I love poems but hate poetasters, love wine but detest oenophiles, love food but can’t stand foodies. Therefore my favourite passage about food in fiction is Lionel Shriver’s entire book Big Brother. In her tale of obese totalitarianism and comestible fascists Shriver destroys every pretention and abstract conception about food — starves it to death or fattens it for the kill. And she does so in prose that is poetry: ‘You have to ask yourself if there was ever a time people just ate something and got on with it. Every time I open the refrigerator I feel like I’m staring into a library of self-help books with air-conditioning.’
When Papa Hemingway was not standing up writing in longhand, or fishing or hunting, he spent his time eating and drinking with friends and followers. His last big theme was, like his first, bullfighting in Spain. It was 1959, and he called it The Dangerous Summer. In the car, ‘I kept a cold bottle of the light rosado in the ice bag and ate bread with a slab of Manchegan cheese with it’. La Pepica restaurant in Valencia (which still exists) ‘was a big, clean, open-air place and everything was cooked in plain sight. You could pick out what you wanted to have grilled or broiled and the seafood and Valencian rice dishes were the best on the beach’. At his old haunt of Casa Marceliano in Pamplona: ‘The wine was as good as when you were twenty-one, and the food as marvellous as always. The faces that were young once were old as mine, but everyone remembered how they were… Nobody was defeated.’
John R. MacArthur
We’ve all had enough of Hemingway, I know. His Moveable Feast foundered long ago on the shoals of Americans-abroad cliché. Yet my favourite literary food scene — more memorable than anything I can think of in novels of greater quality — takes place in The Sun Also Rises, when Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton go trout fishing on a hot summer day in Basque country. The two friends, bonded by survival of the Great War, land plenty of fish, but that’s not the important thing. Before they cast their lines, Bill suggests that Jake place two bottles of wine, presumably white, into the frigid water of a nearby spring. Later, when he drinks the ‘icy cold’ wine with its ‘faintly rusty’ taste, Bill exclaims with pleasure that it ‘makes my eyes ache’. The accompanying picnic — of chicken drumsticks and hard-boiled eggs — sounds better than any haute cuisine you might find in a more refined fictional setting.
My favourite book is The Brothers Karamazov, and my favourite part is not the famous passage about Elder Zossima’s corpse, nor the mind-bending monologue of the Grand Inquisitor. It is the scene in which Dmitry, the eldest brother, madly in love, broke and full of despair, stops at Volovya station. As he waits for his horses, ‘some fried eggs were fixed for him. He ate them instantly, ate a whole big hunk of bread, ate some sausage that turned up, and drank three glasses of vodka. Having refreshed himself, he cheered up and his soul brightened again.’ Something great about that: human misery, no matter how desperate, can be alleviated, at least temporarily, by eggs and hard liquor.
Early on in Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil is the most beautiful passage I have ever read about potatoes. It is written from the point of view of the novel’s protagonist, Isak, who builds a home in undeveloped rural land in Norway around the turn of the 20th century. I love that it’s about food that is primal, essential sustenance — and he’s not waxing poetic about its taste but its resilience, versatility and purpose, crowning it a ‘lordly fruit’. ‘Not the blood of a grape, but the flesh of a chestnut, to be boiled or roasted, used in every way’. This book made me see potatoes in a new light — instead of a humble crop that caused famine for other Europeans, this was an exciting New World import that created opportunity for Isak.
Eloise is six years old and as all her fans know, she normally resides at the Plaza in New York. But in Kay Thompson’s Eloise in Moscow, she decamps to the National, which is on the corner of Gorky Street, ‘if you know where that is’. The place smells of chicken. She invites us to join her for a meal there and takes us through the menu. ‘It is difficult to know what to eat in Moscow’ because Russian food is ‘absolutely Russian’. There is borscht, of course, which is ‘not even red’ but ‘enough for lunch’. Melon isn’t in season and she usually decides on the curd cakes, but also favours the black caviar from the Caspian sea, ‘which is fish eggs’. Nanny orders an egg, but then changes her mind because it comes with a feather. She goes for the beef stroganoff sturgeon instead. Weenie, the pet pug, has a schnitzel. Eloise wishes she could have straw-berries and cream. The food sounds revolting, Soviet cuisine at its most gelatinous — and yet, ever the diplomat, she knows to say it is good. ‘It is absolutely not,’ she whispers to us, but ‘you have to be careful what you do and say in Moscow’. Eloise may only be six, but she is wise beyond her years.
