The Hungry Reader: On Cooking and Plot
Sometimes novels that aren’t trying to be about food have the best descriptions of cooking and eating. Perhaps it’s because they’re not always trying to come up with another word for eat that isn’t munched. Or maybe it’s that details about what is being eaten and how it’s being prepared help to draw us closer to the characters, adding a new dimension of information and intimacy. Either way, it’s always a delight to stumble on great cooking tips in the middle of a tumultuous plot development.
In his quirky first novel Maynard and Jennica, Rudolph Delson indulges in a full page and a half description on how to make hippie-influenced, wholegrain french toast. Earlier in the book, titular character Maynard is faced with the challenge of preparing dinner from the limited offerings of a rural Massachusetts co-op (Brussels sprouts, milk and eggs)
Here’s an excerpt about dinner at Jennica Green’s childhood home, described by her friend Nadeen:
Susan would be like, “You should stay for dinner, Nadine. Tonight we are having the Apricot Dish.” And she’d be chopping apricots into a frying pan full of ground turkey sautéed in cumin. And Mitchell Green would come home from work and be like, “Smells like the Apricot Dish! Let’s put on La Traviata.” Then they’d all start arguing about which opera to listen to while eating the Apricot Dish. Gabe would say, “So long as there are no arias in a minor key, because minor keys inhibit digestion.” I’d be like, What are these people talking about? And Jenny would be saying, “The best thing with the Apricot Dish is the goat’s-milk yogurt.” And Mitchell would be like, “I agree,” and start burrowing through their fridge for the goat’s-milk yogurt.
Jenny and I would set the table. With napkins and napkin rings and wooden bowls for the salad. And then, at seven P.M. sharp, they’d all sit down together at this table for six. Susan, Mitchell, Jenny, Gabe, me and one chair where they would balance all nineteen kinds of salad dressing they had brought out for Susan’s shiitake mushroom and red bean salad. And out would come the Schmüchlblärchl and the Apricot Dish and some mashed potatoes. They’d all be like, “Yum! The Apricot Dish!” I’d be like, Why? Why are we eating fried apricots and turkey with goat’s-milk yogurt? When there is deli meat right in the fridge? And rye bread in the breadbox? The Green’s aren’t insane, like my family, so why, why must we suffer? Meanwhile, Mitchell would be like, “Nadine, this is an important aria. This is where Violetta declares the folly of love,” and he starts singing along. And I’d be making myself swallow the Schmüchlblärchl and thinking about the pastrami and the mustard.
Another good example is the French novel Hunting and Gathering (Anna Galvada) in which the primary character is an emotionally wounded, anorexic artist living on the streets in Paris. Her rescue and subsequent redemption is in part due to an exquisite consommé made with fresh coriander and “Pearls from Japan noodles” cooked and fed to her by a rascally chef (why are male chefs always rascally and why is that not a problem?)