Why We Hunger for Novels About Food
Eleven Writers of 'Food Fiction' Weigh In
While putting imaginary meals on the page, I have thought a great deal about the central role that food plays in our lives. Food is love. Food is conviviality. Food is politics. Food is religion. Food is history. Food is consolation. Food is fuel. Food identifies us and who we are. It can even help us make sense of our world. We live in a culture where #foodporn is one of the hottest hashtags and seeking out the best new ramen or avocado toast trend is a more popular hobby than collecting stamps. And the “culinary enthusiasts” among us can’t get our fill of books about food.
But what about authors of food fiction? What compels them to write about what—and how—we eat?
I myself have been smitten with books about food since a friend of mine recommended that I read M.F.K. Fisher decades ago. I devoured The Art of Eating and everything else she had written. In her books I found both the exotic and the comfortable. I had never been to France or eaten escargot, but I reveled in her descriptions of food, in her use of simple phrases to evoke such specific sensations: “The air tastes like mead in our throats,” she writes in The Art of Eating. I hope to stir the same feelings and create the same sensory pleasures in others with my novels about famous culinary figures in Italian history.
Now this is a book I can really sink my teeth into, I thought as I once read the opening paragraph of The Flounder by Nobel prizewinner Gunter Grass.
Ilsebill put on more salt. Before the impregnation there was shoulder of mutton with string beans and pears, the season being early October. Still at table, still with her mouth full, she asked, “Should we go to bed right away, or do you first want to tell me how when where our story began?”
The rest of the novel, which tells the story of an immortal fish who meets an immortal man who falls in love with cooks over and over through the centuries, is just as delicious and delightful in its descriptions of food. To this day, it’s one of my favorite novels.
In reading The Flounder and other sumptuous works of culinary fiction, I’m reminded of something dramatist George Bernard Shaw once said: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” It’s a statement to which I think we could all gladly raise a glass.
Louise Miller, author of The Late Bloomers’ Club
“Food is the great equalizer—everyone eats—and what we eat and how we eat it can be so emotional and can carry deep meaning. Food can also be so revealing. I remember an old New Yorker cartoon that pictured a mother and her young daughter sitting in a restaurant looking at a menu. The mother responds to her daughter’s question: ‘Chocolate pudding? I think you would like it. It’s a lot like chocolate mousse.’ That one line tells us so much!”
Phillip Kazan, author of Appetite
“Food for me is very tied up with memories of my Greek grandmother, whose tiny kitchen in London was a treasure-house of tastes and smells in the grey, flavorless world of ‘60s and ‘70s England, where olive oil was something you had to buy from a pharmacist as a cure for earache. Presumably the pharmacist in our village thought our family had appalling ear problems, because my mother bought hundreds of his tiny bottles of oil for her cooking. I remember cookbooks as this wonderful escape route to exotic, warm, generous places: Greece, from where relatives would visit with huge tins of olives and bags of sugared almonds; or India, where my father was born. Writing, in a way, is an extension of my cooking, and vice versa. Cooking taught me how to create, that I needed to create.”
Randy Susan Meyers, author of Waisted
“I grew up in a family where food was the comforting evil (or the evil comfort). My mother—for whom dress size was the holy grail—watched every bite I took. When in a restaurant, first she’d not order what she wanted and then she’d steal bites from my plate. If I protested, she’d say, ‘If you love me, you’ll share your food.’ Often, we barely had food in the house and meals were haphazard at best. My sister snacked on raw Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I ate uncooked matzo meal. We lived on cold cereal—which to this day is my top comfort food. My mother hid cookies and cake inside our giant pressure cooker and then put the pot on the very top of our already high cabinets. My sister and I were under ten, but a pressure cooker was no match for us. I’m surprised we didn’t become mountain climbers for how often we scampered up the peaks leading to buried sweets.”
Ramin Ganeshram, author of The General’s Cook
“I’m from an immigrant family. My parents were from two countries that, at the time, had little representation here in the U.S.—even in New York City where I was born and raised. My dad was from Trinidad and Tobago and my mother was from Iran. I was also brought up in a time where people still really tried to assimilate so they downplayed their native culture with their kids. The one thing that remained a solid connection was the food we ate. I realized from a young age that I could get my parents to talk about their homes when we were eating the foods they had prepared from their respective cultures. My father, particularly, was a born storyteller and if you could talk with him while he was cooking you would get the best stories.”
Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light
“The main character in my novel is based on Lee Miller, a woman who reinvented herself multiple times in her life—first as a model, then a photographer, and finally as a gourmet chef who wrote for Vogue and other women’s magazines of the day. In all my research about her, there was never any mention of her love of food prior to her becoming a chef. This makes no sense to me. Of course, she must have loved food—and she moved to Paris in 1929, where she would have enjoyed meals quite different—and presumably more delicious—than what she ate growing up in Poughkeepsie. I wanted her love of food to be palpable throughout the novel, both to foreshadow her shift to cooking later in life, but also because I think enjoying food—enjoying the pleasures of the body—is integral to who she is as a character. I see Lee Miller as a woman of voracious appetites: she was hugely ambitious and adventurous, and very sexual. Food seemed like another way to understand her overall hungers.”
Charlie Holmberg, author of Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet
“In writing, I think food is an excellent method of transportation. If I were to detail a table setting with food you’ve never heard of, but I describe a flaky crust, the way a gelatin gives underneath a knife, and the smell of burnt sugar, you are there. You smell and taste and see that meal. It gives a story, ancient magical tales included, a sense of realness.”
David Baker, author of Vintage
“A dish is a story . . . it’s the story of the culture that created it, the person who made it, the story of the ingredients and where they’re from, the tale of the meal’s creation—successful or otherwise—and then of sharing it. The whole process is a form of narrative. The same goes for wine . . . it’s the story of millions of years of geology that created the region where the fines grow. It’s the story of the culture of the region and then a time capsule of what happened weather-wise the year in which the grapes ripened, and finally what the winemaker did during that year. There are so many layers of narrative in food and wine that it’s a rich field for exploration in writing.”
Amy Reichert, author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake
“I didn’t realize I was a food writer until after people responded to my novels, and I’ve embraced it. One of my favorite parts of writing has become sharing my regional cuisine with them—writing about Wisconsin culinary delights like a Door County fish boil or our classic brandy old-fashioneds. It’s one of the ways I share my love of Wisconsin.”
Marjan Kamali, author of The Stationery Shop
“It happened quite organically—pardon the pun. But it’s impossible for me to write about Iran and Iranians without including a lot of food because the preparation of huge meals is an integral part of the culture, and sharing those meals at feast-like parties is common across the classes. Food takes on added significance for my characters because they are displaced from their original home. They are Iranians living in America. There is a longing for the familiar foods they know and a constant search for ingredients they love. Cooking Persian meals links my characters to their past and heritage. Sharing Persian food with Americans is a way for them to create and deepen new relationships.”
Jenna Blum, author of The Lost Family
“While I was writing The Lost Family, I cooked a lot—to meditate on the day’s writing as well as to kitchen-test all the recipes I then featured on the book’s menu. Some of my favorite lines for the book would bubble up that way, as if from a Magic 8-Ball, and one of them was ‘vegetables have no language.’ I revised this slightly for the novel, but it means that food is universal. The produce and spices will vary from country to country and cuisine to cuisine, but if you love food, you have a vast family out there. We can all communicate about how our beloved dishes are different—and how they are the same.”
Crystal King’s The Chef’s Secret is out now from Atria.