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?