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The Memory of Food in Great Literature

Memory is a strange thing. It collects and files away what it wants to. Faces and sometimes names. Or names and perhaps no face. Some people can recollect a long-ago day trip, a spot of bad weather, that first or second kiss, or something said, innocuous or otherwise. For others, it’s a meal. Or a book. And sometimes, for many of us, it’s both.

It’s hard to imagine Alice in Wonderland without remembering the magic of the Eat Me cakes, or the Queen of Hearts and her missing jam tarts or the Mad Hatter and his rampageous tea party.

We all remember any number of Roald Dahl’s delicious delectables: Farmer Bunce’s mashed goose-livers in donuts, Charlie and his daily cabbage, and of course the BFG’s snozzcumbers.

There’s even memorable cod and clam chowder in Moby Dick, pages of it in fact—and that delicious line, ‘“we dispatched it with great expedition.”

The feasting tables of A Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series capture imaginations with such force that they have lead to fans sharing recipes online.

Yes, the books below were chosen for particularly memorable food, but also for the fact that the food was central to a scene or a mood.

Dubliners

“The Dead”, the last story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, is a masterpiece. It’s a heartrending, haunting and surreal tale of love and loss. It’s quite an introverted thoughtful piece that pulls away from the big social situation at the heart of the story (a dinner party) and focuses quite intensely on the inner workings of the heart and soul. It explores how those from beyond the grave can still influence the living in a myriad of ways. Before hearing disturbing revelations from his wife, Gabriel Conroy is contemplative, dwelling on his impending speech at what has become quite a famous literary dinner, something that is celebrated and replicated in several Dublin venues each year. The full description of the spread is lengthy, but here is the tastiest bit:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef.

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To the Lighthouse

Boeuf en daube sounds quite fancy, but actually it’s a relatively straightforward stew made with braised beef, stock, vegetables, wine and herbs. Typically it’s slow-cooked in a clay pot—or a strangely shaped daubière—to achieve the required tenderness.

Woolf’s descriptions have never been anything less than spectacular. In To The Lighthouse, her meal of boeuf en daube is central to the dinner party in the first part of the novel as it gathers all the central characters, family and friends alike, before they are reunited for a meal, in the third part of the novel, after a span of ten years.

And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine…

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Oliver Twist

At age seven, Dickens’ most famous orphan is removed from one workhouse,, where he was well fed and reasonably taken care of, and sent to a new workhouse. After a quick inspection, Oliver is assigned as an oakum picker. His new diet consists of three small bowls of gruel a day, an onion twice a week and a roll on a Sunday. After much consideration between the undernourished workforce, it is decided that someone must speak up and ask for extra rations. Tasked with this job, Oliver’s famous request is so pitiful and desperate, it’s hard not to forget. Gruel never had a platform like this before, or since.

Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

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The Catcher in the Rye

A swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk is Holden Caufield’s go-to meal when he’s out and about. Or when he’s just been on a terrible date. It’s the perfect quick-fix teenage meal and it rather typifies Caufield. It’s simple, safe and comforting, with no fuss. I like to think it’s also something Salinger indulged in himself, but we’ll never know. We’ll presume Caufield had the sandwich toasted; it’s the only way. As for the malted milk; what is it exactly? Well, it’s one part wheat flour, one part malted barley and one part evaporated milk. Today we know such drinks as Horlicks or Ovaltine.

When I’m out somewhere, I generally just eat a swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk. It isn’t much, but you get quite a lot of vitamins in the malted milk.

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The Joy Luck Club

As good as the 1993 film was, showcasing an array of sumptuous meals, the 1989 book is as drool-inducing as reading a cookbook. Four Chinese immigrant mothers living in America decide to start a mahjong club, and as they play they converse and eat a wide variety of foods. Amy Tan’s novel is a masterclass of detailed intergenerational relationships between the immigrant mothers and their American born daughters. Amidst the conversations and games, food is ever present. There are mentions of American candies—M&Ms, Necco Wafers, Jujubes, Rice Krispies–but there are endless references to delicious Chinese foods. There’s dried cuttlefish, roasted gingko nuts, zong zi, and chaswei. But most beautiful of all, there are several unforgettable mentions of wontons, a very popular Chinese dumpling.

She is stuffing wonton, one chopstick jab of gingery meat dabbed onto a thin skin and then a single fluid turn with her hand that seals the skin into the shape of a tiny nurse’s cap.

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Babette's Feast and Other Stories

The best is saved for last. Karen Blixen’s short “Babette’s Feast” revolves solely around a gigantic, well... feast. It is the heart and soul of the book, and it serves as a grand gesture from a French refugee to the two Danish sisters that took her in.

When she wins a considerable lottery, Babette decides to spend it on a lavish meal for these two sisters and their guests as a thank-you for all they have done for her. This meal is a thing of wonder that brings everyone together, healing old wounds and rekindling loves. The extraordinary menu includes potage à la tortue (turtle soup), Blinis Demidoff (buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream), Caille en Sarcophage (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce), cakes, fruits and a number of expensive wines and cheeses. It is the fantasy dinner we may never taste.

After a moment, in order to test his senses, he took a small spoonful of his soup, took a second spoonful and laid down his spoon. ‘This is exceedingly strange!’ he said to himself. ‘For surely I am eating turtle-soup–and what turtle-soup!’ He was seized by a queer kind of panic and emptied his glass.’

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If there are any other literary edibles that you remember well, please share them in the comments. I’d love to know.

Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More