'Great Expectations' of literary food
From cartoons to books to movies, there is one recurring theme that catches the eye and engages all sensory experiences, and true to Proust's belief, it is the pure, unadulterated joy of a good meal. And I have been forever enamoured by food, be it featured on the dining table or on the many pages of children's books, and in later years, adult literature that I have pored over as I gulped down Ma's 'Bhaat Biran' (left-over rice cooked in a pool of ghee, scrambled eggs, and finished with coriander).
In my winding path as a reader, I have jumped from book to book, often dreaming of the places and elaborate meals showcased in them. There is a special intimacy to reading how the characters enjoy their food, watching them swig their coffee in moments of stress, or smoke the last puff of cigarette before heading into an important meeting. It was with bemused delight that I read through the completely bonkers Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, where he took children through a series of lands, with waterfalls and rivers of chocolate and grass blades made of sugar. Dahl had a special penchant for writing about food in his stories, often carrying symbolic value. Be it in Matilda or in The BFG, Dahl has no qualms in serving up the most bizarre and exciting meals to his characters depending on how he wanted to portray them and progress their story. Take for example, in The BFG, where the good giant keeps eating scozzcumbers, a bland, appalling plant which he also uses to drive out the bad giants from his cave. The BFG is of course, later—after eradicating the bad giants through various means—rewarded with the prize of good food: a ridiculous amount of eggs, bacon, sausages, and fried potatoes.
Being on one or the other kind of "diet" all my adult life, I have found myself often living vicariously. And so, it was in reading about food in literature that I could satiate my desire to observe others eating, complete with vivid, heart wrenching descriptions of how hunger drove orphaned Oliver Twist to walk up to the master and ask for another bowl of gruel. Victorian author Dickens did pay incredible attention to detail in his writing about food—like in Great Expectations where the author managed to turn a simple snack of bread and butter into something indulgent and I am taken on a visual journey, finding myself salivating as young Pip describes his sister buttering bread: "My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread-and-butter for us that never varied. First, with her left hand she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her… Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she were making a plaister—using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity and trimming and moulding the butter off round the crust."
It makes sense to enjoy reading about food in literature. It gives the characters depth and makes them familiar, alive even. It can also lead to trouble, like how in Narnia, Edmund is lured by the White Witch, with promises of Turkish Delight. I found myself shaking my head as Edmund gorges down the sugary confectionary, a dessert I later found to be not so delightful at all to start a revolution in the fantasy land.
And then there is the friendship, empathy, and moment of intimacy that I felt when snooping at meals of the poverty-stricken Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The coming of age story of Francie reeled me in but it was author Betty Smith's elaborate, almost accidental food writing that made me stay back. Francie, the heroine of my youth, who planned on going through all the books in an alphabetical order in the library also had a special weakness for food—after all, it was scarce to come by for her dirt-poor family living in Brooklyn in the early 1900s.
She orchestrated a lie to get a taste of a five-cent pumpkin pie, a deeply humbling affair that moved me to tears. Reading through Francie's day-to-day life, humbled me and also made me hungry. Her mother, Katie, was exalted to magician status with only stale bread in her pantry, the staple ingredient to the family's daily meals: "She'd take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavour it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion, and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour, and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty, and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat."
In literature, a good meal is also used as a balm for wounds or bad dates. Like that time, after an especially bad date, when Holden Caulfield, heads over for a cheese sandwich and malted milk, because can there be anything better than bread and cheese to fix a bad day?
Close to home, the excitement of a meal is not forgone here as well. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay transported me along with Durga and Apu to a paradise of guava and mangosteen and custard-apple trees. Together with Durga and Apu, I found my mouth watering in the quest for simple ingredients to make "a mango pickle" with oil, salt, and chilli. All of this to be ended with sweet, syrupy roshogolla, that writer Syed Mujtaba Ali's protagonist Jhanduda feeds to everyone at the airport after a customs officer questions him about the ingredients in his tin box.
Reading about food has taken me on a winding journey through the American landscape, eating endless apple pies and ice cream with Jack Kerouac, made me break into a sweat at the thought of the expensive, almost unaffordable meal with Maugham in his 'The Luncheon' at a Paris restaurant, transported me to mythical lands for a drink of Butterbeer, and eat Swiss cheese in The Alps when it was nowhere to be found in my own country. My meals in literature have been nothing short of a gastronomic experience and I find myself hungry for more.