Taste, according to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, is a sense which gives us the greatest joy, mingling as it does with all the other pleasures and, as he explains, it can even console us for their absence. I’ve been an inveterate collector of food writing now for over four decades and some of the best examples of transcendental writing about what we eat is found not in cookbooks but in the works of great British novelists and poets where food melds seamlessly with life, death and every kind of pleasure in between. Here are some of my favourites to get your literary taste buds flowing.
1. King Rat by James Clavell
“The King too was concentrating. Over the frypan. He prided himself that no-one could cook an egg better than he. To him, a fried egg had to be cooked with an artists eye, and quickly. Yet not too fast.”
These are the “best goddam eggs you’ve ever seen in your life,” the offended King explodes when Peter Marlowe, pays him a compliment in that typically understated British style where “not bad” can actually mean really rather good indeed. These eggs, delicately powdered with pepper, and then salt, were indeed a benediction and Marlowe is certainly aware of that as the King (actually an American corporal) cooked his meal for the famished and barely alive prisoner. So intoxicating is the aroma that some of the other prisoners walk out, barely able to stand it and Clavell’s stripped back description makes the reader appreciate the exquisite simplicity of such a meal, regardless of its grim context. King Rat was Clavell’s first novel and is based upon this British-born authors own three-year experience as a prisoner in the notorious Changi Prison camp with Marlowe representing his younger self. Set during the Second World War, King Rat describes the struggle for survival of American, Australian, British, Dutch and New Zealander prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore. The eponymous rats are bred for food by the desperate prisoners, which makes this egg-frying scene all the more distressing as it stimulates our own, indulged, taste buds and reminds us that hunger, distressing starving hunger, makes the best sauce.
2. Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess.
“They got through their sweets sourly. Peach mousse with sirop framboise. Cream dessert ring Chantilly with zabaglione sauce. Poires Hélène with cold chocolate sauce. Cold Grand Marnier pudding, strawberry Marlow. Marrons panaché vicomte. “Look,” gasped Hillier, “this sort of thing isn’t my line at all . . . I think I shall be sick.”
There’s a wonderful competitive eating scene in this semi-parody of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, whose central character, a British spy, possesses such an enormous and hearty appetite for food and vigorous sexual intercourse that they cancel each other out. Intended in part as a critique of the same excessive appetites that are characteristic of Fleming’s novels, this stand-out scene pits British spy Hillier against both the indulgent villain Theodorescu and a deliciously repellent backdrop of haute French cuisine. If you’ve still not satiated your appetite despite all this largesse in print form, you’ll want to read the crab-eating scene in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger (one of the novels Burgess was intent on parodying), when Mr Junius Du Pont takes Bond out for dinner to the rather kitsch-sounding Bills on the Beach.
3. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.
“A smell of burnt porridge floated up from the depths. This did not seem promising, but she went down the stairs, her low heels clipping firmly on the stone.”
Photo by Antti T. Nissinen/Flickr
Flora Poste, heroine of Cold Comfort Farm is braver than I for porridge is my culinary nemesis and had I caught even the tiniest whiff of it, my bedroom door would have remained firmly bolted. This is the scene that sticks with me the most, nearly 40 years after first reading Cold Comfort Farm after finding it on my grandfather’s bookshelves. My mother cottoned onto my fear and hatred of porridge pretty darn swiftly and any infraction, however minor, would be punished with threats to take me to the nearby children’s home where ‘I would be made to eat porridge three times a day’. No such place existed but the eight years-old me was not in possession of this knowledge and as she went through the charade of packing my tiny suitcase, I stood there quaking, not in fear of being banished from home, but rather the terrible horrors of thrice-daily porridge. The bubbling cauldrons of porridge in the kitchen of Cold Comfort Farm perfectly captured the seething tensions in the relationship between my mother and I, and despite my love for the novel, I still find this scene rather hard to read.
4. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
“While in the kitchen, Mary Pereira took the time to prepare, for the benefit of their visitors, some of the finest and most delicate mango pickles, lime chutneys and cucumber kasaundies in the world. And now, restored to the status of daughter in her own home, Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her—because Reverand Mother doled out the curries and meatballs of intransigence, dishes imbued with the personality of their creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubborness and the birianis of determination….and although Mary’s pickles had a partially counteractive effect , since she had stirred into them the guilt of her heart and the fear of her discovery so that, good as they tasted, they had the power of making those who ate them subjective to nameless uncertainties.”
Salman Rushdie constantly relates food to memories of attachment, abandonment and loss and childhood which are themes familiar to anyone who has had to leave the place and people they are themselves attached to. He seems to speak to me directly, acknowledging the fact that eating together in my family was always a difficult, painful and guilt-inducing thing and that food sometimes tastes of loss.
