A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, although it’s clear that “they” haven’t read some of the words I’ve read describing food in breathtaking, drool-inducing detail.
The only thing nicer than reading about food in a book is reading about food whilst snacking. As a girl I’d arrive at meals with my nose in a book, and it was often taken away from me as I was forced to interact with my family and talk about my day when I would rather be reading. Now that I’m older, and living on my own, there is absolutely nobody to stop me from eating meals with my nose stuck in a book. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement; the process of eating whilst reading enhances not only the meal, but also the book.
I’ve wanted to write about why certain passages and descriptions of food in literature have stayed with me through the years; I often go back to those books and linger over its pages, marinating in the words with immense pleasure. It is joyous for me to share some of these with you, and I hope that they will melt in your collective consciousness as easily as a marshmallow would melt in your mouths.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
“Now we are all here!” said Gandalf, looking at the row of thirteen hoods—the best detachable party hoods—and his own hat hanging on the pegs. “Quite a merry gathering! I hope there is something left for the late-comers to eat and drink! What’s that? Tea! No thank you! A little red wine, I think for me.”
“And for me,” said Thorin.
“And raspberry jam and apple-tart,” said Bifur.
“And mince-pies and cheese,” said Bofur.
“And pork-pie and salad,” said Bombur.
“And more cakes—and ale—and coffee, if you don’t mind,” called the other dwarves through the door.
“Put on a few eggs, there’s a good fellow!” Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. “And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!”
In my opinion, Tolkien wrote some of the most fantastic and elaborate descriptions of food. In The Hobbit we sit with the dwarves and Gandalf in Bag-End as Bilbo scurries around in confusion, playing the obedient but reluctant host; we sample the contents of Bilbo’s larder as we tuck into seedcake, as well as other cakes, followed by mince pies, cheese, pork pies, salad, eggs, biscuits, apple tart, and raspberry jam; we drink ale, beer, porter, wine, coffee, and tea, and we sit by the hearth later to listen to the dwarves singing about their faraway home, and the beautiful things they used to make out of gold.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irvine
As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty-pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.
The delightfully descriptive Irvine typifies in this paragraph all the pleasant thoughts our minds linger on when we’re turning homewards, and Ichabod’s are particularly delicious, inspired, no doubt, by the rich bounty that was surrounding him. The first time I read this passage I was there, walking beside him, inhaling deeply of the scent of autumn apples, remembering the warm spicy notes of pumpkin encased in buttery pastry, and salivating over the thought of slapjacks slathered in honey.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The moment I slide into my chair I’m served an enormous platter of food. Eggs, ham, piles of fried potatoes. A tureen of fruit sits in ice to keep it chilled. The basket of rolls they set before me would keep my family going for a week. There’s an elegant glass of orange juice.
It’s difficult to expound on the emotions I felt when Katniss describes the food that is placed in front of her at that first breakfast in the Capitol. She had known so much hunger and fear; she had to shoulder the responsibility of feeding her family at an impossibly young age, on top of the trauma of losing her father, and then losing her mother–albeit briefly–as she succumbed to her grief. If it weren’t for the circumstances, and the fact that she was a tribute, I would have felt intense joy for her, but as it was, the meal was bittersweet.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Mr. Willy Wonka can make marshmallows that taste of violets, and rich caramels that change colour every ten seconds as you suck them, and little feathery sweets that melt away deliciously the moment you put them between your lips. He can make chewing gum that never loses its taste, and sugar balloons that you can blow up to enormous sizes before you pop them with a pin and gobble them up.
I blame Willy Wonka for my lifelong obsession with marshmallows, although I am yet to find one–or make one–that tastes of violets. Reading this book when you have a sweet tooth (or, in my case, several sweet teeth) is almost torturous, but in a rather good way. If you’re anything like me you’ll find it impossible to keep turning the pages without also helping yourself to sweet treats, so be warned: you are likely to finish reading the book on a sugar high, although it is utterly worth it, in my opinion.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
“Have no fear, young Mistress,” came Marmaduke’s voice soothingly behind her. “There is enough. There is sufficient plum cake, saffron cake, cherry cake, iced fairy cakes, eclairs, gingerbread, meringues, syllabub, almond fingers, rock cakes, chocolate cakes, parkin, cream horns, Devonshire splits, Cornish pasty, jam sandwiches, lemon-curd sandwiches, lettuce sandwiches, cinnamon toast and honey toast to feed twenty and more. Have no fear, young Mistress; when Marmaduke Scarlet is cook there is always enough.”
