x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Good enough to read: writers and food

In literature, food and eating reveal characters and represent emotions. We look at how writers set the scene by setting the table.

In Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the taste of a madeleine one dull winter day prompts the narrator's memories of childhood.
In Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the taste of a madeleine one dull winter day prompts the narrator's memories of childhood.

Would you eat your own wallpaper? While the thought doesn't immediately appeal, this is one of the fantasies recreated by the wildly inventive British star chef Heston Blumenthal in his recent television show on the UK's Channel 4, Heston's Feasts. In one episode, Heston's Chocolate Factory Feast, inspired by Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Blumenthal tries to bring some of the book's bizarre food ideas to life. It's an appropriate project for the man Dahl's widow dubbed "the real life Willy Wonka".

While the idea is certainly rather far out, taking inspiration from children's literature is not something Blumenthal has dreamt up for his television series alone. At his restaurant The Fat Duck, an edible fob watch (made of gold leaf-covered calf's head) recently appeared on the menu, served dunked in "tea" (actually a broth) in a tea cup. Intended to recall the mad hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland, it's another of Blumenthal's zany but inspired ideas that has made its way into the show.

These literary adaptations may be decidedly offbeat, but somehow they make perfect sense. Books often explore the world they create through eating, and in doing so, they demonstrate how much more there is to our food habits than mere appetite. A way to touch on everything from jealousy to kindness, food scenes in literature anatomise all sorts of emotions - even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was really a critique of children's greed and selfishness. From a massive pool of possible choices, here is a quick survey of some of the feelings writers have used food to explore.

If you thought the French rubbed garlic on their bread as a culinary refinement, think again. According to George Orwell's autobiographical account of living on the breadline, Down and Out in Paris and London, very poor people used to do this because it made the food's taste linger, partly fooling the body that it had eaten recently. A grim but utterly compelling book, Down and Out is packed with fascinating food anecdotes, from discussing how the French Zip brand of bouillon is only bought by people close to starvation, to looking at the poor hygiene of the restaurant kitchens where Orwell worked as a skivvy. While the Paris section contains some revolting descriptions of chefs licking and slobbering over diners' food, even bleaker is the diet Orwell subsists on while living in London's doss houses - an unchanging round of weak tea and white bread with margarine. Another classic evocation of what it feels like to crave food is Knut Hamsun's Hunger, which follows a starving young writer on a walk around 19th century Oslo in search of food. Lulled into a semi-hallucinatory state by lack of food, Hamsun's hero goes as far as trying to eat his most precious possession - his pencil.

"Is that it?" The forbidden excitement CS Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe creates around the pleasures of Turkish Delight often leads to disappointed anticlimax when child readers actually get to taste the stuff. The book's most famous scene comes when the arch villainess the White Witch offers the young Edmund Pevensie an enchanted box of the gluey sweets in return for a promise to come with his siblings to her frozen castle. While Turkish Delight might not be delicious enough to deliver your family into the hands of evil, it's worth remembering that the Pevensie children were Second World War evacuees. In a period when rationing made even desiccated egg a rare treat, any sugary food takes on a lustre that our instantly sated appetites today have trouble imagining.

Charles Dickens' books are so packed with puddings and pies that it sometimes feels like the reader is being bombarded with a catapult full of suet. From a life's work heaving with food, perhaps the most memorable passage is A Christmas Carol's description of Christmas at the humble Cratchit family.

With their small goose bursting with stuffing and their modest pudding, they're still happier than the loveless Scrooge, eavesdropping on their happiness with the Ghost of Christmas Present. On the more gothic side, there's no more potent metaphor for love gone sour than Miss Havisham's wedding cake in Great Expectations, left crumbling and nibbled by mice for decades as Miss Havisham grimly relives the day she was jilted at the altar.

Inspired by the taste of a cake dipped in herbal tea, Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is the ultimate literary take on food and nostalgia. Tasting a madeleine one dull winter day, the narrator is reminded of the flavours of his childhood, and starts pondering on the clutter of memories and disappointments that have filled his life since then. While this episode has become something of a literary milestone - many more people know about it than have actually read it - Proust's suite of novels is in fact full of other telling foodie details. From the narrator's cook Francoise's immaculate glazed carrots to the bad cider the Duchess of Guermantes is convinced is wonderful just because it comes from her estate, the book is full of sensual memories, seasoning the text with a sense of tenderness sharpened by regret.

Evelyn Waugh's florid, fawning Brideshead Revisited, which follows the decline of a decaying family of English Catholic aristocrats, isn't a patch on his wittier satires, but it does include some fantastic food scenes. Best of all is the moment when the narrator, Charles, makes tolerable a meeting with the apparently ghastly Rex - the husband of his soon-to-be lover Julia - by holding it at his favourite Paris restaurant. The delicious menu consists of sorrel soup, simply cooked sole, a caneton à la presse (pressed duck) and a lemon soufflé.

Charles observes: "At the last minute, fearing the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis." Indulging in languid descriptions of the food, Waugh uses the meal to outline just what a shallow, brash person the businessman Rex is supposed to be, noting his inability to appreciate subtle food (he barely notices the understated sole). An interesting memento of refined gastronomic taste between the wars, what strikes the reader more clearly now about the scene, however, is how unaware Waugh seems to be that his haughty attitude is in itself rather vulgar.

For an international man of action, Ian Fleming's James Bond certainly ate a large amount of heavy food. A vivid window into the aspirations and tastes of 1950s Britain, Bond's diet seems to consist mainly of large chunks of meat and fish, with a very old-fashioned disdain for foreign chefs who disguise poor quality meat with rich sauces. In Goldfinger, he guzzles a dinner of oeufs en cocotte, sole meuniere, and camembert at Orléans' Hotel de la Gare, only to have sauerkraut, gruyère and pumpernickel in Switzerland the following day (all this after an unspecified breakfast and a lunch of meat).

This may help explain 007's constant flirting with death - it was, perhaps, the only way he could keep slim.