake (1708) said:

“Tea! Thou soft, thou sober, sage, and venerable liquid, thou female tongue-running, smile-smoothing, heart-opening, wink-tipping cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moment of my life…” The Lady’s Last Stake by Colley Cibber.

The writer is excited and emotional; overwhelmed by the delicate and enchanting powers of soaked leaves, causing him to generate a flux of adjectives capturing the essence of tea-drinking.

Sipping tea is a simple act of pure delight. The steaming, soothing liquid sliding down the gullet can inspire calm and tranquility. A writer’s ability to pen down the exhilarating effect one gets from drinking tea could be more exciting than the actual experience; reading Colley Cibber’s tea description is possibly more satisfying than the actual act.

Food is a type of material, subject to a person’s whim and manipulation. Lots of dishes use similar ingredients, but the outcome can vary drastically depending on whose hands or imagination is in charge. Words, as the base ingredient for writing, can also be tasty. Descriptions can make a reader salivate in imaginary anticipation of breaking the crust off the pastry surrounding the baked lamprey, or it can make the reader give a contented sigh when they feel the warmth of the sober, sage and venerable liquid that which is tea enter their throat. But more important than satisfying the imaginary digestive organs, literature based around food have common goals: to create a tastier world, a more inclusive world, one literary morsel at a time.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. What are your all time favorite meals/food in literature?

    • Munjeera

      So excited about sugarplums from The Night Before Christmas!

    • Munjeera

      Turkish Delight from Tihe Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe!

    • Chastain

      Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s dinner), Petronius’s devastating satire on the idleness and vacuity of the oligarchs and plutocrats of his own day (in the Satyricon).

      Christmas dinner at the Cratchits in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

    • What about Tom Sharpe – Porterhouse Blue or all the Tuna that gets eaten in The Old Man and the Sea?

    • After nearly 50 years, Emil Tischbein’s Macaroni Cheese with Ham from Emil and the Detectives remains one of my favourite meals.

    • The meal scene from Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” – but that’s on the strength of the film version.

    • The chicken stew in Trial of Champions by Ian Livingstone.

    • The best food in literature is that cooked & eaten by Primo Levi and his fellow survivors after the guards have fled the camp in January 1945.

    • Tanisha

      Every meal in La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet, by Marcel Rouff, but especially the pot au feu for the Russian Grand Duke. Or the dinner in Les Halles in Le 7 octobre, the last book of Les Hommes de bonne volonté.

    • The Chinese meal the Losers Club has when they get back together in Stephen King’s It. Those fortune cookies…

    • The meal scene from Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” – but that’s on the strength of the film version.

      Feast of the Epiphany dinner in The Dead by James Joyce, later to be adapted for the screen by John Huston.

    • The boiling-hot summers-day roast dinner in Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ is marvelous.

    • Bread, cheese and wine in “Don Quixote.”

  2. Great article. Ever read Ben Jonson’s great poem “Inviting a Friend to Supper”?

    • gannonn

      “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti…”

  3. There’s a brilliantly staged meal in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. The local yeoman, Giles Winterborne, decides to host a gathering with the aim of furthering his long-held attachment to a local girl Grace Melbury. The only problem is that Grace has been educated to a higher social and cultural standing through her ambitious father, George Melbury.

    Giles has gone out of his way to ensuring that the meal is a success with the help of his rough and ready helping hand, Robert Creedle. Unfortunately, nothing much goes to plan and we see the sad but inevitable gulf in social status that has grown between the two erstwhile lovers. This situation is exacerbated by the insensitive snobbery of Grace’s father.

    When the guests have departed, Giles still has a flicker of hope that all is not lost but this is extinguished by Creedle’s rustic forthrightness when he reveals that Grace encountered a slug hiding on her plate. The situation is, typical of Hardy, both sad and ludicrous but as a meal goes it is full of rustic atmosphere and down-to-earth language.

  4. Whenever I read Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter I hanker for a lovely roast, smothered in mint sauce. An exceptionally useful and extremely satisfying meal.

  5. Alica Troy

    Hogwarts suppers was the first thing I thought about and one of Ron’s brothers saying to Hermione that if he was feeling peckish one of the house elves would roast him an ox.

  6. Munjeera

    Two loves of my life: reading and eating😀

  7. Lehmann

    The Christmas dinner in Joyce’s The Dead is a wonderful description of food, as are the numerous meals procured by Milo in Catch-22, but I think the most staggering meal in literary history has to be the late-night snack ordered by Mynheer Peeperkorn which turns into an epic boozey banquet in Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

    • And the beginning of Buddenbrooks!? That dinner was delicious. 🙂

      • Lehmann

        Haven’t read it yet – will hopefully be able to pick it up soon in Dublin.

