Food in Fiction

July 24, 2011

In the quick blur of reading book after book, I remember the food.

In one of Elmore Leonard’s books, the protagonist sits at the counter of the diner eating green Jello—my memory of that book.

In Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the pork pie Pip stole for the escaped convict holds steady in my mind.

In Henry Fielding’s TOM JONES, that sexiest of all chicken dinners lives everlastingly.

In my novel FACES OF LOVE, the estranged wife visits her husband, finding him in the kitchen frying liver for his dinner. Who can forget liver, that most controversial of foods? Love it or hate it. It’s cheap to buy, messy to fry, one of the few organ foods Americans eats, and its flavor is so distinctive compared with other meats as to be almost outrageous.  When I come upon it in my novel, I say, “Aha! Liver.”

I wrote about Russian piroshkis in my novel THE PROVIDER. These are doughy cylinders stuffed with aromatic meat, potatoes, onions, and meat. Need I say another word?

Sometime, I would like to write a novel in which one  character sits down  each morning at the breakfast table to a large baked potato. The baked potato is one of the great common foods, like bread and butter, basic as can be. It reaches back into early childhood where mothers added milk and butter and beat the steamy pulp into a fluffy mound.  It is the comfort food of love and security. Normally  presented at dinner,  the eccentric setting of breakfast would carry  it into literary posterity.
But what about the reader who has no memory or curiosity about food?
I remember hearing the story of a child who would not eat. The mother was at her wits’ end. The clueless family doctor finally consulted specialists who discovered that the child had no sense of smell. Food in her mouth was disgusting, all mushy texture.
I just read a new memoir by Molly Birnbaum, SEASON TO TASTE. The author describes being a serious chef in-the-making, then losing her sense of smell in a head injury from a car accident. Her career disappeared overnight. All that remained were her memories of food. The book is an unforgettable read. It is also surprising in its depth of scientific research as the author  searches for understanding and a way to regain her sense of smell, and therefore, taste. I highly recommend the book.