The most indelible meal I ever read in literature is created from hunger not feast. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn opens his magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago with a passage describing a scene in which a prehistoric frozen stream was discovered in Kolyma, in the Siberian Arctic, ‘and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preserved in so fresh a state… that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.’
Those greedily gulping ancient slime were zeks, among the millions who were starved and worked to death in Stalins’s gulags. Solzhenitsyn had been among their number and The Gulag Archipelago — non-fiction, not a novel — is his testament. Heavy and comprehensive, it is a surprising page-turner. Solzhenitsyn was a writer who understood the power of the compelling detail. The image of the devoured salamander (devoured with relish, no less!) is so awful and amazing that I have never forgotten it.
I think my favourite literary food scene is the ‘Banana Breakfast’ that opens Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It’s at once ridiculous, hilarious and extremely appetising. Irked by wartime banana shortages, an enterprising American army officer has grown his own in a homemade hothouse, and now covers… ‘the swirling dark grain of [the table’s] walnut uplands with banana omelettes, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas moulded 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…’ All given relish by the non-trivial chance of the ‘steel banana’ of a V2 bomb breaking breakfast up for good.
Although there is no big feast in Elizabeth von Arnim’s Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, food crops up often like a favourite, if infuriating character. Roger spends a year with the Schmidts learning German and falling in love with Rose-Marie. She hopes to marry but he meets someone else in England. The Schmidts go vegetarian to save money but are confused by the very contemporary-sounding advice. ‘Nuts and fruits… really were elaborate nuisances… All they could do for me was to make me appreciate sofas.’ Rose-Marie’s wry, witty letters to her former lover about the perils of living on potato soup make this the perfect antidote to Christmas excess.
A memorable description of a great meal is one that will make you feel hungry even though you have just finished a great meal. One such occurs in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s finest and most complex novel. As Waugh himself wrote, it deals with the operation of Divine Grace. But before the implacability of the resulting moral judgments is made manifest, we are treated to delicious excursions into hedonism. One of these is the meal which Charles Ryder, the principal character — and perhaps the principal victim — orders for Rex Mottram in Paris. Mottram is a shallow vulgarian, the antithesis of moral seriousness and unreachable by any form of grace. He would have preferred glitz and glamour. But Ryder takes him to a classic Parisian restaurant, implacable in its pursuit of culinary grace. Even Mottram can see that he is in the presence of superb food. It is the only occasion when he stumbles into perceptiveness. Thinking about all this leads to an inescapable conclusion. It is time to re-read the book.
Roald Dahl’s giant peach was originally conceived as a cherry. Then the author realised, quite rightly, that peaches are ‘prettier, bigger and squishier’ than cherries — so he did a swap. Until I read André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, I’d assumed I wouldn’t encounter a more arresting literary peach than Dahl’s. I was wrong. In Aciman’s lush and languid coming-of-age novel, a precocious 17-year-old, Elio, falls for Oliver, a postdoc staying at Elio’s family villa on the Italian riviera. The book captures the feverishness of first love, the fury and the strangeness of it. Finally, when the lovers get together, Elio finds a surprising use for the fragrant peaches that have been lovingly tended in the villa’s garden. ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ Oliver almost asks. He does. Aciman’s writing is ripe and sometimes overblown but the book captures the headiness of infatuation, the gift of tenderness we can extend to one another if we are bold enough to dare.
Picnics are much better to read about than to go on. And Charles and Sebastian’s one at the beginning of Brideshead Revisited is my favourite: just ‘a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Château Peyraguey — which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted so don’t pretend.’ Towards the end of a sunny morning, on a knoll under a clump of elms, the effect of the strawberries, the wine, cigarette smoke and summer scents lifts the pair ‘a finger’s breadth above the turf’. From a book with a lot of religion, it sounds like heaven.