Food for Fiction

October 9, 2011

In the quick blur of reading book after book, I remember the food.

In one of Elmore Leonard’s books, the protagonist sits at the counter of the diner eating green Jello—my memory of that book.

In Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the pork pie Pip stole for the escaped convict holds steady in my mind.

In Henry Fielding’s TOM JONES, that sexiest of all chicken dinners lives everlastingly.

In my novel FACES OF LOVE, the estranged wife visits her husband, finding him in the kitchen frying liver for his dinner. Who can forget liver, that most controversial of foods? Love it or hate it. It’s cheap to buy, messy to fry, one of the few organ foods Americans eat, and is altogether so distinctive in flavor that it carries a  one-of-a kind controversial bearing.  When I come upon it in my novel, I say, “Aha! Liver.” 

I wrote about Russian piroshkis in my novel THE PROVIDER (soon to be published) These are doughy cylinders stuffed with aromatic meat, potatoes, and onions. Need I say another word?

I have considered writing a novel in which one of the characters eats a large baked potato every morning for breakfast. The baked potato is one of the great common foods, like bread and butter, basic as can be. Its reach goes back into early childhood where mothers added milk and butter and beat the steamy potato into a fluffy pulp. It is the comfort food of love and security. And then, to place it in such an eccentric setting as breakfast ensures its posterity in literature.

But what about the reader who has no memory or curiosity about food?

I remember hearing the story of a child who would not eat. The mother was at her wits’ end. The clueless family doctor finally consulted specialists who discovered that the child had no sense of smell. Food in her mouth was disgusting, all mushy texture.

I just read a new memoir by Molly Birnbaum, SEASON TO TASTE. She describes her descent from being a serious chef in-the-making after losing her sense of smell in a car accident. Her career disappeared overnight. All she had were her memories of food. The book is a terrific read, and surprising in its depth of research as the author  searched for understanding and a way to regain her sense of smell, and therefore, taste.