Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Delicious Reads

In Sunday’s “Food and Drink” edition of the New York Times Magazine, book critic Dwight Garner was posed with the question “What is the best novel about food?” His answer? The Belly of Paris, by Emile Zola. The novel, he says, “makes you feel as if Mario Batali had taken his sensual Manhattan emporium, Eataly, and tipped it sideways, slowly burying you under its contents.” (He also cited the saffron stew preparation in Ian McEwan’s Saturday.) But even though food is such an important part of our daily lives, it does not always make for the stuff of exciting literature. Great fiction writing about food is a rare thing: a writer not only needs to convincingly describe the dish he or she is writing about, but also tie that dish into the larger narrative in a meaningful way. For my money, the “Best Food Novel” prize goes to Michael Cunningham’s 1993 novel The Hours. In that novel (which I will admit I admired but did not love), the character of Laura Brown, a housewife in 1949 Los Angeles, begins an ordinary yet important day of her life by trying to bake a birthday cake for her young son, Richie. The cake itself is nothing special, just a white-cake with vanilla frosting. But for Laura, who alternates between resentment towards her husband and son for taking her away from her morning’s reading, and a fierce, all-consuming love for the two men who fill her life, the cake is to be proof to herself that she is the wife and mother she is supposed to be. This is high-stakes cake-baking, and Laura’s preparation takes on the suspense of a thriller. Cunningham writes these scenes with such intensity that the reader cannot help but sympathize with Laura, even as she contemplates abandoning her life all together. The book’s themes of depression and isolation make it clear what success or failure of the cake will eventually mean for Laura’s life; even though we realize that her problems won’t go away with a perfect cake, we can’t help but wish for Laura’s even hand as she ices the frosting over it. In the hands of a skillful writer such as Cunningham, a simple act of baking takes on the full weight of a lifetime of questioned decisions and eventual disappointments.

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