I just finished Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, which is adept and enjoyable (despite the lamentable 9/11 narrative opportunism), and got me thinking about books and food.
It’s pretty easy to think about books and food at our house. In fact, you could pretty much sum up our house as books and food. And records, CDs, and guitars. And American Girl Dolls with tangled hair. And hair bands. But I digress.
I write about books, my husband is a chef, and our house has a ridiculous number of books and an absurd amount of food (five kinds of rice? six kinds of flour?). But I was thinking specifically about books about food. There are the approximately one hundred million cookbooks (estimation based on the over-full shelves of the sweet little hutch in the pantry that is perfect for cookbooks, and the tottering piles on the floor of the study which is what happens when the sweet little hutch in the pantry is perfect but absurdly insufficient). There is the collection of food writing, which started with my old Calvin Trillin and M.F.K. Fisher, but has expanded dramatically since becoming Mara’s favorite reading matter and a prime target for grandparental gift giving.
The chick lit novels about chefs, restaurant owners, and bakers, which merge the complementary searches for the perfect scone and the perfect man, are another Mara specialty. My nineteenth-century novels feature Jane Eyre’s meager rations at Lowood and Dickens’s Christmas geese. And the children’s books, oh my goodness, the children’s books: Bread and Jam for Frances, The Roly-Poly Pudding, Eating the Alphabet, the groaning boards of Farmer Boy.
Indeed, the combination of food and books is so ubiquitous that the eminent, brilliant, and utterly delightful professor Dame Gillian Beer once stunned a roomful of graduate students by pointing out that there is no food in George Eliot (I was there, I was doubtful, she was right).
You could argue that there is so much food in books because food is such a constant part of our lives, in other words, that, Eliot aside, food is one of the core building blocks of realism. But in fact, food is one of the things that keeps books in the realm of fantasy. Food in books is always ideal, even if it’s far from ideal. Take Roald Dahl: the snozzcumber in The BFG is as disgusting as could be, and the candy extravaganza of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is as delectable as could be (until it becomes an object lesson for pigs like Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregarde). Both are, essentially, sensory placeholders for our own experiences of disgust and delectation, placeholders that are always that much better — or that much worse — than our own reality. No matter how hard we try, even if we pack lace doilies and vases of flowers in our lunchboxes, our lunches will never be as good as Frances’s, when she finally gives up bread and jam.
While that disconnect is a fundamental attraction of literary food, it can also limit its appeal. The other day Eva picked up Eating the Alphabet, one of Lois Ehlert’s beautiful collage picture books, am alphabetized compendium of fruits and vegetables, which I’d pulled out when I was thinking about this column. Eva has recently begun to expand her own food boundaries (sushi! guacamole!), so I suggested we read the book and see which foods we’d eaten.
She laid claim to avocado, apple, banana, and blueberry, and has recently tasted broccoli. I added apricot, artichoke, asparagus, Brussels sprout, bean, and beet to my list. By the time we got to C, however, Eva was bored, and it wasn’t because she couldn’t relate to anything on the page. She’s a big fan of carrots and cucumber, but, somehow, literalizing the connection between the written food and the eaten food took away the magic.
One of the odd things about The Cookbook Collector is that the cookbooks don’t appear until the middle of the book. But when they do, they’re remarkable. Goodman did her research in the renowned culinary collection of Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, and the novel’s cookbooks, found in the kitchen cabinets of a quirky lichenologist, abound with the enticing and exotic: “To make a tarte of strawberyes… take and strayen theym with the yolkes of four egges, and a little whyte breade grated, then season it up with suger and swete butter and so bake it.” Not surprisingly, given that The Cookbook Collector is loosely based on Sense and Sensibility, and Austen is the (oft-misunderstood) great-great-grandmother of contemporary chick lit, along with the cookbooks appears love — and its great corollary, food.
Of course the food is perfect. It’s prepared by a man who lives for perfection and has renovated his Berkeley Maybeck mansion into the perfect house. Of course he’s cranky and idiosyncratic, and of course he reforms into the perfect lover (see: literary antecedents). But what’s relevant here is that food, which may be intended as the real counterpart to the literary ideal of the cookbooks, but in fact just continues in their vein. The heroine is a vegan, so he procures her “plums, and Asian pears, and almonds,” “the freshest and most delicate of vegetables: watercress, fennel, dandelion greens dressed with champagne vinegar,” and in, perhaps the most loaded culinary moment (and purplest prose), the perfect peach: she “bit and broke the skin. An intense tang, the underside of velvet. Then flesh dissolved in a rush of nectar.”
I’ve eaten a perfect peach and I remember everything about it — in fact, I’ve had a hard time eating peaches ever since, because I know they’ll never live up to that one. The peach had been warming on the dashboard of my friend’s truck. Our teeth slid right through its firm-soft flesh, the juice slid down our chins and fingers, and it was sweet just to the edge of unbearable and no further. I held it for my friend to eat, because he was driving, but we didn’t fall in love, nor was the peach a metaphor for the sex we weren’t having. It was just a perfect peach shared with a friend on a beautiful summer day.
I bet you want a peach now. Or you’re wondering about that melon or those strawberries in the kitchen (it’s July, after all). But your peach will never equal my peach. Your peach may disappoint you, in the afterglow of my peach, or your peach may leave my peach in the dust. But either way, your peach will be yours. Words inspire our desire, real life is what can fulfill it.
It’s impossible to generalize about food in books. For every wildly idealized peach of perfection, there’s a disgusting swamp of gruel. For every complex recipe with 19 rare ingredients and 32 precise steps, you can find another that calls for tearing open a package of Lipton’s onion soup and dumping it into a carton of sour cream. But there is one thing we can say about all food in all books: it will never fill you up.