“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” according to Francis Bacon, the English writer and philosopher. Food for thought. A good book like a good meal satisfies an appetite, leaves you nourished and feeds the spirit.
Certainly an author whose books need to be chewed and digested are those of Marcel Proust; his masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past is stuffed with delicious descriptions of food, its preparation by Françoise, the family cook, and sumptuous meals in French restaurants. So much so that a cookbook was published that detailed the foods in Proust’s work about the Belle Epoque. Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article, Cooked Books, stews on the “presence and propriety of recipes” in literature. He takes his topic seriously and literally, simmering Gunter Grass’ Flounder with capers and white wine, and commenting: “Eating Günter Grass’s flounder was actually like reading one of his novels: nutritious, but a little pale and starchy.”
Characters can be eaten quite literally, like Jonah in the whale, but can also be consumed on a metaphorical level. Marian, the central character in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, moves from the consumer to the consumed in a book stuffed with images of food that sometimes leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Sample the 64 stories set around the daily act of eating in Jim Crace’s Devil’s Larder. Crace’s writing is not for the white bread crowd. In one story a game of strip fondue ends badly with a “gasp of pain. The whiff of sizzling flesh and hair and cheese.” Not too appetizing but a great read.
John Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure is more to the taste of connoisseurs of fine food and writing. The novel takes the form of a series of seasonal menus that reveal the life story of its narrator Tarquin Winot, a sinister, snobbish gastronome and food critic, launched on a mysterious journey through France.
Less filling and easier to digest is the Inspector Maigret series by Georges Simenon which describe the many wonderful classic French dishes prepared for the Inspector by his wife, Mme. Maigret. British author Michael Bond has at least 15 mystery novels featuring undercover French restaurant critic and gourmand, Monsieur Pamplemousse (French for grapefruit) and his dog Pommes Frites.
The addition of recipes to books has proliferated in current times especially after the popularity of Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate-perhaps the mother of what I like to call gastro-fiction. Esquivel whips together the exotic flavours of magical realism and Mexican cooking to create a bittersweet story complete with recipes for dishes and home remedies.
Many mystery writers have whipped up successful series characters who switch chef’s hats for sleuth’s caps and serve up a smorgasbord of titles with scrumptious recipes and tantalizing clues. Sample from the menu of some of the reigning queens of the culinary mystery: Diane Mott Davidson’s Tough Cookie ; Joanne Harris’ food trilogy beginning with Chocolat or Lou JaneTemple’s culinary historical, Death du Jour.
If you have an appetite for foreign food and a bit of spice (no, not that kind!) in your reading, feast on Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran; included are recipes for some Iranian specialties: stuffed grape leaves, elephant ear pastries, and the title’s pomegranate soup. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese chef reveals a fascinating story in Monique T. D. Truong’s literary repast The Book of Salt. Each chapter in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s aromatic Mistress of Spices is also the story of a spice. Tilo, trained as the mistress of the title, evokes the ancient magical powers of spices to help the customers who visit her spice shop. The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones will appeal to the taste of anyone interested in Chinese cooking, especially ancient cuisine, combining mystery with a dash of history as food writer Maggie McElroy covers a young American-born Jewish Chinese chef opening a restaurant dedicated to cuisine from his grandfather’s memoir about cooking in the Imperial court. If you feel like Italian, order Anthony Capella’s Food of Love for some mouth watering descriptions of native dishes seasoned with a hint of romance and humour or enjoy a leisurely Venetian meal with Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti.
Eat any good books lately? On April 9,Winnipeg Public Library and the Winnipeg Public Library Board present an event that gives new meaning to the phrases “voracious reader” and “food for thought.” Books2Eat is a festival combining the creative and culinary talents of book lovers, amateur cooks, book artists, culinary students and librarians.