APRIL 18, 2016
I LIKE TO READ WHILE I EAT. I always have. Some of my happiest memories are of sitting in my parents’ kitchen nibbling grilled cheese and devouring From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Charlotte’s Web. This morning, in my own kitchen, it was granola and Mansfield Park. Despite the fact that she enjoys both activities as much as I do, my mother disapproves: “How can you taste your food if you’re reading?” When I opened Christina Hardyment’s Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology, I hoped it might offer a way to resolve the quandary, bringing reading and food together without sacrificing the claim of either one.
“Passages describing food abound in novels,” Hardyment writes. And “poets apostrophise the delights of eating both in the grand style and modestly.” Her introduction has little else to say about the impulse behind or object of the anthology. With books about cooking and chefs as popular as they are, however, perhaps the answer is self-evident. Food has become a cultural obsession, so I suppose there’s a market for a handsome volume that takes a highbrow approach to the subject. Hardyment has selected excerpts from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Tolstoy, Woolf, Dumas, and many others for inclusion here. Her choices are largely male, largely British (the anthology is published by the British Library), and — for financial reasons, one suspects — largely out of copyright.
Here’s a more interesting question than why someone might put together a book of writing about food: Why might a writer include food in their work in the first place? What benefit does Herman Melville get from the marvelous chowder scene in Moby Dick, for instance, or John Keats from his “candied apple, quince, and plum” in “The Eve of St. Agnes”? In a wonderful passage included here, Jane Austen — not someone who generally details what her characters are dining on — shows us Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse urging his guests to eat as frugally as he does himself. Though the table is laden with oysters and minced chicken, Mr. Woodhouse urges Mrs. Bates to abjure these delicacies and “ventur[e] on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome […] they are very small, you see — one of our small eggs will not hurt you.” Why, we might ask, does Austen suspend her account of Emma Woodhouse’s busybody matchmaking to include this scene?
Much of the work this passage does is characterization. By showing us his attitude toward food, Austen demonstrates what kind of a man Mr. Woodhouse is. In his desire that his guests eat sparingly — in his urging that nobody take the custard though it sits ready in the dish — we see his peculiar mixture of meanness and generosity. Hypochondriacal and conservative, he wants the people around him to be happy without being able to endorse the actions that would make them so. At the same time Austen paints a picture of the father, she also reveals the nature of his devoted, quietly dissenting, more liberal-minded daughter Emma. At least as confident in her own judgment as her father is in his, yet unwilling to upset him, Emma says nothing to contradict but, we learn, “supplied her visitors in a much more satisfactory style.” Thus, in the course of about a page, we are given insight into the natures of two of the novel’s central characters, and we become, by way of this insight, alert to the potential for conflict between them. Moreover, Austen raises one of the major themes of the novel: manners, or how to behave toward other people. Treated in comic miniature here, the question becomes increasingly consequential as the novel proceeds. Thus we have character, conflict, and theme all expertly tucked into one short supper-table passage like bread crumbs, sausage, and sage into a succulent squab.
Sometimes a writer uses food to spark the plot of a novel. Probably the most famous example in all of western literature is the madeleine crumbled in the cup of tea in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.” Perhaps an even more potent instance of food propelling the narrative is the famous dinner-party scene from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “She had never seen a pomegranate or eaten a pineapple. The very caster sugar seemed whiter here, and more finely powdered, than elsewhere.” Tempted by sensual comestible luxuries — as Eve was by the apple, setting in motion all of human history — Emma Bovary’s latent dissatisfaction blossoms into rebellion against the drab confines of her life. From pomegranates to adultery to suicide: the path to doom is fragrant with “the delicate odour of truffles.”
Writers often use food to create a sense of place, whether exotic or domestic. Hardyment provides us with examples of both kinds here: “[T]he tables were covered with meats: antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers […] and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees.” That’s Flaubert again — Salammbô this time. We also get Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s account of an Antarctic feast of fried seal liver! On the other end of the spectrum, homely pleasures include toast and tea described by Agnes Jekyll, toast and honey rhapsodized by Kenneth Grahame, and tea made aboard a boat immortalized by Jerome K. Jerome. The collection skews British, as I said.
