Recipe for Fiction

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Recipe for Fiction

Novels of Food and the Senses

A perusal of a list of the top 100 novels will inevitably yield a book with memorable food and or drink.  Sometimes there is even a clue as to what it is made of (sadly the butterbeer in the Harry Potter books lacks these details). A recipe or an experience well described can reveal something important about the main character or become a way for the reader to participate in the story. The reader understands the main character’s thought process when course after course of meal must have its conscience liberating alcohol accompaniment or the depth of their emotions when the meal they’ve prepared are translated into the food consumed. The reader shares in the warmth and love conveyed in a letter with a meal rich in history. The reader feels the chill as recipe after recipe advance a story of hidden danger. Explore fiction with a flavorful added dimension with these 5 novels:

The Arrangement: A Novel by Ashley Warlick

Food magazine editor and novelist, Ashley Warlick draws upon two riveting biographies, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher by Anne Zimmerman and Poet of Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher, as well as the essayist’s published journals for a revealing look at the story behind the famous words. Food is the backdrop as people are forced to beg for the fruit on the trees in the Kennedy family’s yard. Food is discovering new sensations like when Frances feeds her toddler nephew his first taste of applesauce. Food is the recollection of self-love and self-care as Frances remembers tangerines in France and how she carefully peeled, heated and froze them while also taking a bath, not to entertain and nourish others, but for herself. Food is sadness as a meal with her ailing lover provides no pleasure. The Arrangement makes the food connections oddly missing from M.F. K. Fisher’s fiction by deliciously present in her nonfiction. Check out the M.F.K. Fisher books at the bottom of this list for further reading.

Sweetbitter: A Novel by Stephanie Danler

Floundering and looking to leave her past far behind, 22 year old Tess packs up her car and heads for New York. A rented room in Queens is a start to getting settled, but a job as a backwaiter in a famous Union Square restaurant soon provides the community and ambition she’s been missing.  This autobiographical debut novel, at first, reads a lot like the late chef, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, minus the childhood experiences in the French countryside, but Tess is absolutely F.O.H., or Front of House. She develops taste, culturally and palate-wise, but her education is focused on how to eat and drink (Tess develops a fondness for drink service as the book cover suggests) rather than becoming a cook. Sex, drugs and bad behavior mingled with observations on simple and layered tastes flavor this intoxicating coming of age story.

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

Family tradition holds that the youngest daughter cannot marry and must remain home to care for her parents.  Great aunt Tita’s fate is sealed. Born on a tidal wave of tears in the family kitchen, the kitchen becomes Tita’s domain. The family cook and caregiver, Nacha, takes Tita under her wing. As a young woman, Tita assumes Nacha’s role as the one who puts things right, all while being held back by a selfish mother. The recipes and guidance Nacha whispers to Tita, even in death, are the balm or the spark for every occasion. The rose petal sauce that liberates Tita’s sister, Gertrudis is particularly memorable and the turkey mole with almonds and sesame seeds that takes 14 days to prepare would make Oaxacan cuisine lover’s mouth water. There is even a recipe for wedding invitation ink, finely woven into a magical multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-ethnic story of family, love and passion.

Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange

In another tale of magical realism, three sisters from Charleston, South Carolina reclaim their individual gifts. Sassafrass, the oldest sister, is sent to a New England prep school, but falls in love with an abusive musician.  Sassafrass is a weaver, a trade she learns through her Geechee roots and the family business. Reconnecting to her craft strengthens her. The middle sister, Cypress, the sewer of the family’s appliques, is sent to a ballet school in New York, but strays into selling drugs. Standing up for herself as an artist leads to love for self and others. The youngest sister is Indigo, a child on the edge of womanhood.  An understanding adult friend provides her with a violin to conceal what some call, “the South in her”, or her Geechee otherness. At her mother’s urging, she becomes an accomplished player of the violin, but soon finds connection in a violent local gang. Eventually Indigo embraces her difference and accepts her true calling.

Food and recipes enter the story where the three sisters want to celebrate, honor, or protect. The meal of duck with oyster and cornbread stuffing prepared for Kwanzaa in the novel begs to be read and experienced and the author’s stated intent is for the readers not to skip over the recipes. Adaptations to ingredients and instructions, stores frequented for ingredients, when and for whom the meal is prepared are all central to the plot as is a sense of the cultural past and the importance of food preparation. The smells and tastes the recipes conjure up make for great storytelling, too.

Angelina’s Bachelors by Brian O’Reilly

The story begins with the preparation of a Frangelico Chocolate “Dream” Cake that Angelina prepares for her niece’s birthday, a cake that will prove to her husband the difference between a wonderful homemade cake, especially one of hers, and a store-bought one.  After all, “…cooking was not just about food. It was about character.” Angelina has a passion for cooking that steadies her in the days to come. Her husband of five years dies of a heart attack. She loses her job as an office manager/bookkeeper and there is yet one more shocker to come. Help arrives when the retired brother of friend and neighbor, Dottie hires Angelina to prepare breakfast and dinner for him six days a week. Word spreads across the South Philly neighborhood of Angelina’s magnificent meals and six other bachelors seek out her services. Told through recipes that begin each chapter Angelina’s Bachelors is a heart-warming story of how an individual’s love and care for everyone else gets reflected back in amazing ways.

The Debt to Pleasure: A Novel by John Lanchester

Mystery writing has no shortage of foodies and hedonists. The private detective, Spenser of the Robert B. Parker series relaxes by preparing detailed meals and the home cooking of Madame Maigret for her husband, Commissaire Jules Maigret often figure in his detective work, but The Debt to Pleasure is not your typical mystery. The memoir of a Francophile Englishman may not be what it seems. Food writer Tarquin Winot expounds on food and eating, name-dropping and being generally over the top, but is the main character and narrator a jealous murderer?  This winner of the British Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel is a cleverly written satire where the recipe hides and reveals.

For further reading by M.F.K. Fisher:

With Bold Knife and Fork by M.F.K. Fisher

Love in a Dish and Other Culinary Delights by M.F.K. Fisher, compiled by Anne Zimmerman

Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me: Journals and Stories, 1933-1941 by M.F.K. Fisher