Pancake Day and for the love of food in literature

Happy Pancake Day everyone! What toppings will you be having today? Torn between having the usual nutella and ice cream or going healthier and having banana or something. To be good or not to be good, that is the question.

Pancake Day is traditionally our one last blow-out before lent begins, so the topic I’m going to write about today is some of the best, most mouth-watering descriptions of food in literature, because my god, some of the passages- whether it’s novel, play or poem- do just make my mouth water. Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti is a wonderfully vivid poem as she lists every type of fruit you can think of. Later in the poem the description of Laura eating the fruit is very sexual and evocative, but for now Rossetti enticingly opens her poem with this:

‘Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries; –
All ripe together
In summer weather’

Esther Greenwood’s description of the Ladies’ Day Banquet in The Bell Jar also manages to make me hungry, even though we know the food reflects Esther’s  anxiety over never being satisfied, and if, alternatively, she has the right to eat any of this food at all. That and the fact that the crab meat is poisoned and everyone is sick afterwards,

‘Arrayed on the Ladies’ Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar…Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn’t ooze off and ate them.’

I read Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres a few years ago but this beautiful passage has always stayed with me, for evoking the sheer enjoyment and love that goes in to making food:

‘It was to be an orgy of garlic. Leyla took two aubergines and charred them over the brazier, leaving them until they became soft enough to mash up with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. She boiled potatoes until they were utterly soft, and mashed them up with the same ingredients, adding the olive oil drip by drip. She made cacik with mint and yogurt, garlic and cucumber. She prepared humus so that the chickpeas would provide an aphrodisiac, and she mixed a marvellous and exotic drink of camel’s milk with honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardomom, with the same aim in mind. She made a paste of yellow lentils, in order that happiness and laughter should come into the house. The cook took cubes of lamb, made a small slot in each, and hid a small clove of garlic in every one. He browned them over a quick flame and then simmered them at almost indiscernible heat for the whole day, in a ratatouille of parsley, tomatoes, onions and pepper. He would add the remaining flavours at the last minute so that they would be full in the mouth. He made Smyna meatballs and Adana kebabs. In honour of Leyla he created Circassian chicken, rich with tarragon, cloves, paprika, walnuts, garlic and walnut oil. He laid it out on a great flat dish so that it would be as white and round and lovely as the face of the Circassian maid that she purported to be.’

You’ve got to be hungry after reading that. Chocolat by Joanne Harris is another novel that creates a passion and love for food in frequent and sensual descriptions. Chocolat seduces the reader with every word and is a delightful read for chocoholics, which I am not. Ok maybe I am. Just a little bit.

‘I looked into the display window this morning…In glass bells and dishes lie the chocolates, the pralines, Venus’s nipples, truffles, mendiants, candied fruits, hazelnut clusters, chocolate seashells, candied rose-petals, sugared violets…they gleam darkly, like sunken treasure, Aladdin’s cave of sweet cliches. And in the middle she has built a magnificent centrepiece. A gingerbread house, walls of chocolate-coated pain d’ ‘epices with the detail piped on in silver and gold icing, roof tiles of florentines studded with crystallized fruits, strange vines of icing and chocolate growing up the walls, marzipan birds singing in chocolate trees.’ 

I’m not really a fan of Virginia Woolf but this description of Boeuf au Daube, (that’s a French beef stew braised in wine, garlic, vegetables and herbs to you and me) just sounds beautiful:

‘An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine . . . ‘It is a triumph,’ said Mr. Banks, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked.’

And of course, the Turkish Delight scene in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is one of the most memorable in literature. I remember reading this when I was younger, and the description is so tantalising that I wanted this Turkish Delight too.

‘The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmond had never tasted anything more delicious.’