Food and books (when good) bring people together. It is a fact of life, just as it is a fact that I can rarely say no to red wine and dark chocolate, and make the *best* chocolate chip cookies. Food and reading are family experiences; we learn about both, and learn to love or hate both from a young age, almost passively, depending on what is happening around us. My mother would wield a wooden spoon and a beat-up pan and concoct amazing meals, sweets, cakes; cooking was as magical to me as reading. Someone with enough power, or skill, or knowledge can make some of nothing, as an author might pull a story from the ether. But only the best are able to share that skill, and create a space where it can be passed on to others.
A well-turned phrase can be as enticing as the scent of freshly baked bread. A well-planned menu with good friends and a beautiful setting is poetry in itself. So it is no surprise that food and literature converge in many ways, both on and off the page.
Think, for a moment, back to childhood stories. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Patricia Polacco’s Thunder Cake, and all the food collected by Roald Dahl from his books in Revolting Recipes. In the simplest sense, these are accessible and loved because children relate to needing to eat to grow, they relate to the warm, safe feeling that comes from a family home and kitchen even during a scary thunderstorm, and they find the fun and whimsy food can bring when combined with just a little bit of imagination.
I remember that when I stumbled into Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, half the fun was dreaming about the food and the feasts within the abbey walls. I think a part of why I wanted so badly to spend some time in the UK was to try scones and pasties and see for myself the place that inspired the food culture found within Mossflower. I was heartbroken when I couldn’t find a copy of Jacques’ cookbook other than the ONE copy shared by all the circulating libraries in Connecticut (which went missing sometime in 2004). However, after many failed experiments I made my own version of the baked oatmeal found within the pages: mix oats, fruit, and nuts in a bake-safe bowl, add cinnamon, brown sugar, or honey, or any other preferred spices and sweetener. Pour over milk, stir, and bake until it looks done at whatever is a medium-hot temperature for the oven used.
Giving directions in a kitchen, or at least, paying enough attention to what I was doing to later give direction was not a strong suit of mine. Luckily I learned to follow directions, and recipes well, just as I learned to deconstruct literature according to theory and write according to certain rules.
But sometimes food and literature is about taste, especially when it comes to trying to create something new. My first creative writing workshop in college was wonderful not only because of the professor and the generally pleasant, unpretentious peer group, but also because of the wonderful chocolate chip cookies the professor brought in from time to time. These were flat, crisp, rounds half a head large that would melt and crumble when bit. It took me two years of experimenting with her small hints at how to modify a classic recipe to replicate them, and another three to perfect them. But even now, no matter how many times a bake a batch, the smell and the texture of butter and sugar melting and melding between my fingers takes me back to a place filled with happiness and intellectual pursuits.
That is what the kitchen and the library, the academic salon and dinner table have in common. Books and food anchor a setting for people to come together and taste something new, share a favorite, or just simply ingest. Think about it: Chicken Soup for the Soul, soul food, sampling, selecting, sharing, imbibing, tasting, trying, brewing ideas, mulling thoughts, savouring words, foods that exclaim through scent or flavor. We eat, we feast, we partake of people and nutrients, characters and flavors, thoughts, ideas – we leave sated, yet looking forward to the next experience.
One of my favorite professors has become a long-time mentor, and though I left her classroom some years ago, I have not ceased to learn from her. Every so often, I go to lunch at her house, and she fills the walls with good food, good people, and inevitably good conversation. I developed a love for Brussels sprouts salad and quiche à la Dorie Greenspan while talking about jazz and politics, pottery, bread making and the place of technology in the future. We all may have bonded over our exchanged ideas, but we came together first through a shared meal. People, whether real or what thoughts they left behind between pages can be as much of a larder for our minds, as the kitchen pantry is for our stomachs.
Feed the mind, feed the body. And above all remember that in both cases, meals are to be shared.