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.