Food 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 disbanded
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.
It 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?