  8. I present to you all Hunger by Knut Hamsun:

    “A helping of beef,” I say [……] The food commenced to take effect. I suffered much from it, and could not keep it down for any length of time. I had to empty my mouth a little at every dark corner I came to. I struggled to master this nausea which
    threatened to hollow me out anew, clenched my hands, and tried to fight it
    down; stamped on the pavement, and gulped down furiously whatever
    sought to come up. All in vain. I sprang at last into a doorway, doubled up,
    head foremost, blinded with the water which gushed from my eyes, and
    vomited once more. I was seized with bitterness, and wept as I went along
    the street…. I cursed the cruel powers, whoever they might be, that
    persecuted me so, consigned them to hell’s damnation and eternal torments
    for their petty persecution. There was but little chivalry in fate, really little
    enough chivalry; one was forced to admit that.

  9. Octavio

    I loooooove this article. I want to do a shoutout to the banana pancakes scene from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Here is an excerpt:

    “With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, a southern island well across a tropic or two from chill Corydon Throsp’s mediaeval fantasies, crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter.”

  10. There’s a wonderful competitive gourmet eating scene in Anthony Burgess’s Tremor of Intent between the hero and the Bond-like villain, Theodorescu, set on an ocean liner. The author makes the whole thing seem both delicious and repellent.

  11. Hannibal Lecter was an interesting cook.

  12. Amyus

    An enjoyable read; thank you – even if I am a vegetarian. I think I’ll go an make some cheese on toast now.

  13. Fantastic post! What about the black dinner in JK huysmans “Against Nature”, staged to commemorate the loss of the narrators virility and featuring all black food and drink. “The dining-room was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden, the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers flared.”

    • Ack, you beat me too it. Had tghe quote all copied and pasted and ready to go. Gets my vote.

  14. Dinner with Trimalchio:

    The applause was followed by a course which, by its oddity, drew every eye, but it did not come up to our expectations. There was a circular tray around which were displayed the signs of the zodiac, and upon each sign the caterer had placed the food best in keeping with it. Ram’s vetches on Aries, a piece of beef on Taurus, kidneys and lamb’s fry on Gemini, a crown on Cancer, the womb of an unfarrowed sow on Virgo, an African fig on Leo, on Libra a balance, one pan of which held a tart and the other a cake, a small seafish on Scorpio, a bull’s eye on Sagittarius, a sea lobster on Capricornus, a goose on Aquarius and two mullets on Pisces. In the middle lay a piece of cut sod upon which rested a honeycomb with the grass arranged around it. An Egyptian slave passed bread around from a silver oven and in a most discordant voice twisted out a song in the manner of the mime in the musical farce called Laserpitium. Seeing that we were rather depressed at the prospect of busying ourselves with such vile fare, Trimalchio urged us to fall to: “Let us fall to, gentlemen, I beg of you, this is only the sauce!”

    While he was speaking, four dancers ran in to the time of the music, and removed the upper part of the tray. Beneath, on what seemed to be another tray, we caught sight of stuffed capons and sows’ bellies, and in the middle, a hare equipped with wings to resemble Pegasus. At the corners of the tray we also noted four figures of Marsyas and from their bladders spouted a highly spiced sauce upon fish which were swimming about as if in a tide-race.

  15. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    A nice little discussion that has left me hungry for more 🙂

  16. For me, the most memorable meals in literature are those of Ivan Denisovitch, in Solzhenitzyn’s, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.

    Every time I trim meat and veg. for cooking, I think how Denisovitch and his comrades would have begged for the scraps that I throw away.

  17. Yevette

    The macaroni pie in “The Leopard” is my fav.

  18. useful article

  19. It’s interesting how the food you grew up with can influence who you are as an adult. My grandmother was from Calabria and remembering the smells of the kitchen, the way the table was set out with food, the hot Italian bread and the conversation, makes me wish for a simpler time when people spent time together and appreciated real food made from age-old recipes and customs. These memories have an effect on how I view everyday life.

  20. tclaytor

    Great article about a topic that has a great impact but is not often noticed. Food is an invitation for fellowship and bringing food into a story invites the reader into the story in a unique way!

  21. I had a professor tell me once that “every topic..and I mean EVERY topic…should be taught with food.” This reminded me of that sentiment and has also made me hungry.

  22. Stephanie M.

    Nice work! If you ever wanted to add anything, I’d talk about food as a means of emotional and mental nourishment, and how the state of the body often speaks to the state of the heart and soul. For instance, a lot of malnourished characters in literature are also abused, shy, isolated (unable or not allowed to “break bread” with others), or otherwise struggling. When offered consistent and adequate nourishment, those characters tend to break out of their shells, at least a little. See Harry Potter, Sara Crewe, and Oliver Twist for examples. (You’ll notice the last two don’t get fed adequately for much of their stories, and the authors spend a lot of time meditating on this fact).

  23. Great article! Now please excuse me while I go prepare something to eat for lunch.

  24. Thank you for such an interesting topic of the article!

  25. This article was very interesting and gave me another perspective of how to think about food. While reading this, I thought about when you are fine dining, when your waiter reads the specials, he/she always provides an in-depth explanation of the food giving visuals and taste merely from a description.

  26. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good essay, particularly enjoyable to read while waiting for my order in a restaurant.

  27. I like to look at food as a work of personal art, specifically baking

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