FoodLit: The Plot Simmers and Thickens

What we talk about when we talk about food:

Dishing on Modern Life at WBUR Authors Night Out.
Who: Authors Allegra Goodman, Margot Livesey and Adam Gopnik, in coversation with Robin Young.
What: Food & Philosophy, a fundraising event for WBUR radio.
Where: First Church, Cambridge, earlier this week.  


At the outset, it looked liked a Food Network challenge: Create an event from a mystery basket of ingredients. In this case, authors from three different food groups with seemingly little in common.

But introduce a catalyst to bind them together – Robin Young, host of radio program Here and Now on WBUR, the event sponsor – and you end up with a pretty tasty evening: three perspectives, writers who think deeply about food, and a lot to chew on.

Adam Gopnik
Writer, The New Yorker. Author, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.
Among his favorite food fiction: Robert B. Parker’s detective, Spenser, who loved to cook up elaborate meals. (See side note.)

If you’ve ever heard New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik tell stories on The Moth Radio Hour, then you know his self-assured and self-effacing storytelling style hold an audience rapt. One moment, he’s contrasting U.S. and French cooks and the different statements they make by using local ingredients. [Predictably left leaning in the U.S., a window into the “entire (NPR) tote bag of their existence.” Less predictable in France; it could denote a right-leaning statement of French nationalism.] In the next moment, he’s explaining the changing attitude among younger French cooks toward slow food. Or comparing home cooks to cocktail lounge piano players. (Hint: They both get the same requests every night.)

Erudite and amusing, he’s off a few minutes later on the subject of the place of cooking in literature: specifically, how authors use cooking as an activity to set a scene in which their characters can think…. and go on thinking. Years ago, they used driving for the backdrop.

“But in real life, cooking is a substitute for thinking,” Gopnik wryly observed. “You’ve been thinking all day and you want to cook to take a break from thinking.”

If Gopnik relishes cooking as an informal roadmap to literary heroes and heroines, a window into cultural norms and social history, then Allegra Goodman turns to food as appetite: a metaphor for seduction and obsession.

Allegra Goodman
The Cookbook Collector
Among her favorite food fiction: The Wind in the Willows. ‘Especially the boating picnic that Rat and Mole put together.’

The author of the highly-praised novel, The Cookbook Collector, said in an interview: “I am fascinated by cookbooks as guidebooks. We read about what to eat and by extension how to live. One of the central questions for the sisters in my novel:  Can you find a recipe for conduct?  Or do you have to make up your own rules?”

The Cambridge resident acknowledges taking pleasure in perusing complicated recipes with cascading lists of ingredients that she has little hope of actually cooking.

Goodman says the book is about hunger: for money, for material things, for food, for fame, for knowledge, for companionship, for love.

Margot Livesey, another Cambridge author, also writes about hunger, but of a different sort.

The hunger of her heroine, Gemma Hardy – based on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – reflects her aching desire for kindness and family to nourish her soul, and a table at which she feels welcome. Time spent in the isolated Scottish countryside, and as a servant/student at a boarding school, do little to quell that hunger before she takes flight.

Margot Livesey
The Flight of Gemma Hardy
Among her favorite food fiction: Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday. ‘The whole novel builds toward Henry Perowne making fish stew.’ (See end note)

There’s plenty of food in Livesey’s novel, but these meals are best forgotten; lacking flavor or variation, they neither celebrate nor sustain one’s spirit.

Livesey grew up in a boys’ private school in the Scottish Highlands where her father taught, and her mother was the school nurse. She attended boarding school at a young age and felt like an outsider.

Her entire childhood was “a war on food,” she recalls. Constantly reminded of the starving children in India, “I would have gladly sent them the food on my plate if I could have afforded the postage.”


 Spenser: A Devotion to Shelled Beans

Adam Gopnik spoke of the way Spenser (the creation of Boston novelist Robert B. Parker) shelled beans. In this passage, Gopnik writes: “The beans alone establish Spenser’s credibility as a cook. ‘I shelled the beans from their long, red-and-cream pods and dropped them in boiling water and turned down the heat and let them simmer,’ he tells us. A devotion to shell beans, I have noticed, divides even amateur cooks from non-cooks more absolutely than any other food, and they are, into the bargain, a perfect model of writing.”


Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

Henry Perowne’s Fish Stew from Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday. McEwan had so many requests from readers for the recipe, that he finally published it on his Web site.

You can find the recipe HERE.

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