Regular readers here know that I recently spent a few weeks in North America – mostly in Toronto, bookended by a few days in Southern California. We spent our last day with a friend I “met” many years ago through online reading groups. We actually met Trudy for the first time in 2008, so this was our second meeting. She is a fun, generous person, and upon our arrival at her pretty cottage, she proceeded to shower us with gifts targeting our interests and activities. One of these was Dinah Fried’s Fictitious dishes which she chose because of our “sophisticated palate and enthusiastic approach to dining” – as well as, of course, my love of reading. I’m not so sure about the sophisticated bit, but we do love our food!
Dinah Fried’s book, subtitled “an album of literature’s most memorable meals”, is one of those delightful little books for readers to get their teeth into. (Ha!) As you read it you think, of course, about your favourite meals and foods in books. (You know what I’ll be asking you at the end of this post, then, don’t you?). In her introduction, Fried mentions some of her favourites, starting with one of my own, Heidi (by Johanna Spyri). Fried mentions the golden cheesy toast that Heidi’s grandfather serves her in their home in the mountains, but I also remember the white bread rolls that so astonished Heidi when she lived in the town with Clara. Who doesn’t like cheese on toast and perfect bread rolls!
The book contains an eclectic and sometimes surprising collection of “fictitious dishes” in both adult and children’s books that range from European classics like Kafka’s Metamorphosis to modern American Pulitzer prize winners like Cormac McCarthy’s The road. This latter, involving a can of pears, reminded me of the cans of peaches* in Adam Johnson’s The orphan master’s son (my review). In other words, the book can send you off on little journeys of your own! There are 50 or so dishes, and each is presented as a two-page spread. On the left is the title of the book, the quote, and some tidbits of information inspired by the book and/or the food items chosen. On the right is Fried’s photo of the food, lovingly prepared and carefully laid out. In her introduction, she talks briefly about food preparation and the work involved in sourcing just the right props. It is good fun looking at the photos and thinking about her design choices. She is, after all, a designer, a graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design. As with any book of this ilk, some designs worked better for me than others, but I enjoyed looking at them all.
Most intriguing to me, though, were the little pieces of information. They include:
- the history of various food items, like freeze-dried potatoes, for Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona;
- notes about the books, such as prizes won or an interesting point about their publication; and
- comments on the authors, such as their inspiration for the work or their relationship to the food.
There’s no real pattern to these. Some books have four or five points, and others only two, but they are fun to read. She does provide a list of references at the back, along with a list of the books chosen and the editions she used for the quotes. I do have one bone to pick with her (oh dear!), and that’s regarding her comment on, you’ve probably guessed it, Jane Austen! Food appears quite frequently in Austen’s novels, and particularly in Emma, which features a hypochondriacal father keen to ensure everyone eats as plainly and boringly as he does. It also features a picnic, a strawberry gathering party (from which Fried takes her quote), and balls and dinners. My quibble relates to Fried’s comment that “Despite proposals, Austen never married, setting her apart from many of her novels’ characters, who are husband hunters”. To describe Austen’s heroines so baldly as “husband hunters” badly misses Austen’s point. Her heroines were prepared not to marry (as Austen didn’t) if they couldn’t marry for love. Austen knew the importance of money to women’s security, but her heroines also wanted to love and respect the man they married.
But now, to the fun bit. One of my favourite bookish references to food comes from Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own. I’m sure you know to what I refer! However, as Fried’s book is devoted to fiction, I’ll share one of my favourite fictitious dishes (one that wasn’t included by Fried). It comes from Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost and refers to a brown leather lunchbox:
It did open, and inside was a space for sandwiches, a little porcelain box for cold meat or fried chicken, another for salad, a glass with a lid which screwed on, held by a ring in a corner, for custard or jelly, a flask for tea or milk, a beautiful little knife , fork and spoon fastened in holders, and a place for a napkin.
Not only did I adore the idea of this gorgeous little box, but the love and generosity behind it in the story speaks to the most important thing about food in our lives – the making of and sharing it with those we love. Now, over to you … what are your favourite fictitious dishes?
Fictitious dishes: An album of literature’s most memorable meals
New York: Harper Design, 2014
* They play an important role in the lives of the main characters, but to explain it would be to spoil!