The Jerome excerpt, about three hungry men on a river trying to trick the kettle into boiling, proves to be one of Hardyment’s most satisfying selections (though, in a not-atypical oversight, we are not told what work the passage is from). The main reason it works so well is that it is fairly self-contained. It can stand on its own, not needing context to make it comprehensible or resonant. Far too often, however, reading these passages is like looking at a fish you have wrenched from the ocean: the opalescent shimmer soon fades, and then the creature is dead. This anthology contains some of my favorite scenes in all of literature — the Boeuf en Daube dinner in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, for example, and the party preparations in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with its five crates of oranges and lemons and a butler’s busy thumb — but I read them here with very little pleasure. In a novel, all the parts work together. You can’t pluck a piston out of a Rolls and take it for a ride.
Verse would seem a natural choice for an anthology like this one, since it would get around the excerpting problem, and there is poetry here, though not as much as you might think. I was pleased to be introduced to some wonderful poems I’d never encountered before: John Davies’s 1598 sonnet in which he imagines swimming to his mistress through “an Hellespont of cream”; D.H. Lawrence’s erotic “Medlars and Sorb-Apples” (“I love to suck you out from your skins / So brown and soft and coming suave”); and Mortimer Collins’s hilarious “Salad” in which endive, beets, and hardboiled eggs stand in for the scorned lover’s cheerless state. These happy exceptions notwithstanding, Hardyment more often chooses excerpts from long poems like The Canterbury Tales or Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” creating the same dead fish problem as with the prose excerpts. And speaking of Rossetti, what such a palpably erotic passage — “She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more / […] / She suck’d until her lips were sore” — is doing in the children’s section is beyond me.
The last section of the book, which collects recipes “either taken from literature or beloved by the authors,” is the most successful. George Orwell’s detailed treatise on the proper method for making tea might alone be worth the purchase price. Directions for combining seemingly fanciful ingredients (“add a handful of those large green peppermint geranium leaves, thick as a fairy’s blanket, soft as a vicuna robe, and to be found in most old-fashioned gardens” writes Lady Jekyll in her recipe for gelée crème de menthe) read almost like poetry. And as with some of the poetry included here, they work well because they stand on their own.
I tried out two of the recipes. I regret to report that Katherine Mansfield’s orange soufflé, the directions for which are prettily accompanied by an illustration of a tall puffy confection, did not rise for me. (Nearly every page of the book boasts an illustration — many of them quite beautiful — of cooks, and kitchens from olden times, and handsome people dining, and lavishly appointed tables, and pretty tea sets, largely from the British Library’s extensive collections.) Then again, nowhere in the instructions does Mansfield say to cook the thing in the oven — though, since it was a soufflé, I did. (Perhaps the writer was taking poetic license.) For my foray into Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread, I invited a poet friend to assist. She brought along Bervin and Werner’s collection of Dickinson fragments, The Gorgeous Nothings, which we used for divination. Opening the volume at random, my finger fell on this: “In this short Life that only lasts an hour merely How much — how little — is within our power.” My friend enthusiastically connected this sentiment with our difficulty knowing how long to bake the gingerbread: Dickinson suggests 20–25 minutes, but we had to put it back in twice.
The children’s category contains some nice things, notably the playful excerpts from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (“coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwiches
pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater —”) and the sad bit about the egg from Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, wherein the hungry puppet, anticipating a meal, succeeds only in freeing a little chicken who thanks him politely and flies off. Mostly, though, I could not help thinking what books I would have quarried instead: Frances’s little songs from the Hobans’ Bread and Jam for Frances, for instance, and the tea party from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Maybe the vending machine scene in E.L. Konigsburg’s From The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Which brings me to this parting thought: perhaps the best reason to read Pleasures of the Table is for the inspiration to imagine your own mouth-watering culinary anthology. Bring a pile of books to the table and do it over lunch.