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Turkish delight isn’t very good in real life.

I didn’t eat breakfast this morning (not unusual) and am spending my morning glumly munching on broken pieces of vaguely stale sourdough pretzels left at the bottom of a giant tub in the office kitchen (also not unusual). Fantasizing about all the food I would like to be eating, I remembered this post I read on The Hairpin the other month detailing a variety of fictional foods that everyone always muses upon wanting in real life. While it’s easy for a food to appear appetizing in a movie (strangely, even cartoon meals get the mouth watering on occasion), literary descriptions of what a character eats can be just as powerful, despite the lack of visual aid.

The article’s authors list Edmund Pevensie’s Turkish delight, Anne Shirley’s cordial and Harry Potter’s Butterbeer among their desired fictional treats, and I will attest to desperately wanting all of them at some point in my life as well. Often times, the food I read about is your normal, every day sort of meal, but the context of the story or the way the author words the description are often enough to make me look up from my book for a minute and wish really hard that I was eating the same. I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses for the first time, and for some reason, every single time those characters sat down to eat, I wanted everything. It was never all that special—often a tortilla or steak and potatoes, and Mr. McCarthy is never one for the flowery language, but mixed with all the hard work, gruff talk and horse wrangling that was going on, the meals always seemed so deserved and satisfying that I never wanted a plate of eggs so badly.

Food is so universal that in describing it, a writer has the advantage of not really needing to go very far—the mere mention of a flavor or ingredient and the reader’s own sense memory will insert emotion and taste into the words without much help. How then, does a simple phrasing turn the response from, “oh, I suppose that sounds nice” to an intense desire for the described food, so much so that it lingers years after the book has been read and finished? I still think about the muffins Jack and Algernon argue over in The Importance of Being Earnest and the tomato sandwiches Harriet M. Welsch was so fond of in Harriet the Spy and no real-life version of these relatively simple foods will ever compare.

What are your literary gastronomic weaknesses? Are there any foods you’ve gone out of your way to try simply because of the way a books described the taste?

11 Responses to Turkish delight isn’t very good in real life.

  1. Turkish delight is pretty gross, although I’ve only eaten a store bought version and nothing homemade, so I will reserve final judgement if there is a grandma out there who makes the best Turkish Delight ever. But to me it tasted like soap.

    Esther Greenwood ate some pretty sick stuff in The Bell Jar, like raw hamburger and avocados with a jelly syrup in it. Actually, that last one sounds gross at first but I bet if it was done well as a reduction sauce it could be good… still, weird.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I’m reading Water for Elephants, and the author describes a big spread of eggs and sausage for the circus workers after the main character rides in a train car all night. You’re right, I think it’s in the writing, getting sucked into the head of a character. Like, “Ew, he’s all dirty and tired and starving, but OH MY GOD, TOAST, YAY.”

  3. Stephanie P. says:

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez helped develop my taste for a good cafe con leche. And Anne Zouroudi all things Greek. You’re practically drooling at her descriptions of food, nostalgic for Greece.

  4. I worked in the early 1990s for the Emma Goldman Papers Project at UC Berkeley. One year we made cards to send to supporters and to sell as part of fundraising efforts that included Goldman’s recipe for blintzes that she’d included in one of her letters to a friend (“I wish you were here,” she wrote, “for I am making blintzes…”). Of course it wouldn’t do to send the card without trying the recipe, so I brought in a gas stove and made Emma’s blintzes in our main workroom, surrounded by lateral file cabinets filled with facsimiles of some thousands of letters, manuscripts, and government documents written by or about the influential anarchist.

    The blintzes were pretty good. Almost as good as my grandma’s …

  5. Julie Nilson says:

    – The chocolate river in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (until Augustus Gloop falls in, anyway)

    – Pretty much everything that Tita cooks in “Like Water for Chocolate,” but especially the quail with rose petal sauce

    – Butterbeer and chocolate frogs (which I have now tried at the Wizarding World amusement park, and I can report that both are AWESOME)

  6. J.A. Beard says:

    I love Turkish delight. I would totally sell out a fantasy kingdom or my siblings for it. :)

    Admittedly, you have to find a good supplier, though. My experience with just random grocery store TD has been about a 33% success rate.

  7. I think the craving comes from the idea that the food is important enough to mention, so it must be good. Food, though it can be delicious and time-intensive to produce, is something we deal with everyday. It’s required for us to live. But we do lots of other things every day: breathe, use the restroom, shower. How often are those things mentioned in literature, unless the particular circumstances are important? They’re not, and neither do we expect food to be unless it matters. In addition, eating is a sensory experience, and so when we read about it, we connect it to the way it smells and tastes, and those things trigger our hunger, making us want to eat.

    I was disappointed when I found out Turkish delight was real. It took away some of the magic for me, and that was killed even more when I tried it and didn’t have Edmund’s reaction to the taste. I think because of one of the animated versions, I was expecting it to be like strawberry mochi ice cream, but not cold. The other food I remember deliberately going out of my way to try was watercress sandwiches because I loved E.B. White’s THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN when I was a child. Unfortunately, I didn’t care that much for watercress either. Not a book, but after I saw THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, I had to try beignets. Luckily I live near Disneyland, so it is easy for me to obtain those scrumptious pieces of heaven.

  8. Monica says:

    How come no one has mentioned green eggs and ham? All I have to do is add some avocado to scrambled eggs to make this childhood favorite. (BTW, I bought Turkish Delight at Harrod’s just because of The Chronicles of Narnia. Alas, I thought it tasted like soap.)

  9. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    Now you know why I never read vampire novels.

  10. Tamara says:

    I used to have a bit of a “yuck” impulse when it came to eggs, fried, boiled, or otherwise. But then I read King Rat by James Clavell, of all things, and the way he described how an egg tasted to a starving prisoner of war has forever converted me. I now LOVE eggs in all forms.

  11. Kelsey says:

    Anyone who has read the House Of Night series knows that the main character, Zoey, loves “brown pop” and Count Chocula cereal. I was never a soda drinker before, but now whenever I see a Dr. Pepper, it calls my name. Also, Count Chocula is delicious.

    It’s so funny how these things work.

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