Chip lit: literary feasts that will leave you hungry for more
Food has always found its way into fiction. There’s even a genre where eating forms the backdrop to the story
Illustration by William Bock from The Dead by James Joyce, published by Paravion Press
Margaret Atwood: her feminist classic ‘The Edible Woman’ used food to talk about her character’s crisis of self. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Paul Lynch: ‘Have you ever seen a bucket of eels? It is as far from comfort food as you can get.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
American novelist John Updike in the 1960s. Photograph: Susan Wood/Getty Images
There’s a moment in Donna Tartt’s latest novel The Goldfinch where the first crumb of comfort comes in the shape of cheese on toast. Her lead character, Theo Decker, hasn’t eaten anything much since his mother died in a bombing. Then a man gives him an unasked-for meal.
“The plate of food, when he set it before me, was nothing to look at – puffy yellow stuff on toast. But it smelled good. Cautiously, I tasted it. It was melted cheese with chopped up tomato and cayenne pepper and some other things I couldn’t figure out, and it was delicious.”
Tartt turns food into love. Later in the book, her boy hero becomes so undernourished on junk food, booze, drugs and fags that he needs vitamin injections.
Non-fiction food writing is in the ascendancy, with cookbooks and food memoirs continuing to sell well, but food has always found its way into fiction. There’s even a genre (let’s call it chip lit) where eating is the backdrop to the story.
Margaret Atwood’s feminist classic The Edible Woman used food to talk about her character’s crisis of self. The book finishes with Marian MacAlpin cooking a cake in the shape of herself and then eating it. More recently, Herman Koch’s The Dinner set his story over the course of a meal in a fancy restaurant. His angry narrator rails at the rituals of a fine-dining meal with its pinkie-pointing waiter before the rage shifts from funny to sinister.
Using food to tell the reader something about a character is an old trick.
One of the most memorable scenes in Dickens’s Great Expectations is seven- year-old Pip watching the convict Magwitch devour his meal.
“I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog’s way of eating, and the man’s. The man took strong sharp sudden bites just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody’s coming to take the pie away.”
Anyone for rabbit?
Food is splattered through John Updike’s Rabbit series as Harry Angstrom eats his way through the larder of fatty American food that eventually (spoiler alert) kills him. Updike writes vividly about the slippery chew and swallow of eating, putting the reader not just in the mind but also in the body of his character.
Irish writer Paul Lynch was talking about a food scene in his debut novel Red Sky in Morning with a friend recently. “It’s where Coyle pulls an eel out of the river and eats it raw. Have you ever seen a bucket of eels? It’s just the most horrible thing in the world. So the scene was supposed to show just how desperate and horrible the whole thing was. This is as far from comfort food as you can get.”
One of the literary food scenes that stands out for Lynch is the meal in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where the well-padded president of a Moscow court Oblonsky eats with his childhood friend Levin. Tolstoy gives the reader a detailed description of the lavish food. As Oblonsky slurps his oysters and urges a love-sick Levin to have more gravy, the reader gets the impression of a profligate character, Lynch says, “while Levin is a man of spirit”.
Describing appetite and food was one way for Tolstoy to connect readers to the characters in his first 19th-century historical novel, says Lynch. The past may have been another country but they still ate food there.
Choose from the kids’ menu
Children’s literature is as stuffed with food as the average corner shop. From Enid Blyton’s lashings of hot buttered toast to JK Rowling’s Hogwarts feasts, the food gives moments of pleasure in the lulls between the action.
Roald Dahl was the king confectioner of children’s writing and a food fan who had written a cookbook with his wife shortly before he died.The Roald Dahl museum in Buckinghamshire houses a replica of his writing shed and the ephemera he had around him. One artefact is a tennis ball-sized lump of wrapping foil he had made from balling up the foil on his daily chocolate bars.
The most famous Irish literary dinner consists of a feast laid on by the Morkan sisters for their annual dance. Joyce describes the table of food and drink in such detail he could be a playwright giving stage directions. His descriptions have an almost painterly detail. And these brush strokes have allowed the dinner from The Dead to be recreated in the real world, down to the last celery stick, in the years since it was written.
Back in the story, when Gabriel sits down to carve the goose, it calms his nerves. He’s a man in control of himself again after a bleak moment of self-doubt. He “plunged his fork firmly into the goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.”
Food in fiction has strong emotional power. It can pull the same strings with a fictional character as it can with a real person, bypassing logic to go great straight to the pit of our stomachs where the heartfelt stuff lies.
LITERARY DINNERS: THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY
The Dead (a story in Dubliners)
“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes; two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dry sherry.”
Rabbit at Rest
Harry Angstrom eating a bag of Corn Chips:
“He loves the salty ghost of Indian corn and the way each thick flake, an inch or so square, solider than a potato chip and flatter than a Frito and less burny to the tongue than a triangular red-peppered Dorito, sits edgy in his mouth and then shatters and dissolves between his teeth. There are certain things you love putting in your mouth – Nibs, Good and Plentys, dry-roasted peanuts, lima beans cooked not too soft and the rest is more or less disagreeable mush, or meat that gives the teeth too tough a fight and if you think about it almost makes you gag.”
Red Sky in Morning
“He waited and watched, the water slowly swirling, and then he drove down his rod decisive. An eel bedded was broken and brought buckling to the bank, a squirming serpent silverbellied. He dropped it down fine and fat, its fangs snapping at the air. The flesh was oiled and glistening and the creature shook itself out of its confusion and made towards the water as if some keener intelligence other than instinct was at work and he yanked it by the tail and swung it deeper into the bank. He reached down and closed his palm about the creature’s neck and took a stone and hit it. The shape of the head holding firm but the body quickening into spasm and he sat on the grass and watched the life leave its body. No knife for cutting and no way to eat it but to eat it raw. He sat on a stone with his back to the trees and sunk his teeth into the meat.”