I know what it means to be transported through time by books-I have been doing it my entire life ever since my mother stuffed a miniature set of classics into my Christmas stocking at age eight which had me hunched in bed with flashlights trolling through my first round with Moby Dick. I also know how much scenes of food in books can tantalize. I fell head over heels with my first piece of culinary prose tumbling from the pages of an MFK Fisher tome in which she was lasciviously slurping an oyster in a French castle – or at least that’s the way my 12-year-old brain imagined it. So when I heard about Dinah Fried’s new book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, I just had to devour it all in one Saturday evening on the couch after an amazing Japanese dinner of unagi and uni, seaweed, rice and sake, and a salad tumbled with tiny cubes of silky tofu, cucumber and mushroom made with love by the Cute Gardener.
With a dash of Scotch whiskey, blackberries from the garden and some dark chocolate covered almonds I pored over the exquisite pages. Each consisted of a photograph, carefully conjured by the author’s imagination of a particular food related setting from the annals of treasured literature. Each picture was accompanied by the passage of the book that had inspired it as well as some very fun tidbits about the dishes or cuisine that was being spotlighted. This tickled my word geek taste buds and brought me back to many memories of reading the same stories myself. It was lovely to see evidence of what books do best: cause people to create visuals in their minds borne from simple black words on a page, strum up entire worlds and lives in the brain, and invoke mental travel to places one might never have been before. Seeing Dinah’s table and picnic settings right down to choice of tablecloth—it was fun to compare her images with the way they looked in my own mind and it was wonderful when sometimes they turned out quite similar to the way I would have created them myself—and delicious, also, when they turned out so entirely different.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Some highlights for me:
- The jelly spread from Little Women – a book that was revered by me for my entire fifth grade year in which I played the youngest sister Amy in a play, relating to her most as she was the “artist” of the family, refusing to give up her self expression for the self sacrificing feminine norms of the time.
- The gin and pineapple juice tableau from Lolita and recalling how Humbert had admitted that drinking it in the afternoon seemed to double his energy. Who doesn’t love the bewitching cocktail hour?
- Feeling an internal hunger for crumpets and angel food cake while eyeing the Rebecca page and recalling my love of reading about another Rebecca when young—the one from Sunnybrook Farm.
- Learning that the Graham cracker was first created to be a bland food as part of a bland diet to curb too many sexual urges.
- Hankering for corn dodgers from Huckleberry Finn (of which I just had the pleasure of viewing in first edition form at the Huntington Library in Pasadena) – spread with lavish amounts of melted butter with honey.
- Remembering how much I always crave the Indian puffed rice breakfasts that Jhumpa Lahiri always writes into her novels.
- Being reminded of the fact that I really want a genuine yerba mate gourd.
- The Catcher in the Rye spread teasing my current craving for a once a year decadent butterscotch milkshake, with or without the addition of an adult liqueur.
- Wanting to try the liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich from A Wrinkle in Time and remembering my mother always going to the convenience store when we go to Cabo San Lucas to buy deli liverwurst and white bread (of all things!) from the Mexican grocer.
- The Madame Bovary spread, much like her extramarital affairs, and much like the movie Marie Antoinette, provoking a phantom stomach ache with the knowledge that too much of a good thing usually turns rotten.
- Hearing To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout in my brain, proclaiming “What in the Sam Hill?” over her plate of fried chicken and tomato slices just like the Cute Gardener does whenever I pour large amounts of sweetness onto food that he feels should be kept savory, like maple syrup on cheddar biscuits.
- Understanding that I, just like Maurice Sendak, would not really be able to trust someone who doesn’t like chicken and rice soup.
- Heidi’s burnt toast with golden cheese bubbling on top belying two things that go well together regardless of altitude or oven versus flame.
- Finding new inspirations in ingredients like the Swiss cheese, dill pickle, caviar, hard boiled egg, pickled herring, liver sausage, liver pate, cucumber, rye bread, mustard sauce and chive sandwich combinations from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which are bound to show up in my own kitchen soon because my honey has a love affair with German and Austrian cuisine.
- Deciding that everyone should take off their hat of food snobbery every once in a while to enjoy a good ole platter of 1950s pigs in a blanket.
- I used to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe out loud to my fifth grade peers after lunch from my teacher’s high stool and podium in front of the class. Ms. Kolmel knew I loved to read so she would let me while we journeyed through the entire set of CS Lewis that year. I do not, however, recall Turkish Delight being in the book and now am determined to try the jelly-like candy because it looks jiggly scrumptious.
- Thanks to the Motherless Brooklyn page, I realize I never ever have to actually try a White Castle burger.
Dinah Fried has taken me, like many of my favorite books, down a simply yummy trail of yesteryear in food, whimsical words and fun and I recommend this book for anyone who loves to play in these realms as much as I do.
Here is a spread I created myself after being duly inspired by Fictitious Dishes. It’s from the book of my own life “An Artist and a Gardener.” An excerpt:
On any given night, the artist is spoiled when the dashingly black haired Cute Gardener cooks Italian style—picking fresh produce like fava beans from the garden and nonchalantly frying them up with funky bits of birds that have fed us nights prior. Rich chunks of liver and slices of moist giblets nestle next to piles of flat pasta spiked with tomato sauce that has long since fermented in the fridge from summer when the Momotaros burst forth from the vine. Noodles on plates with newspapers nightly—neat cocktails to coincide with dinner and plump strawberries to follow.
Existence is grand when life and art blend and become each other, fed by all the palate’s favorite things.