Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Literary Appetite

I found this old stump for an essay on books and food, and it seemed relevant for the current discussion about the Harry Potter books and whether they are any good at all as a first course in a literary feast that will last a lifetime:

What snack goes best with Walt Whitman's poetry? There is no etiquette about food and books (unless the book belongs to someone else than the diner), perhaps because books are supposed to be food themselves, food for thought.

But many types of books can make the reader literally hungry. If one is careful and the book isn't borrowed, why not satisfy this hunger?

In my case it all began with Enid Blyton's children's books, full of picnics and cream teas. In those days I had little control of my snack times, and Blyton's books made me both ravenous and enraged. To read about thick slabs of chocolate cake and then to be told that dinner wouldn't be for hours makes a girl mad.

Later on I had more freedom to respond to my urges. Dostoyevsky, one of the heroes of my teenage years, seemed to insist on rye bread and pickles. Lots and lots of both; otherwise the misery of it all was simply too much. Jane Austen's elegant irony might have evoked the desire for cucumber sandwiches in more refined readers. It made me ache for hot, greasy French fries straight out of the carton, perhaps to keep the world balanced.

Philosophy, physics and mathematics beg for sinfully rich chocolate truffles to refuel the reader's brain after the needed mental gymnastics. This was one of the reasons I didn't major in any of these fields in college: chocolate truffles were beyond a student's budget.

As I grew up, I realized that almost all genres of books taste better with food. Science fiction often describes an unreal, cold world of outer space. Everything happens in the artificial surroundings of spaceships. The food these books require is fruit: fuzzy, perfumed peaches with their juices running down the pages, purple grapes with slimy seeds, translucent pears which melt in the mouth and leave the page-turning fingers sticky. This grounds the stories in real planetary nature.

Detective stories go with nuts. Nuts to crack? The best nuts are unshelled, but this makes an unpleasant mess after a couple of hundred pages. For the trickiest plots nothing beats salted cashews and smoked almonds with their complicated flavors. Unless, of course, the murderer used nuts to do the dastardly deed.

Travel books need portable snacks: finger food. Stuffed olives and chunks of hard exotic cheeses go nicely with tours of France and Italy, crumbly halva is ideal for any trip through Turkey and boiled sweets tucked in the cheek go well with almost all other travels. The one exception is stories about deserts. They must be accompanied with ice cream, preferably vanilla or mint-flavored and in a half-melted state.

I can only think of one type of books which can't be made more enjoyable by eating along. This is cook books. I used to read them while having dinner during the poor periods of my life, hoping to deceive my palate into believing that it wasn't tasting plain boiled spaghetti but duck with oranges, not cold baked beans straight out of the can but risotto with porcini mushrooms. This doesn't work. It makes all appetite go away.

Neither does it help to eat the dish actually described in the book. It never tastes as mysteriously delicious as it reads.

The correct way to read cook books is before dinner, best prepared by someone else. But other than cook books, almost any book can be improved by enjoying it with suitable food. What that might be depends on the reader. Caviar with Tolstoy? Mint humbugs with Dickens? Perhaps. But I am still not sure what would go with Whitman.

It doesn't really work with the Harry Potter topic, which is all about how the Potter books are not good literature and how people should read something more uplifting instead. Or the other Harry Potter topic which is the argument that those books are from the devil and will consign the reader to hell, too. At least the barbecues should be good down there.