Our Books, Ourselves: What Fictional Food Says About Us

This post is the first in a series on food in literature.

Most works of fiction, sooner or later, mention food. It’s a useful literary tool: food can set a stage, build a world, or define a personality or a social class.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond, for example, an upper-class foodie if there ever was one, spends portions of each novel fussing over the preparation of his martinis (“shaken, not stirred”), complaining that caviar is seldom served with adequate toast, and opining that the proper accompaniment to stone crabs is rosé champagne.

On the opposite end of the social scale, young Francie Nolan of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, growing up in New York City’s slums in the early years of the 20th century, rhapsodizes over the amazing meals her mother manages to make from stale bread.

“She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven.” Topped with a sauce made from ketchup and coffee, it was “hot, tasty, and satisfying.”

James’s and Francie’s takes on food are integral parts of their characters. What you eat is who you are: either a sleek and spoiled international spy or a poor Irish kid from the tough side of town.

Food in literature can also flesh out personalities, establish family histories, and evoke emotions. Descriptions of food resonate: when T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” muses “Do I dare to eat a peach?,” we can almost taste the juice.

Many books are associated instantly with their iconic foods. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is inseparable from its boeuf en daube; readers of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women remember Amy’s near-fatal run-in with pickled limes; and our mouths water over the delicious title dish of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. One of the best-loved books for beginners famously features food: Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham (1960), a book that manages to be hilariously funny with a vocabulary of just fifty words. (The recipe contains a mere six: ham, eggs, green food coloring, and oil.)

Dinah Fried’s Fictitious Dishes (2014), a photographer’s interpretation of dozens of literary meals, puts book eats in perspective. Fried – who says that many of her “most vivid memories from books are of the meals the characters ate” – has created evocative photo-montages of everything from Moby Dick’s clam chowder to Marcel Proust’s madeleine, Huckleberry Finn’s corn dodger, Heidi’s toasted cheese, and Jay (the Great) Gatsby’s truly spectacular baked ham, harlequin-patterned salad, and pastry pig party buffet.

Since food keeps us alive, we’re also taken with the food of survival books. Inevitably we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes. What would we eat? Robinson Crusoe, washed up on his desert island, manages to salvage from the wreck of his ship, bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, some dried goats’ meat, and a handful of corn (carried on shipboard as chicken feed).

picture of a perfect martini, straight up with two olives

Photo by Flickr user Colby Stopa, Creative Commons

The Swiss Family Robinson made it to shore with a full complement of livestock, plus a case of portable soup and another of biscuits.

In Pat Frank’s classic Alas, Babylon, set during the Cold War, the protagonist dashes to the grocery store just before the bomb drops obliterating most of civilization, and loads up his cart with fifteen cans of coffee and a case and a half of bourbon. In the same circumstances, what would we have done? It’s a compelling question, and sets most food-savvy readers to making mental lists.

When inventing worlds out of whole cloth, as fantasy writers do, food anchors their creations in reality. Elves, dragons, goblins, wizards, and warrior mice all have to eat, and reading about their diets allows readers – all of whom eat too – to relate. J.R.R. Tolkien’s pudgy hobbits appeal because they love good dinners and indulge in sinful second breakfasts, replete with apple tarts and mushrooms – though we’re also interested in the insubstantial meals of the etiolated elves.

Brian Jacques’s popular Redwall series, in which the gallant mice of Redwall Abbey battle numerous foes, is awash with feasts, variously featuring such goodies as damson pudding, gooseberry fool, October ale, and Deeper’n Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie.

The dining hall at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts serves up solid English fare – steak and kidney pie, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding – though the books also feature such wizard-ish extras as pumpkin juice, chocolate frogs, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.

Our love for literary food has spawned an entire genre of cookbooks. There are now companion cookbooks for a wide range of popular novels and television series, among them Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, and even, peculiarly, True Blood, which really makes you think.

Beginning in the 1980s and fueled by the foodie movement, fiction books began incorporating not just food, but recipes, into their plots. Among the best-known is Laura Esquivel’s tour de force of magic realism, Like Water for Chocolate (1989), in which each chapter begins with a traditional Mexican recipe.

Now there are many others: Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (1996), for example, a painful story of marital breakup, is punctuated with recipes; and dozens of novels, murder mysteries, and even children’s books have since leaped on the cookery bandwagon.

Fictitious food fascinates because shared food – a great human common denominator – brings us closer to the characters we’ve come to know and love. We can’t meet Elizabeth Bennett but we can share her tea and crumpets; we can’t find our way into C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, but we can snack on its famous Turkish Delight.

Real diehards can even dine on burned porridge with Jane Eyre or try a taste of Oliver Twist’s gruel.

Feeling smarty pants today? Take this Food in Literature quiz and post your results in the comments. Or just tell us your about favorite fictional dish and why. We’ll round up the best and post.