Last weekend I dropped by the Library for a little research. I checked out a stack of books that feature food in some way or other, hoping to learn what I liked and didn’t like by way of using food in a work of fiction. Here’s what I learned.
I started with Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and I quickly realized that some books use food and magical realism very well (Cooking for Ghosts by Patricia Davis for example) but in this case it simply wasn’t working for me. I set it aside pretty quickly, but I may come back to it. This novel is set up in 12 chapters named for the months of the year. Each chapter begins with a recipe on the opposing page and then the chapter begins “Preparation:” …and then Esquivel flows from the recipe instructions into the story.
Then I reached for Nora Ephron’s Heartburn which was a treat for the senses. I laughed until I cried over “Rachel Samstat’s Jewish Prince Routine” because I know him and have seen every element of this story and I laughed and laughed to the degree that my Jewish Prince had to tell me it really wasn’t at all funny… which made it that much more entertaining. There are various other places where Ephron slips in witty and funny lines that had me laughing out loud. It’s full of wit and heartbreak, making the title “Heartburn” just right. Every now and then the author speaks directly to the reader about the work of writing the book and that is a bit surprising. There are fifteen recipes in the book, they are worked into the text as part of the story. Her “Lima Beans and Pears” is given as a recipe that belonged to her mother and is used to describe the sort of woman her mother was and her way of cooking with some surprises up her sleeve. The recipes included are sometimes simple, such as how to toast almonds, and sometimes more complex, such as three ways to make potatoes in a section titled “Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections”. Four of the recipes are for desserts, and one is the Key Lime Pie that she throws in her cheating husband’s face, but not before checking that she was on easy-to-clean tile. Finally, she offers up her recipe for vinaigrette which has become a symbol in the story. At first she’s proud she has not given the recipe to her cheating husband, but at the end she shows him how to make it for the salad in what would become their farewell dinner before she heads off to New York, knowing he will return to his mistress.
Xaver read The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders by Nancy Pickard which he said was very good and would make a good movie. There are eleven recipes in the end sheets of this book, but since I borrowed it from the library and their cover is permanent, I can only see six of them. He tells me that the relationships in the book are all centered around food, both as she’s creating a meal, and when she’s eating out somewhere. One of Xaver’s favorite moments is when she’s preparing food with a friend, and they are talking about something else all together. Also, she includes how the characters react to the food, including the critics. He says the food part of the story feels very natural. He says I should read it, (and now I’m hungry for chili)!
Next I picked up Dying for Chocolate by Diane Mott Davidson which tells the tale of a caterer working for a family and catering events as well. There are eleven recipes, 4 sweets, 2 savories, 2 egg dishes, and 3 salads. The recipes are given on random pages in the book that show up near the part in the story where she’s making the recipe. The pages are decorated with a border of tools for cooking and murder. The story was very interesting, and I suspect it was written back to front like Agatha Christi, the ending was unexpected.
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham isn’t really a book about food and I decided not to read it after reading the glowing New York Times review of the book. I also picked up the Ntozake Shange book “Some Sing, Some Cry” wishing it was “Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo“. In both cases the fact that there is food in the title was enough to bring them up on a search, but not enough to teach me something about using food in narrative so for the sake of time I’ll move on.
I haven’t yet read Fudge Cupcake Murder by Joanne Fluke, and I also expect to read the Chili one Xaver read. And who knows… maybe I will also find some other books featuring food in a prominent role. Anything for “education” (and let’s face it, this is fun!). What’s your favorite book that includes food as a key element of the story?