What literature makes of the food we eat
There’s more to food than gourmet meals or comfort eating as it permeates our language, literature and daily lives
Food is life. The madeleine memories it brings are involuntary, deep in your bones. Illustration: Irish Times Premedia
“When all the others were away at Mass I was all hers as we peeled potatoes . . . ”
You insist that they read this Seamus Heaney poem at your mother’s funeral. You think of looking out the window from the kitchen sink, your hands scooping up the mulch of the peelings, the ends of your sleeves wet with grey water.
No more of that. But you and your little sister still go home at Christmas to peel spud after spud like this at the kitchen table. You drink lots of wine and have happy calluses on your hands.
In a friend’s house on Christmas Eve, there are so many of them to feed, the spuds are peeled in the bath. When the sack is emptied into the tub, the noise is like a roll of thunder.
Food is life. The madeleine memories it brings are involuntary, deep in your bones.
People talk too much about the writing of old white men, but if you could never taste again, it is Hemingway who could tell you about food. In A Moveable Feast, his ode to appetite, he writes, “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and . . . drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
In Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, a wine shop in the early morning is “swept dust, spoons in coffee-glasses and the wet circles left by wine glasses”.
That is also a kitchen the morning after a dinner party, red wine and cigarettes, crumpled up napkins with greasy spots of stale cream.
Your friend has had a baby boy. You come over for a glass of wine. He tells you he imagines a dinner party in the near future when his boy is a little older. He will come into the room in his pyjamas before he goes to bed. My friend will say, “ ‘Okay, you can have a bit of dessert and then say good night to Catherine and off with you now, down to your room.’ That’s who we are now,” he says, delighted with his summation.
All grown-up things contained in a moment like that. Like the line from James Salter’s Light Years, “Life is weather. Life is meals”.
Holden Caulfield’s simple Swiss cheese sandwiches in Catcher in the Rye and Leopold Bloom’s “stripes of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese”, tell us things about the character.
You remember sandwiches you made with great disinterest. You are eight and you come in from playing down the field. You don’t have time to talk. You slather a piece of white bread with jam and fold it over. You stick your head under the tap for a quick drink and then you run off. Nothing will ever be as important again as that hut and that game.
Your cousin says, “It’s ridiculous isn’t it? Our idyllic childhood. We actually brought flasks down fields, we ate sandwiches sitting on bales of hay.”
Food is the other character: Mrs Dalloway’s dinner party, Ms Havisham’s cobwebbed wedding cake, Bridget Jones’s guilty calories.
In Ulysses, the Queen of Puddings is Gerty. Her “Queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess had won golden opinions from all . . . 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 . . .”
The pudding you remember most is one you didn’t eat. You are 10. You go around the houses with your dad when he does meals on wheels. He lets you hold the warm containers and you think the jam sponge and custard looks delicious, if meagre, in its polystyrene tub. You want to steal it for yourself.
You sometimes stand at a front door for a long time, waiting. Your dad cups his hands to peer in the windows. How frequent the darkness inside of those houses, the heavy curtains drawn. Then the relief when the front door finally opens and a gentle conversation can begin.
Memory is only our take on things and a story changes each time you circle it. But the food is fact: colour, texture, taste. The food is undeniable.
Yes, your friends are right. You might have travelled around Italy alone because of Eat Pray, Love, full of the intent of finding that one perfect pizza she buys in Naples.
Maybe you went because of the figs in Under the Tuscan Sun, or the fiascos of chianti in A Farewell to Arms or the cannoli of the Ferrante novels. The Italian bookshop owners know. They stack these books together. You meet a lot of people in Italy sitting quietly alone, eating something simple and delicious. The meal itself provides the company.
When you finally find the famous pizzeria late at night, it is on a dangerous street and it is closed for August. You stand beside some disappointed Japanese people who take photos of the closed shutters. You eat at a place across the road that is supposed to be just as good.
Being alone, you worry about how fine you are with being alone. Eating dinner on a quiet terrace in Lipari, looking out at the port, you do that thing where you are being so consciously present that you are almost ruining it for yourself. “Isn’t this truly beautiful?” you say. “Remember this for the next bad time. How lucky you are.”
The sort of thinking that feels like it’s at one remove from actual appreciation and enjoyment.
You are tanned from the day, in a new easy dress that you found on a sale rail in the supermarket. You eat something simple, a tomato salad; the way the tomatoes are delicious in Italy, the way in Italy you believe in their classification as a fruit more truly; the sweetness, the juice. People are always on the look out for old-fashioned eggs, tomatoes, potatoes – the side of the road foods that don’t taste like they used to.
People are looking at you sitting alone in a restaurant on holidays because they’ve been staring into each other’s faces for days now and they need some fresh material outside themselves.
But then some other Shirley Valentines arrive into the restaurant, and even a man-Shirley with his laptop. You suddenly feel just as much within the company of these other souls than if you’d all been seated together.
Food and grief
In Anne Enright’s The Green Road, Constance spends pages upon pages in a supermarket doing the Christmas shop. She’s at the till and back she goes again for the sausages and then some Brussels sprouts. Halfway down the ramp of the carpark and back she goes again for someone else’s Christmas wants.
You read this and are unexpectedly moved at all the stubborn effort. It makes you think of the day a friend cried into the broccoli in a vegetable shop the first Christmas after her mother died, fiddling with the opening of the little plastic bag.
Every Christmas since, I ask her, “How are you this year? Have you cried into the broccoli?”
This is Charles Bowden writing in his essay, The Bone Garden of Desire, about a defiant appetite in the face of grief. “I would believe in the words of solace if they included fresh polenta with a thickened brown sauce with shiitake and porcini mushrooms . . .” He pleads with us to always go to the garden and the kitchen. There is affirmation of life in both.
You are sitting with a heartbroken friend on a hospital bed on a hot day. A fan whirrs; you are both eating Cornettos. The ice cream dribbles down your fingers.
What better way to show the animal of the body, how the ordinary continues, than to force your characters to return to the dinner table.
Homer writes, “There’s no part of man more like a dog than brazen belly, crying to be remembered.”
Heartburn is Nora Ephron’s roman à clef about a pregnant woman who leaves her cheating husband. The tale is interwoven with standard recipes for well-loved dishes, some semblance of certainty when there suddenly is none. The recipes affirm a belief in method and order. They provide a slow-stirring comfort. They require a deliberateness of thought.
Knowing she was sick, Ephron’s last book, I Remember Nothing ends with a list of the things she will miss. One-third relate to food and eating.
- The concept of waffles
- Dinner at home just the two of us
- Dinner with friends
- Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
- Thanksgiving dinner
- One for the table