Who is This Man and Why Will I Read Anything He Writes?

Adam Gopnik has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about cooking in literature and comes up with four ways that writers use food in their novels.

First, he says, there is the “food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it.” He says that this kind of food is a step out of the action, a little down time in the busy character’s life. What’s key, he says is that there isn’t any appraisal of the food (i.e., was it good, surprising, satisfying, disappointing). I have definitely had meals like that where the point is just to have a break. It doesn’t matter what or where it is, it is so forgettable; I just need to sit down. Gopnik writes that the food, in these instances, is “interchangeable,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The next kind of food in literature is food that the author conjures up and is “served by an author to characters in order to show who they are.” This is my dinner parry food, or why else would I have ever made (or made great effort to learn to pronounce) gougère (cheese puffs), wassail, and so on. Scrooge has his bowl of gruel before the fire, Salinger’s Esmé drinks tea, and once I served up Francis Moore Lappé’s Peanut Butter Balls at an A’s game.

Gopnik goes on to say that an author “cooks for characters in order to eat with them.” That sounds so hospitable to me. These writers are à table. We get to do everything but taste it. I feel like this when I wander through Whole Foods and they have all of those prepared meals on display. I never buy the Nut-Crusted Trout, the Roast Beef with Grilled Red Onions and Bleu Cheese or the Chili Lime Basil Tofu Salad, but it’s entertaining to glide past the perfect-looking dishes with their rosemary spear garnishes.

Last is the author that cooks something up and “actually serves the reader.” These writers, according to Gopnik, invite us into the kitchen and make us feel as if we’re with the characters in real time. Think of Ma Ingalls cooking with her spider on the prairie. My mind goes to film with Stanley Tucci whipping up some eggs in Big Night. Gopnik looks at Ian McEwan’s Saturday, where the protagonist cooks up a Bouillabaisse. That’s a memorable scene for me because I love to sit around in a kitchen and watch people cook. More than that, I love to actually cook with other people. Even though I write about my attempts at getting the dinner on the table, my joy in cooking comes from the joint effort. I like chopping while my father-in-law sautés. I like to grill while someone else makes the salad. I love being in the kitchen with The Husband as we pull a meal together. And one of my biggest thrills is cooking with The Girl, who cannot only crack an egg, but knows how to measure and sift.