From the humble madeleine to the epic banquet, food and festivities have provided some of literature’s most memorable moments. Hephzibah Anderson tucks in.

“Roast turkey and stuffing, lashings of cider applesauce, vegetables of every kind, mince pies and ‘plum-puddin'”: it’s all on the Thanksgiving menu at the New England home of Louisa May Alcott’s Bassett family. Published in 1881, An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving is narrated by Jo, the bookish sister from Little Women, and needless to say the meal doesn’t quite go according to plan.

The day before, the Bassett parents are summoned away to tend grandma, who’s apparently on her last legs. Home alone, the children decide to cook their own Thanksgiving feast, which is how catnip and wormwood find their way into the stuffing, the turkey burns and the pudding turns out “as hard and heavy as one of the stone balls on Squire Dunkin's great gate”.

Happily, ma and pa return in the nick of time with news that grandma is just fine. There’s nothing to be done about that poor pudding but there is merriment, togetherness and gratitude. All in all, it’s a cosy reminder of what Thanksgiving is truly about, something folk were apparently apt to lose sight of even before Black Friday and rampant commercialisation warped the holiday’s meaning.

As writers from Shakespeare to Asterix creator René Goscinny have shown, celebratory meals come in handy as a literary device. They bring people together (and drive them apart), occasioning conversation (and stupendous quarrels), along with philosophical reflections on time’s passing. In such settings, ‘pass the salt’ can speak volumes about power struggles, illicit flirtations or long-nurtured grudges. The very menus can be equally eloquent, whether they’re a link to the past or an aspirational nod to the future. And of course food doesn’t have to be lavish to seem like a feast. The inhabitants of Tolkien’s Middle-earth knew plenty about fine dining but when Sam and Frodo have to sit down to cram – a sort of elven Ryvita – at the end of a long day’s questing, it doesn’t seem all that bad.

According to Tolkien, noshing on cram was “more of a chewing exercise” than actual eating, nutritious though it was. But sometimes it’s the descriptions of humbler meals that are most memorable, tapping as they do a set of scents and tastes familiar to many. Here’s the narrator of Moby Dick rhapsodising a steaming bowl of clam chowder: ‘Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt’. If that has your tummy rumbling, you probably don’t want to be reminded about the sausages in The Silver Chair by CS Lewis – “spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt”. Who but the creator of Narnia could make a sausage so magical? The perfect New York pretzel is what a lad in David Gilbert’s & Sons craves. You know the kind, and if you don’t, well here it is, “the dough toasted to perfection, the twist salted with a light, sticky snow…and don’t forget the lasso of mustard.” That pretzel is a tantalising mirage – it can be had from just one particular hot dog cart in Central Park, and when that cart cannot be found, the pretzel becomes only more delicious in its searcher’s memory, encapsulating the profound yearning that sits at the novel’s heart.

Memory cakes

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about food and memory without mentioning those famous madeleines. So familiar has Proust’s cake-inspired reverie become that even for those who’ve never read Remembrance of Things Past, biting into a madeleine can become a kind of ‘meta’ experience. Meanwhile, the author pops that morsel into his mouth, takes a sip of tea, and travels through time: “The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.”

There’s a timeless quality to the moment but as multi-sensory shorthand, food can capture an era like nothing else except, perhaps, pop music. Just think of that scrumptious dinner party in Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club – melon, steak, Black Forest gateau, and all washed down with lashings of Blue Nun. Need I mention that it’s set in 1970s England?  

Food certainly creates atmosphere. Remember that scene in The Wind in the Willows when, lost in the miry December darkness with Rat, Mole smells his poor old neglected home? Arriving at Mole End his heart sinks – it’s small and cold and dusty, not a patch on Ratty’s snug River Bank. What’s more, there’s nothing to eat. Or so it appears, but hunting through cupboards and drawers, they rustle up mulled ale, “a tin of sardines – a box of captain's biscuits, nearly full – and a German sausage encased in silver paper.” Then the field mice come a-carolling. “There's a banquet for you!' Rat says. 'I know some animals who would give their ears to be sitting down to supper with us to-night!”

If food can be emotional, then it’s also tough to beat as a cultural signifier. Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie drips with evocative detail, but there’s nothing more resonant than its plain, hearty food – the sugar-sprinkled fresh bread, the salty-batter pancakes with lemon, the porridge dabbed onto plates on cold mornings, its ‘smoky lumps’ sweetened with treacle. As a child growing up in England some 60 years later, I was equally fascinated by the many rounds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches consumed in Judy Blume novels – what could be more exotic? Certain other dishes seem to contain a people’s entire history – the rice pudding, for instance, served up in the late-night cafeterias to which the displaced flock in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s New York City stories. Each spoonful seems unbearably poignant. Maybe that’s why Ernest Hemingway so often has his wandering expats eat local dishes?

Healthy appetites

Authors also raid the pantry when they’re building or illuminating character. Nothing better defines young Oliver Twist than his daring request for more gruel. Sometimes, food becomes a metaphor for more risqué desires. I’m thinking of that scene in Tom Jones – memorably embellished in the 1963 movie but there in the original novel, too – in which the seductress Mrs Waters watches our ravenous hero consume three pounds of ox. After all, Fielding explains, appetites must be sated. Or not in the case of feminist works like The Edible Woman, in which Margaret Atwood’s heroine, newly engaged, feels herself becoming separated from her body. She begins anthropomorphising food, and is soon unable to eat.

In children’s literature, teatime is an important ritual, balancing out the exuberant chaos that laps at the edges of the best books, whether it’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Maurice Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen or Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Here too, however, food can convey darker notes. Sure, Beatrix Potter calls to mind radishes and dewy lettuce, but let’s not forget how Peter Rabbit’s pa ends up. As a pie, baked by Mrs McGregor.

Which brings us to that most famous work of festive literature, A Christmas Carol. There are few meaner creations than Ebenezer Scrooge, who at the novella’s start is described as being as “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”. For all the book’s culinary excesses – its “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch” – it’s the ever-present and very real of hunger that saves it from irredeemable sugariness. And by that I mean Scrooge’s spiritual hunger as well as the Cratchits’ physical pangs. It’s only fitting then, that he signals his transformation by allowing his employee’s family to feast on a turkey twice the size of Tiny Tim.

If we are what we eat, then literature reminds us that how, when, where and with whom we do so are equally important. Or, in the case of that dastardly Mr McGregor and his wife, simply whom. Bon appetit!

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