Feasts for the Eyes

The first food I remember reading about as a child was Rat’s breakneck inventory of his picnic basket in The Wind in the Willows:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater.

That list stuck with me, so much so that when I first encountered ginger beer as an adult I was elated. wind-in-the-willowsIt was every bit as tasty as I’d always imagined it would be (though I still haven’t summoned up the nerve to try cold tongue).

Another of my favorite food-packed children’s books was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, the childhood story of Wilder’s husband, Almanzo. One of Almanzo’s Sunday lunches – to name just one of  many meals in the book –  includes a chicken pie with “dark meat and white meat sliding from the bones,” a thick crust, and gravy; baked beans topped with “a quivering slice of salt pork”; pickled beets, fresh-baked bread, and two kinds of pie. After facing privation and short rations in her own childhood and early in her marriage, Wilder must have relished heaping the young Almanzo’s plate with such bounty.

There are even more lavish spreads in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, published in England in 1945. At a time when many English children were subsisting on a wartime diet of powdered milk, dried eggs and  Spam, Goudge served up a literary breakfast of “home-cured ham, brown boiled eggs, coffee, tea, new-baked bread, honey, cream with a thick yellow crust on it, freshly churned butter, and milk so new that it was still warm and frothing.” A later children’s writer, Brian Jacques, often described the elaborate mouth-watering banquets that feature in his Redwall series as a response to the food rationing and austerity of his childhood in 1940s Liverpool. At Jacques’s Redwall Abbey, mice and badgers, squirrels, moles and hares feast on salads and soups, scones and cakes with buttercream icing, jams and jellies, nuts and cheese and fruit, all washed down with an assortment of beverages and all described in loving detail. Writing about delicious food, it seems, is nourishing not just to readers, but to writers as well.

"So do I," said Frances, who the day before was a picky eater. (from sacredappetite.com)

“So do I,” said Frances, who the day before was a picky eater. Bread and Jam for Frances (sacredappetite.com)

More than that: the feasts we read about as children can affect the way we think about food, write about food, and read about food when we grow up. J.K. Rowling has said that one of her favorite books as a child was The Little White Horse. It’s  surely no coincidence that the feasts she created for Hogwarts are every bit as mouthwatering as the ones Elizabeth Goudge had written about several decades earlier. Google “best food scenes in novels” and as often as not you will find Farmer Boy, the Harry Potter series, and “anything by Brian Jacques” side-by-side with adult novels such as The Time Traveler’s Wife and Like Water for Chocolate. And think how many cookbooks, blogs, special events, and websites devoted to re-creating meals in novels have appeared in the past few years, including a whole slew of them for the Little House books, Redwall, Harry Potter, and other childhood favorites such as Bread and Jam for Frances. The connection between page and plate is an intimate one – and like many other things, I believe, it can often be traced to childhood.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, making Maple Syrup Snow Candy (from motherskitchenblogspot.com)

Laura Ingalls Wilder, making Maple Syrup Snow Candy

What goes into the best food writing for children? A list of things to eat can’t be just a list, after all, or no one would remember it once the book was closed and put away, let alone for years afterward. Rhythm plays a part, and repetition, and sometimes – though not always – lyrical description. Sometimes, too, the author uses a splendid meal as a way of showing readers that the characters’ circumstances have changed for the better. Mole’s joyous response to Rat’s picnic is just part of his excitement at having emerged from underground and discovered the Riverbank. Elizabeth Goudge’s orphaned heroine Maria expects the worst when she and her dyspeptic governess arrive at their new home with Maria’s cousin, but that first delightful breakfast tells them (and us) that everything will turn out all right. Compared with his miserable fare at the Dursleys’, Harry’s first welcoming feast at Hogwarts is, well, magical.

Of course all successful food lists in children’s books name things that readers would enjoy eating, right? Not necessarily. The inimitable E.B. White managed to turn this rule upside down more than once in Charlotte’s Web. Here’s one of the lunches Lurvy pours into Wilbur’s pig-trough: “…skim milk, wheat middlings, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a gingersnap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello.” I don’t mean to suggest that these menu items are appetizing, but against all odds they do have a certain appeal. Wilbur’s food (or “food”) is so alluring to Wilbur himself that we’re drawn into his enjoyment of it in spite of ourselves. Seen through Wilbur’s eyes – almost literally, since he revels in having his food poured over his head – a blob of cocoa scum is a savory delight. Goudge, Grahame, Wilder, Rowling: all of them masters of the literary feast. Yet only E.B. White could make the contents of a slop bucket palatable. Some pig. Some writer!

Good to the last drop! (frecklefaceredhead.com)

Good to the last drop! (frecklefaceredhead.com)

What literary feasts do you remember from your childhood? Have you ever tried to re-create a dish or a meal you read about in a book? Do you have a favorite food scene from an adult novel?


