Serve Chilled

The Summer Reading Menu

Serve Chilled
By Lisa Kirkpatrick

The Culinary Classics

Food writing seems to be everywhere these days. Not just restaurant reviews but also memoirs, food histories, and even food novels are beginning to crowd the shelves of libraries and bookstores. (The Modern Library, in fact, has recently published a series of eclectic, classic books about cooking.) It seems as though the new American obsession with dining has spawned a deluge of literature devoted to the topic.

However, for inspiration about food, or about the role that food plays in all of our lives, I return to the classics to remind myself that we are not the first generation to be obsessed with eating. In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "I suppose that none of us recognize the great part in life that is played by eating and drinking ... to detect the flavor of an olive is no less a piece of human perfection than to find beauty in the colors of the sunset." In fact, Stevenson was just one of many writers of his generation who understood how food shapes culture, how eating and drinking can be a form of expression, like writing, painting, or music.

Nineteenth- and early 20th-century literature is laden with references to food -- detailed descriptions of meals, restaurants, recipes, and even food harvesting. Thomas Mann, for example, set the opening scene of Buddenbrooks during a meal that begins with a soup aux fines herbes. A second course of fish follows the soup, and then the main course, which consists of "an enormous brick-red boiled ham ... strewn with crumbs and served with a sour brown onion sauce, and so many vegetables that the company could have satisfied their appetites from that one vegetable dish." For dessert, the guests choose from plum pudding and a plettenpudding made of macaroons, raspberries, ladyfingers, and custard. Setting the atmosphere for this meaty tale of four generations of a bourgeois family, the narrator remarks, "One could be sure of good square meal at the Buddenbrooks."

Emile Zola was another writer who used food as part of the meta-narrative of the story. Carefully crafted scenes of cooking, eating, and drinking appear as key episodes in virtually all of Zola's novels. At one meal in Germinal, he artfully portrays a group of wealthy characters dining on eggs scrambled with truffles, river trout, crawfish, and all manner of fruit for dessert, while outside their comfortable dining room, striking mine workers are forced to forage for wild greens by the side of the road. Their battle chant, "Du pain, du pain, du pain" (bread) serves as a counterpoint to the meal, and powerful illustration of the injustice of the 19th-century mining system.

And these writers weren't alone in their motivation to write about food. Take, for example, the well-known meal from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where Bob Cratchit and his impoverished family devour a simple stuffed goose with gravy, applesauce, and a dessert of bread pudding as if the meal were a princely feast. Or consider Proust's famous meditation on the petite madeleine soaked in tea, one taste of which triggers the flood of memories that becomes the novel Remembrance of Things Past. Long after conscious memory fades, he reminds the reader, the smell and taste of things persist in the soul. Writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert both created a world of characters who perennially haunt the fashionable restaurants of 19th-century Paris, consuming foods with names such as rabbit ô la Richelieu, pudding ô l'Orleans, or Turbot ô la Chambord. Their social novels offer the modern reader a window onto bourgeois 19th-century food, fashion, and manners. Meanwhile, the early 20th-century American author, Willa Cather, painted the immigrant experience in My Ántonia through a touching scene in which the narrator learns that the most coveted possession of the Czech Shimerda family in 19th-century Nebraska is a carefully guarded sack of dried mushrooms carried all the way from their native land.

So if you're looking for a hearty tome to stimulate the gustatory senses, my recommendation is to sink your teeth into one of the classics for a bit of savory summer reading.

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