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Literature and food – the perfect combination?

Written by Claire Speer, 17th September 2010

Published on behalf of Lizzie Cain, currently in the middle of two week's work experience with The Reader Organisation

Having experienced my first ever Friday Lunch at the Reader one week ago today, featuring a veritable cornucopia of edible delights (especially in the muffin department), I must have had food on the brain, as reports of a cake-based tribute to Agatha Christie jumped out at me.

To celebrate the author’s 120th birthday, Jane Asher has used a passage in Christie’s A Murder is Announced to create her own version of the Delicious Death cake described. An incredible, indeed deadly, concoction of “chocolate and much butter, and sugar and raisins”, its fictional cook declares that “these English people with their cakes that tastes of sand, never, never will they have tasted such a cake”.  Brave readers can judge this for themselves by attempting the recipe:

Food plays a big role in literature, with evocative descriptions making a particular impression on childhood minds. Enid Blyton’s picnics of ginger beer, potted meats and milk drunk straight from the cow always sounded slightly strange to my thoroughly modern sensibilities, but, much like the characters themselves, undeniably wholesome and just plain ‘good’. Roald Dahl also provides numerous unforgettable food-related incidents, such as Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake victory over Miss Trunchbull, or the disgusting eating habits of the Twits. Need I even mention Willy Wonka’s factory?

The uses and abuses of food by characters convey much deeper moral messages; the hero Charlie Bucket’s grandparents have to scrimp and save to buy him a single chocolate bar, which he reverently savours. This is in comparison to the other four ticket winners who gorge themselves and come to the inevitable sticky end.

It is no different in adult literature; the confectionery choices made by the customers of Vianne Rocher’s chocolaterie in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat reveal far more about the state of their private lives and true feelings than their words ever do. Similarly, Hilary Mantel’s deployment of culinary detail in Wolf Hall is crucial to her utterly believable recreation of the sixteenth century world.  The characters use food as a tool to be manipulated in the cut-throat environment of courtly politics, as well as a source of pleasure and comfort, while the author uses it to aid the setting and atmosphere.

What are your most memorable food moments in literature? Have you ever attempted to recreate a favourite meal? We’d love to hear from you – maybe your suggestions will inspire a future Friday Lunch here at the Reader!

7 thoughts on “Literature and food – the perfect combination?

Sue Garner-Jones says:

Well, the best is Mr Dickens, of course, with the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner only one of many delights.

However, HE Bates’ Larkins books (the first is The Darling Buds of May) are filled with ‘food glorious food’!

Warning: Don’t read these books at bedtime as you’ll need a late night snack – or two!

Sue Garner-Jones says:

Here’s a particularly delicious bite from A Christmas Carol:

‘There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows. ‘

Don’t you just love the image of the little ones ‘steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows’? It’s wonderful how the meagre meal is recorded, enjoyed and remembered as a ‘feast’: the delights of Dickens never cease to amaze.

louise says:

The moment I hear the name ENID BLYTON my mind shoots back to my childhood were practically everytime i stayed over night at my friends house , would have a midnight feast made famous by the girls in Mallory Towers and other such school stories.
The excitement was really the buildup running up and down the stairsto the bedroom were we would gather food and hide it under the bed, the plans were organised with very loud whispers and much laughter, the rest of the house knew what we were up to (good job not planning a secret war raid as everyone would know about our secret)
Waiting for midnight takes a lifetime when a child and is very boring ,although I Find it very difficult to sleep so I would be the only one awake !not so much fun having a feast by myself! I was telling my 8 year old neice about midnight feasts but think has got the wrong idea wanting to know if we turned into something magical ,errrr no but the memory was definitely magical for me!

[…] let’s be honest: we’re readers, not runners; and as past blog posts have proven, we LOVE cake. I’m not talking about low-fat-skinny-marge cake, I’m talking […]

Caroline says:

Check out – it’s an awesome blog about food and literature!

Natalie says:

Ah, Roald Dahl – of course. Most recently Gail Anderson Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning!

Natalie says:

Ah, Roald Dahl – of course. Most recently Gail Anderson Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning.

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