Literature as Lunchbox

IMG_9728 On Monday morning as I sat at the small, wooden table I park at habitually for daily tea and my Internet newspaper I noticed that my breakfast was a hodgepodge of edibles I had discovered through my love of great literature: a pudgy square of green tea mochi and a bowl of flaming orange papaya chunks.

I first read about the exotic papaya fruit in Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street. I was in fifth grade and fell in sisterly love with Esperanza, the young Hispanic girl who documents her neighborhood characters with a sassy wit. One of those characters was Rafaela, a woman locked inside her house by an overbearing husband, whom Esperanza would see sitting at a window looking wistfully out into the street as she passed on her way to and from home. Sometimes, Rafaela would throw down a dollar and Esperanza would run to the corner to buy her papaya, which she would hoist up to Rafaela in a paper bag on a string. This caused me to eye the street side vendors in my own life, who sat with carts stocked full of tropical fruits, eternally looking for my own chance to taste the foreign papaya. Finally, on a fifth grade field trip to Olvera Street, I bought my own cup stuffed with the fuchsia fruit chunks and tasted rapture in the subtly sweet flesh that oozed messy, squirts of juice across the chest of my Catholic School uniform. Rafaela’s forbidden fruit had become real.

In high school, while perusing Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club I found myself absorbed in the descriptions of various Chinese finger foods and ritual holiday treats. I started researching across the Asian spectrum for similar small bites that loomed fantastical to my American snack vernacular. Of special interest were the glutinous rice balls filled with red bean paste called mochi that peppered Japanese grocery store aisles, beckoning like jewels of every color and flavor. Today, they are a mainstay on my tongue, fun and squishy to eat while delivering sugary protein bursts alongside various combinations of tea.

I realize that my love of and adventurousness toward food, and an early impetus in my gradual inclination to food writing, was sparked by my very early passion for reading. In my traditionally American household, I knew nothing of bagels or luscious, black moles or puffed rice with hot spices or French omelets or sexy, sensual oysters. That is, until I stumbled upon my existential crush Jean Paul Sartre’s silly food vignettes, or MFK Fisher’s remarkably independent Consider the Oyster, or Isabel Allende’s women ablaze in the humid, summer kitchens of Like Water for Chocolate, or Jumpa Lahiri’s displaced East Indian women attempting breakfast in cramped U.S. apartments in Interpreter of Maladies, or snippets within the best Jewish essay compendiums of my youth. A big part of my lust for the written word was birthed by the escapism that stories of other cultures provide. But as I look back now, I realize that these stories also became a big influence in evolving my contemporary palate.

P.S. Here’s a lovely essay from this week’s Rumpus by Chef Dana Tommasino, owner of Gardenias floating pop-up restaurant in San Francisco that alluringly combines food and literature in all the ways I love best.

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