Five Novels I’ve Read About Food

Cover imageFood features prominently on my agenda of pleasures in life, often overlapping neatly with travel, another priority for me. Naturally, I’ve spent many hours ogling cookery books with their gorgeous pictures of artfully arranged meals but I’m not averse to word pictures of food in fiction either. Here are five favourites which should get you salivating if you have a similar predilection. All but one have links to longer reviews if your appetite’s been whetted.

Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. It’s a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.

With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical evocations of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its use of language. In 1934 Binh is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace. Deliciously vivid descriptions of food are threaded through Binh’s thoughts and memories as he tries to decide what he should do, unfolding both his own story and that of the two eccentric women whose literary salon is about to be disbandedCover image

N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter keeps us in Paris with the story of the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier who died the year after Binh was faced with his decision. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life – his wife desperate to have a dish named after her as the great man has done for so many others – Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Kelby’s novel recounts the trials and errors of the quest for a dish worthy of the wife Escoffier has adored for decades despite his passion for another woman.

In Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, we first meet the orphaned five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. He’s rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential throughout his life. He’s the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he’s a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Despite his many interests and responsibilities, he never loses his culinary curiosity. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is.

Cover imageIt was a toss-up between Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter for my fifth foodie title, both excellent novels set in restaurants. In the end, I plumped for Danler’s book, a twenty-first century Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Tess begins her training in what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, subjected to endless snipey backchat, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. Eventually she’s singled out by Simone, revered for her esoteric knowledge and expertise. Tess also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity, but finds herself drawn into the orbit of these two and their dangerous games. Danler writes beautifully about food in this thoroughly engrossing, acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Any novels about food you’d like to recommend?

39 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read About Food

  1. BookerTalk

    I like the sound of quite a few of your choices but especially Man. Food features extensively in The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery though I wouldnt go as far as saying I r commend hat book.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      In terms of language I’d say Mãn’s my favourite of these five. It conveys beautifully how evocative of home food can be. I’ve not come across Muriel Barbery before.

      Reply
  2. Liz

    Great post – I love the sound of Mãn. As for other titles for foodies, I really enjoyed Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, and also Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. comfort reading around comfort food – perfect. Not bad films either! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Liz. Comfort food indeed! Bits of Chocolat were filmed not far away from where I live. I remember Bath trying to be all cool about Johnny Depp staying in town.

      Reply
  3. Rebecca Foster

    Even though I don’t cook, I love reading fiction and nonfiction about food! I’ve read four of your picks, and have The Book of Salt on the shelf. Some of my other favourites are An Appetite for Violets, Heartburn, The Debt to Pleasure, and Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

    Reply
      1. Rebecca Foster

        Ah, I love that book to bits. It’s a linked short story collection about a female chef who makes creative versions of traditional Midwest/immigrant-inspired dishes.

        Reply
  4. janetemson

    I have The Last Banquet on my to read pile, and A Debt to Pleasure which is also loosely food related. I’m taking it as an oversight that you’ve not included Season to Taste – a novel about a woman who kills and then cooks and eats her husband…

    Reply
  5. MarinaSofia

    I love food so much that I always like to see it incorporate into literature as well. I rather liked Like Water for Chocolate when it came out (or maybe when the film came out – I didn’t see the film but I read the book). Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris is set in Les Halles, before they became gentrified, when it was still the marketplace for Paris. And The Dinner by Herman Koch makes fun of the pretentiousness of fancy restaurants as the diners start turning very nasty and ignoring the food.

    Reply
  6. Kate W

    I loved Man – I think Thuy writes beautifully (particularly about food). I also enjoyed White Truffles but my pick of your picks (!) is The Last Banquet – this book was such an unexpected surprise for me. The food descriptions were amazing but it was also the history and the action and the plot twists and turns – so much in one book and I was absolutely riveted.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      The Last Banquet is extraordinary, isn’t it, right from the opening page. I must get my hands on some more Thúy. The way she used both language and food to evoke homesickness was so delicately done.

      Reply
  7. Paula Bardell-Hedley

    Mmm! A lovely appetizer to these delish-sounding food books. Sadly, I’m an utter disgrace when left to my own devices in a kitchen (a danger to myself and others), but I do so enjoy eating – and reading about eating. Excellent post, Susan!

    Reply
  8. heavenali

    Lovely post. Man does sound wonderful it is going on my wishlist. I am reminded of a book I read years ago called Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran I know I loved it. There’s always a bit of food in Barbara Pym novels too.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Ali. That’s great to hear. Pomegranate Soup sounds lovely. I’ve never cooked Persian food but the recipes I’ve seen look delicious.

      Reply
  9. JacquiWine

    It’s a nice idea for a post, Susan. Some interesting choices too, quite a few of which are new to me. I would second Ali’s recommendation of Barbara Pym – she has a sharp eye for detail when it comes to these things.

    Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    These all sound wonderful Susan! Mãn especially sounds like a feast. It’s been a while since I read a book with a focus on food – the 2 that sprang to mind when I was reading your post have been mentioned – Debt to Pleasure and Like Water for Chocolate. Done well, a novel about food is a win-win 🙂

    Reply
  11. Naomi

    The only one of these I’ve read in Man, but I do love to read about food. I have way too many cookbooks to show for it!

    Reply
  12. BuriedInPrint

    Thuy and Chariandy: I’m started to understand which Canadian writers get under your skin! I loved Mãn as well. (Ru was her first and widely acclaimed.) Another food story which I thought terrific was James Hanniham’s Delicious Foods, but it’s more on the production side of things, although also very much about what and how we consume (beneath a set of linked narratives – gripping but uncomfortable). I think Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is remarkable too. And Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation (maybe her My Year of Meats too, now that I think about it). A curious little volume in translation sticks in my mind too, Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress was New. And a collection of short stories by Lauralyn Chow called Paper Teeth, also linked stories..but now that I think about it…I don’t as often notice story collections in your stacks as novels?

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’ve yet to read Ru but it’s on my list as I’m sure you’ve guessed. I’m a recent short story convert so will look out for Paper Teeth and I rather like the sound of The Waitress Was New too. Very much enjoyed My Year of Meats.

      Reply

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