5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
Photo: Jason Devaun/Flickr
“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea,” says Cassandra Mortmain, a woman after my own heart, although I tend to eat bread and honey for breakfast instead of late afternoon. Middle child Cassandra lives in a dilapidated castle in Britain with her quirky family and describes their life in diary form with the lightest of touches. In the scene quoted above, Mrs. Stebbins has sent over a comb of honey to accompany the fresh butter sent over by Mr. Stebbins and, as the landscape outside is battered by a storm, the unnerved Cassandra sits down to a tea which belies the fact that they live in unromantic and genteel poverty.
I Capture the Castle is a book which still enchants, littered as it is with food scenes described in loving prose which reflects the simplicity of this family’s repasts: the family must sell furniture so they can afford to eat and there is no large budget for food or anything else. Cassandra can see that quality is still within reach however her appreciation of that plate of honey, bread and butter tells us this and she is able to see their poverty as relative: “I have never thought of us as poor people — I mean, I have never been terribly sorry for us, as for the unemployed, or beggars.”
6. The Country Child by Alison Uttley
“Everyone who called at the farm had to eat and drink at Christmas time.”
The experiences of Susan, the farmer’s daughter at the heart of the story, are based upon author Alison Uttley’s own late-Victorian childhood in the Peak District and the chapter set at Christmas is the most hunger-inducing of them all. The Victorian Christmas fascinates me for many reasons; not the least because during this period, Christmas began to be redefined as a private family time and this replaced the previous fashion for Stuart-style public, baronial feasting although they kept the table groaning with food.
This family went all out for Christmas, catering to their servants and visitors alike although we readers are not allowed to forget the farming year’s work that went into stocking the family larders. Above all, farming families need calories and their laden table is not driven by greed or culinary vanity, piled high as it is; what we see shining on the faces of the diners is gratitude. Cheeses with layers of sage running through the middle ‘like green ribbon’ and stone jars of white lard sat on the pantry floor. The wine chamber stored bottle after bottle of elderberry wine and golden cowslip wine whilst great platters teetered under the weight of mince pies, slabs of fruited cake and jam tarts. There is a cake iced and sprinkled with red, white and blue hundreds and thousands, topped by a Union Jack paper flag with a tumbling clown on its other side. A ham is handsomely cloaked with brown raspings and a paper frill and a pie stuffed with veal, ham and eggs is surrounded by brown boiled eggs in a silver egg stand which “stood like a castle with eight stalwart egg cups and eight curling spoons around the tall handle, bread and butter on Minton china plates with their tiny green leaves and gold edges, a pot of honey and strawberry jam and an old Staffordshire dish of little tarts containing golden curds made of beastings, filled with currants. The cream in the Queen Anne jug is so thick it barely pours out and the beestings are what we’d know as colostrum, milked from a newly delivered cow, and often used to make luxurious curd tarts after being left to set. The whole book is glorious, harking back to a time before two World Wars began to redefine British cooking, and not for the better, either.
7. ‘O Mosey Quince’ by Geoffrey Chaucer
“O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake”
Photo by barockschloss/Flickr
Naughty Chaucer and his anthropomorphised quinces, “enbolned lyke a melow costard, Colour of orenge your brestys satournad.” If his sexual technique is anything like his literary one, we should indeed envy his partners. I studied The Millers Tale at ‘A’ Level in school, and like the rest of the 16-year olds in my class, laughed riotously over tales of hot pokers up bums and cuckolding. I wish I had encountered this poem earlier because ribaldry aside, “O Mosey Quince” is a beautiful example of Chaucer’s warm wit, melodic timing and acute powers of observation. Its subject is an exceedingly well-travelled fruit, native to the Caucasus between Persia and Turkmenistan and then spreading in cultivation to the eastern Mediterranean basin.
Quince is rosy of rump, covered in fuzz and often sourly inedible until cooked although some varieties can be eaten from the tree. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility, love and marriage, and offered slices of the fruit to the bride to sweeten her breath before she entered her marital chambers (although oddly they didn’t seem to believe that the groom’s breath required any enhancement at all). The Greeks baked wedding feast cakes along with honey and sesame seeds as a symbol of enduring commitment— another British poet, Edward Lear, also knew of this. He celebrated the quince in his poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat,” where the owl and the cat dined upon a meal of honey, mince and quince. Replete and imbued with romance and the desire for marital bliss, escape, and adventure, they danced on the sands, beneath the light of a silvery moon.