When Reading a Great Novel Makes Me Want to Cook

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Anne Wolfe Postic)

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.

(Image credit: Anne Wolfe Postic)

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.

(Image credit: Anne Wolfe Postic)

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.

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?