Wednesday 4 November 2015

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I only did realise after the seventh or eighth day in succession. It was the craving that did it. Window of our office semi-open (just the tiniest of gaps, enough to avoid the heater's steam from misting up the glass) and the sweet aroma of croissant wafting up to the operations department where I worked at the time. The smell awakened a primal instinct inside me and I could not wait until lunchtime to dash downstairs and part with my usual two or three quid for my regular prandial treat. That’s when I knew I was developing a problem. A croissant-and-hot-chocolate addiction by literary proxy.

I was reading Joanne Harris’ Chocolat at the time.

Forgettable plot and clichéd characters but sublime food. This is how I remember this novel. It all came back a few days ago when I read an article about memorable meals in books.

Cuisine can play an important role in literature as the feature states. I still remember Leopold Bloom’s liver slices fried with crustcrumbs in Ulysses. And what to say about that Cuban masterpiece, Paradiso by Lezama Lima? Banana soup (probably plantain), beetroot salad and roast turkey amongst other succulent ingredients.

Feeling peckish?

I imagine that authors are presented with a choice when including food in their narrative: be descriptive or suggestive. If I remember correctly the latter applies to Chocolat, which is probably the reason why every morning and afternoon for less than a fortnight (I read the book very quickly. As I mentioned before, if the plot had been like the food…) I would add an almond croissant and hot chocolate to my breakfast and the butter version and same hot beverage to my lunch after the main course. Descriptive meals tend to leave this madeleine-chaser somewhat cold.
I like my food. I am not afraid to say that. And when it comes to literature, I like “happening” upon food. A good example is in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, when Ugwu arrives at Odenigbo’s house to apply for a position as a houseboy and sees a “a roasted, shimmering chicken” in the kitchen. He touches the chicken and to me that moment even has erotic connotations, bearing in mind that when it comes to epicurean matters, carnal desires can and do often make a cameo.

Talking of eroticism, I have occasionally heard comparisons between sex and food scenes and even a sort of continuum drawn between the two. I do not dispute that. Some writers do use food as a preamble to sexual intercourse between characters. However, sex scenes very often feel “flat” (in my humble opinion), due to a lack of honesty. Either the author is doing too much or too little. Let us not forget that sex is, whether we like it or not, linked to our innermost, primitive selves. Inevitably conclusions about who we are or what we want in bed will be reached, no matter how detached we claim to be from our dramatis personae. With food, on the other hand, it is different. No revelation is necessary. We can disassociate completely from the meal we knock up. I’ve read very precise descriptions of Asian food, including the sourcing of ingredients, the cooking of them and the methods used, from non-Asian writers, as if they had been born in the subcontinent and lived there all their lives. Part of it could be the fact that we live in such an intricately connected, globalised world that geographical barriers count for nothing anymore. Plus, in cosmopolitan cities such as London, Paris or New York, there is always the opportunity of delving into other cultures and getting to know them properly without really being part of them. This, of course, will include food, too. Which is probably why I went through my croissant-binge stage. Chocolat takes place in France and at the time of reading it my office was sandwiched between two French pattiseries. Well, at least the Indian restaurant was a few doors further down, otherwise, well, who knows what would have happened?

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 7th November at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I agree completely about Chocolat - great food, forgettable plot (Joanne Harris's best plot - a short story called Faith and Hope go Shopping, about two women who escape from a nursing home and make it to Kensington!). Writing well about food it such a great skill!

    As for sex - most descriptions can't capture the fact that doing something so comical and ridiculous is such fun! Get caught on the plumbing and it's all grunts and thrusting; stick to metaphor and it's waves and high tides.

  2. Yes. On all counts. Good food writing is always seductive. Good writing about sex? None springs to mind. Which has me wondering...

  3. 'Sleepless in Seattle' has the best food/sex connection with Meg Ryan. A classic.

  4. Sex is hard to write right. Food I hate so I just gloss over it most times haha

  5. An amusing post. Thank you!! I think food is easier to write about well than sex.

    It is interesting, though, when reading your post I thought that I never feel tempted by food in books. Which is odd because I like food, but somehow written descriptions don't evoke it at all for me.

  6. Hunger, for me, with one exception only comes from the scent of certain food. The one exception is banana cream pie. The thought of it makes my mouth water, but the thought of a good cigar has the same effect. Either way, scent rarely emanates from a book.

    Honestly, I can think of no description of food or eating in fiction. I assume I have read some, but I can recall none. Food is like the air I breathe; it is something I do not think about, and I do not like watching people eating in films or on television. It is sort of nauseating to me .... at least it has been since the time Tom Jones and Mrs. Waters had at it -- which, of course, was comedy, was parody. Anyway, this probably means I skip right over it in novels because I probably would think of those two and start laughing.

    Lovemaking scenes, whether in books or on screen, also are passé in "my book." What comes before and after form the interesting elements of a relationship. The act has become trivial in terms of fiction now that shock value is a thing of the past.

    This was a fun post, CiL. I enjoyed it.

  7. I've cut back on chocolate lately, but you've brought back my craving and I gave away all my candy on Halloween.

  8. I feel hungry just reading your deliciously fun post!

  9. I could write about food since I have more knowledge of it. Loved the way you wrote about both addictions.

  10. Hi ACIL - I love both ... but food usually gets around more! Chocolat was good as a concept - the actors made it. I enjoy books that give recipes in them ... or include something similar ... I can't think of any right now - we can all write about dishes, or meals that entice us ... sex not so easily. Jo has said it right ... and so down to earth ... Cheers Hilary

  11. Who could resist the temptation between 2 pattiseries? I didn't read the book but I enjoyed the movie, although it was a bit too sentimental.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm going to say something really controversial but the last time I saw a movie with Johnny Depp I liked was "What's Eating Gilbert Grape". He was good in "Edward Scissorhands" and "Benny and Joon", but from "Don Juan de Marco" he has just been playing the same role. Chocolat, the film, was not just sentimental, but manipulative. Juliette Binoche, once again, played everyone's stereotypical idea of what a French woman is.

      I didn't think much of the book and didn't like the movie either.

      Greetings from London.

    2. Yes, Edward Scissorhands was a much better movie too.

  12. Interesting how the smells around you reflect on your experience of reading! Good thoughts and I would agree, it is easier to write about food and sex.

  13. I honestly never noticed food in the books I have read. The exception is in The Silence Of The Lambs and the comment about the fava beans. That was chilling. Interestering post. I will watch more closely for food in my reading from now on.

  14. I enjoyed this. I did not read Chocolat but very much enjoyed the film, which was very well done, and features a wonderful gathering of characters around the table towards the end..........I enjoyed reading this the sound of your pastry and hot chocolate addiction....and wonder what WOULD happen, if you threw the Indian restaurant into the mix - Lunch? Dinner?

  15. Working that close to two patisseries, whether you were reading "Chocolat" or not, could have been downright dangerous!

    I do like good food descriptions in the books I read, partly because the acts of cooking and eating make the characters more "real." As long as it isn't overdone, that is. Food plays a part in my novel, but only in the background, not as the main focus,

    Fun post! Have a terrific weekend!

  16. wow, your office sandwiched between two French pattiseries? it's really hard to resist those cravings..:)

  17. Ha! I was well trained to be resistant--but I enjoyed reading about your temptations! Thanks. Sorry so late--life so crazy on my side of the pond. k.

  18. I love how food from different countries are more accessible now than before ~ And a book or poetry about food always gets my attention ~ I have used food in my poetry as it is a great metaphor and sometimes saying it another way than the obvious is best ~

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