Marmaduke Scarlet! When I read this book I found myself wishing I could hire him to cater an approaching birthday party. As if cherry cake and plum cake aren’t tempting enough, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the joys of saffron cake, which I’d never tasted at the time I first read this book. I enthusiastically asked my mum if she could make all of those things for my birthday party, although I generously offered to forego the lettuce sandwiches, and she politely declined. She did however serve up lemon-curd sandwiches, along with cake, cupcakes, and egg puffs, and it was one of the best parties ten-year-old me had ever had.
Just William by Richmal Crompton
Ginger seized the remnants of a cold ham and picked the bone, George with great gusto drank a whole jar of cream, William and Douglas between them ate a gooseberry pie, Henry ate a whole currant cake. Each foraged for himself. They ate two bowls of cold vegetables, a joint of cold beef, two pots of honey, three dozen oranges, three loaves and two pots of dripping. They experimented upon lard, onions, and raw sausages. They left the larder a place of gaping emptiness. Meanwhile cook’s voice, growing hoarser and hoarser as the result of the inhalation of coal dust and exhalation of imprecations, still arose from the depths and still the door of the coal-cellar shook and rattled.
William had the most wondrous adventures, and he was one of the funniest, most daring children I ever read about. He lived in a small village in England, but he managed to get up to so much, and he lived an amazingly rich life, which I found very inspiring. He and his Outlaws (the name of their gang) also managed to put away copious amounts of food without almost never feeling ill, and I admired that too. How can you not be astounded by the fact that someone could frequently eat half a pie, whole cakes, entire meals, dozens of scones, and polish off the contents of larders in their entirety?
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott
The table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barleymeal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, and marmalade.
Warm bread at breakfast, and cake, and biscuits, and eggs, and smoked salmon! As if all of this weren’t enough, there was porridge with cream and buttermilk, as well. I fancied myself (briefly) to be not much of a breakfast person, but I think that on my fussiest of days (worry not, they didn’t last long) I would happily have sat down to that breakfast and done it tremendous justice too.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle onto the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.
We can all blame C.S. Lewis (or thank him, really) for our childhood fascination with Turkish Delight. For some of us, the fascination continues long into adulthood, and happily for me, I am one of those people. I adore Turkish Delight; it is toothsome and flavored with roses or oranges; it is spicy and sweet and sticky; it melts in your mouth. No wonder Edmund wanted more, even after he’d eaten pounds of it (although, of course, that was magical Turkish Delight, and he was meant to).
The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers
He hurried back to the stove. Judging by the symphony of sweets he produced in the hours that followed, Ghoolion himself might have studied in Florinth under Maitre Gargantuel: raspberry millefeuilles with champagne cream, rennet mousse with chocolate-flavoured zabaglione and cinnamon dumplings, coconut parfait with strawberry fritters, lemon sorbet tinged with saffron, doughnuts stuffed with cherries soaked in port, elderflower pastries topped with creamed pistachio nuts, hazelnut chocolate fingers on a bed of passion fruit and gilded Demonberries.
Walter Moers is a master of fantasy, but he also knows his food, as is amply demonstrated in this book. Echo the Crat is starving, and close to death. His life changes when he moves in with Ghoolion the wizard, who proceeds to cook him the most amazing meals he’s ever eaten in his life. Ghoolion is a complete genius when it comes to food, and the descriptions of the various meals, and of Ghoolion’s cooking processes, are some of the best I’ve ever read in my life. I mean, take this scene for instance: Champagne cream! Doughnuts stuffed with cherries and then soaked in port! Elderflower pastries! Yes please, with chocolate-covered cherries on top.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Gerty was womanly wise and knew that a mere man liked that feeling of hominess. Her griddlecakes done to a golden-brown hue and queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess had won golden opinions from all because she had a lucky hand also for lighting a fire, dredge in the fine self-raising flour and always stir in the same directions, then cream the milk and sugar and whisk well the whites of eggs though she didn’t like the eating part when there were many people that made her shy and often she wondered why you couldn’t eat something poetical like violets or roses.
It isn’t just mere men who like the feeling of hominess: everyone does. I love this scene for the calming domesticity behind it; the softness of Gerty’s touch coming through in the entirety of the scene, and her culinary skills laid out for the world to see. Delightfully creamy Queen Ann pudding, and griddlecakes that are coloured just right, creaming milk and sugar and whisking egg whites, and wondering why people didn’t just eat violets or roses, which is a fine thing to wonder, and one that got me wondering too.