Saturday, April 2, 2011

Saturday Throwback: Five Fiction Books for the Frugal Foodie

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG Archives. This one came from April 2009, when the skies were blue, the chocolate was delicious, and we were all so very, very literate.

Thanks, you guys, for all your suggestions from yesterday’s nonfiction food books post. They were wonderful to see. I’d never heard of Laurie Colwin before, and hereby pledge to get on the MFK Fisher tip immediately.

Today, as a follow-up, I thought I’d recommend my favorite food fiction. Like yesterday’s selections, the books might not have much to do with inexpensive, healthy meals, but all include important scenes and plot points involving edibles.

Have you read any of these? What about other novels with stellar food scenes? The comment section is ready and waiting.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Since main character Sethe is a cook, much of Beloved revolves around her post-Civil War era kitchen, where she prepares a series of biscuits, jams, and simple meals. Aside from that, though, there’s a flashback scene, vital to explaining the rest of the book, in which her family throws the world’s greatest picnic. It begins with a bucket of berries, and ends in luxury, celebration, and bitter feelings that affect the characters for the rest of their lives.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
For some reason, when I think of great literary food scenes, they tend to involve novels in which food is scarce. With no farming jobs to be had in the depths of the Great Depression, GoW’s Joad family heads west, and practically starves along the way. The skimpiness of their meals – when there’s even food to be had - makes a pivotal breastfeeding incident all the more powerful.

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by JK Rowling
Yes, the Harry Potter series is fundamentally about kid wizards learning their craft, coming of age, and overcoming evil. But a good part their characterization comes from Rowling’s early descriptions of their relationships with food: Harry’s amazed at the surplus, Hermione's bewitched by its quality, and Ron’s just hungry. Later, the surplus of butterbeer and field trip takeout (such as it is) hints at the kids’ maturation. Good stuff. (Plus, Bertie Bott’s Beans, anyone? I’ll take one in vomit flavor.)

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
On the whole, this book rules. As something that will make you immediately want an Indian buffet shoveled straight into your mouth, it rules even harder. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but my drool is shorting out my keyboard.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Many suspect the story of Francie Nolan’s BK childhood is actually Smith’s own thinly disguised biography. Either way, her perseverance in the face of occasionally crushing deprivation will charm your face off (and make you appreciate coffee a lot more). Also, if there’s a greater fictional mom than Katie Nolan, I’d like to know.

Also of Note

Bunnicula by Deborah Howe, James Howe, and Alan Daniel
A vampire bunny? That only eats vegetables? In a story told by a dog? Yes please. Growing up, this was one of my favorite books. Has anyone read it lately? Does it hold up?

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Much like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this modern memoir focuses on the author’s poverty-stricken childhood, though in a series of locations instead of just NYC. As Walls becomes increasingly frustrated by her parents’ inability to provide the basics (shelter, food, etc.), I became increasingly grateful for how good I had it in comparison. Powerful.

Remembering Needleman by Woody Allen (short story)
If only because it has one of the greatest opening lines in literature: “It has been four weeks and it is still hard for me to believe Sandor Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation and at his son's request, brought the marshmallows, but few of us could think of anything but our pain.”

Somewhat of Note

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Can you dislike a book overall, but really dig the way it does one thing? Okay, good. Because I appreciated SLoB’s food scenes. The honey-making was particularly interesting, not least because I never considered the cleanup involved. Never, EVER spill that stuff.

Not of Note

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Do not read this while eating. I mean it.

(Images courtesy of A Guy's Moleskin Notebook, stupid fool yet again, and UMBC.)

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Meister @ The Nervous Cook said...

I love this post largely because reading is probably the one thing on earth I love just as much as I love food. My two favorite things, together in one great post!

Last year, it was my goal to read at least 52 books (I made it to 56!), and both "The Namesake" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" made it on the final tally. The latter very quickly became a new all-time favorite; I can't believe it took me so long! And I fell in love with "The Namesake," too -- so I feel like you & I could happily coexist in the same book club!

Thanks for the other recommendations. I have to finally get around to reading "The Grapes of Wrath" one of these days…

Celia said...

Great list! I also highly recommend Louis de Bernieres' book "Birds Without Wings." ("Corelli's Mandolin" has some food scenes, too, but "Birds Without Wings" still sticks in my mind.)

Erin Beth said...

My favorite food-fiction book is "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel. It is an amazing love story. Each chapter starts with the ingredients for a different recipe and the food is involved in the plot as the story unfolds. In my favorite chapter, the dish is a rose petal chicken that is made with a rose the main character receives from her unrequited love interest. As one of the main character's sisters eats the dish, she becomes hot and sweats pink rose-smelling sweat. She goes to take a shower and the water immediately evaporates as it hits her and the shower sets on fire. As she runs away she is picked up by a soldier on a horse who was drawn to her by her scent, and marries this man. I smile every time I think about this book - it is fabulous and you will want to make many of the dishes described!

Anna said...

Yesterday? I am so confused. I clicked over from the reader, looked through the recent posts, and then clicked on the non-fiction link, which is from two years ago. ???

All of that to say, I wanted to know if Julie and Julia was on the list, and it was. Her second book is called Chopped, and I would review it about the same as you did J&J. It's good, packed with info about being a butcher, but FAR too much about her personal life. Ick.

Jessie said...

Bunnicula TOTALLY holds up. :)

The Food Hunter said...

A Tree Grows In of my favorites

Alex said...

I bought a book once in high school because the opening paragraph was a mouth-watering description of duck confit.

The book was Rare Birds by Edward Riche and it turned out to be a pretty ok book, if you're into CanLit (which I am).

Heidi E said...

One of my favorite authors lately is Joanne Fluke, she writes murder mystery books that feature many recipes involving yummy cookies and other desserts...makes me hungry every time I listen to them! (Haven't actually read them, but listened MANY times) :)

Pearl said...

I agree with Jessie - Bunnicula definitely holds up. I read it for the first time at age 26, and was totally bewitched. It's a classic.

Anonymous said...

Laura Kalpakian's -American Cookery- A fantastic fictional story that works in great recipes.