22 thoughts on “Feasts for the Eyes

  1. My mouth watered as I read this positively delicious post! I love recalling favorite passages from childhood reads (or children’s books read as an adult), and you just got me going. Remember the description of the lemonade Nellie Olson’s mother served at her birthday party—the first time Mary and Laura Ingalls had encountered sugar? I still love fresh squeezed lemonade because of it. I’m in total agreement that E.B.White offers the best description of pigslop in all of American literature. My first graders liked it so much they would listen for other delightful lists in the book, and there are plenty. No greater pleasure than packing a “Frances lunch” for a picnic with grandchildren, and making it all “come out even.”
    I’m currently reading for book club, Lilla’s Feast, by Frances Osborne, about how she survived the horrors of Japanese internment camps during WWII by imagining wonderful feasts.
    Kate Dicamillo has spoken eloquently about the importance of evoking the taste buds in literature—her best example being, I think, Mercy Watson’s fetish for buttered toast :-)—and of course the soup of the Tale of Despereaux. Hungry now!

    • Your first graders were so right about Charlotte’s Web! My other favorite food list in that book is the list of tasty rat-treats that the old sheep uses to lure Templeton to go to the fair with Wilbur: “…popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollipops.” Yum.

  2. Well…for adult novels, nothing beats Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones.” Most of us probably remember the movie better. Here’s something I found online: “The famous, sex-drenched eating scene between Tom (Albert Finney) and, (all unknowingly) possibly his mother Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) begins naturally enough with big steaming pewter bowls of soup, whereat Mrs. Waters leans well over the table and lustily slurps big round spoonsful, breasts tumbling out of her bodice, with a more-than-come-hither look. Tom, nearly overcome, involuntarily rips a claw off the langouste he has in his hand and sucks happily on it. Drafts of ale, turkey, oysters, pears, and wine are then dispatched with loving attention.” –Rebecca Flint

    • And speaking of movies, there’s the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” line from When Harry Met Sally.

      • Ha! Love that scene. If we’re getting into movie territory, I’d have to put Babette’s Feast at the top of my list, closely followed by Big Night. Like Tom Jones and Like Water for Chocolate (but unlike, say, Eat Drink Man Woman — also a great foodie movie), all of these originate in a work of literature.

    • One title I keep running across on the “best food scenes in novels” list is Zola’s The Belly of Paris. I haven’t read that one yet, but now I
      want to as soon as possible.

  3. What a cornucopia of delights! Let me add Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s wonderful evocation of the delights of ice cream, from his charming memoir, “The Story of a Bad boy” “When we had seated ourselves around the largest marble-topped table, Charley Marden in a manly voice ordered twelve sixpenny icecreams, ‘strawberry and verneller mixed.’ It was a magnificent sight, those twelve chilly glasses entering the room on a waiter, the red and white custard rising from each glass like a church-steeple, and the spoon-handle shooting up from the apex like a spire. I doubt if a person of the nicest palate could have distinguished, with his eyes shut, which was the vanilla and which the strawberry; but if I could at this moment obtain a cream tasting as that did, I would give five dollars for a very small quantity.”

    • Great stuff, you’re right, and I love how the author persuades us that this was the most wonderful ice cream imaginable despite the fact that it wasn’t actually very good. Also, seeing (and being temporarily flummoxed by) “verniller” reminded me of my years-long confusion as a kid about “victuals.” Turned out I already knew what they were — I just didn’t know it. Luckily I didn’t encounter Great Expectations (“wittles”) until adulthood, or I’da been hopelessly lost.

  4. i had forgotten the food in The Little White Horse because the house is such a compelling character. (Most of Goudge’s books have houses that are unforgettable.) it’s been too long since I read it. Must go remedy that.
    I’ve tasted cold tongue. It was pretty tasteless.

  5. I have to say that for me the food was the redeeming thing in The Little White Horse, since otherwise I found the book to be saccharine and then some. Linnets and Valerians, another kids’ book of Goudge’s, is I think much better — and to me the best of her adult books are better than the best of her kids’ books. As to cold tongue: if it didn’t look so much like what it is, it’d be more appetizing!

      • I should explain that by “saccharine” I’m not referring to all the sugar cookies and tea cakes in The Little White Horse, but the fact that, for instance, “lovely” often appears several times on a single page. On the other hand, after six years of war both Goudge and her readers were richly entitled to as much loveliness as they could possibly get. It’s a very comforting read, and rightly so.

    • I love Linnets and Valerians more than anything else of hers. But for me the (undeniable) saccharinity is part of Maria’s point of view and very Maria.

      • Hmm, can you tell I’m new at this? I wanted to edit my comment below, but I can’t figure out how to do it. Didn’t mean to sound so self-righteous about the prickly heroines! I do, though, like a vinegary main character.

  6. Thank you for the lovely reminder of the joys of reading as a child and to a child! I’m also very hungry for a yummy dinner.

  7. Prickly, always a winner.
    (This must be one of the sites where the threads crash if there are too many nested replies.)

  8. Loved the scene with Rat! Thanks for the post. What I remember from the Little House books was Almanzo’s ability to eat 30 (or other ridiculous number of) pancakes. Respect to the feasting! On the other hand, one of my most memorable childhood food reads was what the Count of Monte Cristo ate: one glass of diluted Spanish wine and a bird’s nest (?!). Prison having ruined his appetite, he still managed to savor delicacies to impress everybody.

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