When Reading a Great Novel Makes Me Want to Cook

Kitchen Diary: Anne in South Carolina

Pin it button big

I love food. I like to eat it, cook it, shop for it, think about it... and even, very occasionally, grow it. I also love to read. In the middle of a good book, no matter how compelling the story, I often get distracted by mentions of food. Years ago, reading John Irving's A Son of the Circus, a brief reference to some street food sent me running to the kitchen to try to make patties with chickpeas, potatoes and green peas. Those budget-friendly veggie burgers made a regular appearance at mealtimes for a while. (Come to think of it, I need to make those again. Too bad I never wrote down a recipe.)

Recently, I was reading another novel and discovered Chicken Marbella.

Pin it button big

Not only did the protagonist in You Should Have Known sing the praises of the dish itself, she had a special affection for the chicken Marbella from a fictional place called Guido's. Later, she and another character figure out the secret ingredient — non-plot-spoiling spoiler alert! — rice vinegar. (Sorry for the spoiler. It has nothing to do with the plot, so you're safe!) Obviously, I could not actually go to Guido's to get the chicken, but I couldn't get to the end of the book without thinking about that recipe.

Lucky for me, I didn't have to go far. The Kitchn recently included Chicken Marbella on a list of under-appreciated dishes of the 1980s. Like everyone who did any cooking in the 80s, I own The Silver Palate Cookbook, which includes the recipe. I went to work.

Pin it button big

Olives? Garlic? Bay leaves? Prunes? Yes, prunes. The dish didn't disappoint. The family loved it and I only made two changes. I used chicken parts instead of whole chickens and I substituted rice vinegar for half of the red wine vinegar, just like I read in the novel. Delicious! Bonus: The bones from the chicken made a particularly delicious chicken stock, and the leftover chicken made a nice Tetrazzini, both with just a hint of Marbella flavor.

The late Nora Ephron is the queen of incidental food writing, and she took it up a notch by providing actual recipes and an index in her novel, Heartburn, one of my personal favorites. I was far too young the first time I read the fictionalized version of her breakup with Carl Bernstein. I was an avid reader and my aunts left books around the beach house, which I would inevitably read when I had read through my own vacation stash. I may not have understood the intricacies of marriage, infidelity and divorce, but I remembered the food.

→ Read more: Nora Ephron's Favorite Recipes: 12 Tributes to a Food Lover on Huffington Post

I like prunes, and I like olives, but this recipe isn't something I would have tried if Jean Hanff Korelitz hadn't put it in her novel. What can I say? I'm easily distracted by food!

Has a novel ever sent you to the kitchen to experiment? What are some of your favorite written food scenes?

(Image credits: Anne Wolfe Postic)