Favourite food fiction

The_Grass_Harp_Turman_Capote_food_fiction

The Grass Harp by Truman Capote

I was one of those bookworm kind of kids who used to read into the night with a torch under the bed covers, completing entire books by 4am, them dreaming myself into them in for the last remaining hours of sleep. As my gastronomic interests flourished so too did my interest in food fiction. I now have a vast library of books that are thematically based on food: from novels, to memoirs, and manifestos that expose the ugly inner workings of factory farming, hierarchical restaurant kitchens, and multinational monopolies that have hijacked the world’s food basket for commercial gain. But it’s food fiction that gets me every time.

A storyteller who can spin a narrative around food, bring words to life through descriptions of taste and smell, build characterisation, or further plot from descriptions of confrontational family meals, and the like, is worth their weight in gastronomic gold — in my book, anyway.

Here is an extract from my favourite short story (actually it’s quite a long short story so is often considered a novella), The Grass Harp, by Truman Capote. Set in the American south of the late 1930s it’s a sad, wistful tale of an orphaned boy and three eccentric old ladies with whom he resides.

“On winter afternoons, as soon as i came home from school, Catherine hustled open a jar of preserves, while Dolly put a foot-high pot of coffee on the stove and pushed a pan of biscuits into the oven; and the oven, opening, would let out a hot vanilla fragrance, for Dolly, who lived off sweet foods, was always baking a pound cake, raisin bread, some kind of cookie or fudge: never would touch a vegetable, and the only meat she liked was a chicken brain, a pea-sized thing gone before you’ve tasted it. What with a woodstove and an open fireplace, the kitchen was warm as a cow’s tongue. The nearest winter came was to frost the windows with its zero blue breath. If some wizard would like to make me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary baking smells — though Catherine smelled like a sow in winter.”

I love the way Capote creates a sense of people and place in this cosy, food-filled scene. He is just starting to build characterisation into the story, which I consider to be one of his finest skills. I adore the picture of Catherine hustling open a jar of preserves and that of the sweet-toothed, sweet natured Dolly that he starts to create. And that last sentence — which combines the notion of wizards, with longing and food-scented childhood nostalgia in one breath — brings tears to my eyes.

What is your favourite food fiction, or poetry, or play? Do you have a favourite food-themed book, or author, or an extract that you read time and time again? Please share.

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20 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Reflections

20 responses to “Favourite food fiction

  1. Liz Posmyk of Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things

    That’s such a lovely extract, Rachel. ‘The kitchen was as warm as a cow’s tongue.’ Wow, what a great piece of writing! I’ve not heard of The Grass Harp. Must seek it out at the Library. Thank you for sharing.

    Some day I’d love to browse your library with you and talk food and food writing. You might like to see my library too.

    In terms of poems, fiction and books generally, I have many food themed favourites. Among them are poems by Fiona Johnston (some of which are on my food verse page) and Kate Llewllyn. I have numerous anthologies, including Banquet of the Mind, and others.

    I also love reading snippets from The Faber Book of Food… one of my favourite stanzas is by Dylan Thomas from August Bank Holiday, which goes: ‘August Bank Holiday – a tune on an ice-cream cornet. A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive water. A tuck of dresses. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys. A silent hullabaloo of balloons.’ and so it continues.

    • Please do look for The Grass Harp in the library, Lizzy. It’s a truly lovely piece of writing. Some sentences, in the opening pages, really take my breath away. They bring tears to my eyes, they’re so poetic. I, too, love the description of the kitchen being “warm as a cow’s tongue” – how lovely is that? Thank you for sharing your favourite stanza by Dylan Thomas’ August Bank Holiday – “a tune on an ice-cream cornet” – what a gorgeous introduction. Happy reading, Lizzy … kindred spirits, indeed!

  2. Last year I read Lionel Shriver’s ‘Big Brother’, about a man – once slim, but now extremely obese – who visits his sister and her family after many years. His sister is shocked at his size and as he overstays his welcome, we are privy to the chaos he creates and his binge eating.

    Every time I picked up the book it gave me indigestion as each meal paints a picture of the excess. Big Brother also cooks a lot and doesn’t clean up. Here’s a scene in the kitchen after he has cooked a meal, described by his sister … “I surveyed the counters, mounded with corn chips, pork rinds, canned beef chili, croissants, soda, double-cream sandwich cookies, pizza rolls, frozen french fries and coffee cakes”.

    Pass me the QuickEze!

  3. I love that extract! I was also a bookworm as a child, so much so that my parents thought I was socially withdrawn and introverted because I always had my head buried in a book. One of my favourite books as a child was Matilda by Roald Dahl. I somehow connected with the character because she was also a booklover and I loved the references in the book to Ovaltine and bread with jam. I know, very simple things, but they somehow resonated with me, even till this day. And after reading your post above, the first thing that came to my mind was this book! It’s not food fiction, but perhaps that’s what started it for me :-)

    • Ahh – Matilda is a very lovely example. It’s interesting what draws us into reading as children. Bread and jam would have done it for me, too. Thanks for sharing & happy reading x

  4. I’ll be right behind Liz at the library. What a fantastic paragraph. I’m not sure about how hot a cow’s tongue is but it sure pulled me in.

  5. You’re going to think I’m a pleb, but… my favourite food fiction book growing up was Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Almanzo seemed to eat constantly throughout the book. Here’s my favourite quote:

    Everyone was merry, talking and laughing, but Almanzo simply ate. He ate ham and chicken and turkey, and dressing and cranberry jelly; he ate potatoes and gravy, succotash, baked beans and boiled beans and onions, and white bread and ry’n’injun bread, and sweet pickles and jam and preserves. Then he drew a long breath, and he at pie.

    When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.
    :)

    • That is such a great extract. I love the last line of the second paragraph. It’s such a visual piece of writing, too. I can imagine him slobbering gravy and pickles and jam down his chin! Thanks for sharing, Celia.

  6. Wasn’t everybody’s favourite book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? lol. In our house, chocolate was a real luxury – we rarely had treats like sweets, desserts or junkfood, so Charlie’s b’day ritual of only opening the chocolate bar just to smell it, and then closing it again, eventually licking it once daily so it would last until the next chocolate bar on the following birthday, really resonated with me. Precious precious chocolate! It also frustrated me that they never include this detail in the movie versions, but I guess so many of us these days forget to take the time to be truly appreciative and in awe of all the luxuries we take for granted.

  7. M. F. K Fisher all the way. Her writing about food and emotion is the stuff of life. So beautiful – oh to be able to write like that…..sigh

  8. where have i been? sorry for beign late to the conversation. but it’s given me the benefit of seeing now what everyone has recommended; i have a list to take to the local library!

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