Photograph by BirchTree / Alamy
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Madeleine cookies, a favorite of Proust.
Photograph by BirchTree / Alamy

Want to Get to Know an Author? Read Her Menu

When it comes to food in literature, there are basically just two kinds: fictitious food, of the sort cooked and consumed by imaginary characters; which we wrote about here for grownups and here for children. And then there’s real food, of the sort prepared and eaten and revered by actual authors. The latter hooks us because, in a sense, it brings us closer to the people whose books we’ve come to love. Often, it also shows us how authors’ love of food finds its way into their books.

Charles Dickens, whose novels are replete with goose and plum pudding, loved multiple courses and overflowing tables; he was particularly partial to leg of mutton stuffed with oysters and toasted cheese. We know this because Dickens’s wife, Catherine, in 1851, published a cookbook – What Shall We Have for Dinner? – under the tellingly Dickensian pseudonym of Lady Maria Clutterbuck.

The book, which ran to five editions, was a collection of lush Victorian “Bills of Fare,” detailing the recipes and menus favored in the well-fed Dickens home. Dickens himself, in the voice of Lady Maria, wrote the introduction, affecting concern for those neglectful wives whose inattention to food was alienating their husbands – unhappy men who, afflicted with “a surplusage of cold mutton or a redundancy of chops,” were finding their gentleman’s clubs more attractive than the home table.

Pearl Buck, raised by American missionary parents in China, preferred local food to the Americanized meals her parents made. She used to secretly eat with the servants before arriving stuffed at the family dinner table. Her favorites: deep-fried Szechuan duck and fried noodles.

Marcel Proust liked almond cookies. Proust’s madeleine, a spongy almond-flavored cookie shaped like a scallop shell, is possibly the most famous cookie in literature. It appears in Du côté de chez Swann, the first book of Prout’s massive 15-volume autobiographical novel, À la recherché du temps perdu. When dunked in linden flower tea, its taste and smell called up a rush of childhood memories.

The reclusive Emily Dickinson, known for flitting about her bedroom in a white dress and peering at guests from behind the bannister rails, seems an unlikely foodie – but actually she was famed in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, as a baker rather than a poet. Many of her recipes – occasionally with poems scribbled on the back – survive. (“The Things that can never come back, are several” was scribbled on the back of a recipe for Coconut Cake.) She was known for lowering baskets of gingerbread from her window to children gathered below.

Harper Lee, born and raised in Alabama, loved crackling bread, a Southern specialty made from cornmeal and fried pork rinds – Scout gets it as a treat in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee’s tongue-in-cheek recipe: First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abbatoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with 1 ½ cups water-ground white meal, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 egg, 1 cup milk. Bake in very hot over until brown (about 15 minutes). Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: About $250, depending upon size of pig.

Some historians say by this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

A clutch of documents released last year by the JFK Presidential Library and Museum turned up Ernest Hemingway’s personal hamburger recipe, a predictably macho patty crammed with onion, garlic, red wine, and three kinds of spices, known as “Papa’s Favorite Wild West Hamburger.” (Also among the documents was a confiscation notice for Hemingway’s unregistered rifles, with a thoughtful P.S. congratulating him on his Nobel prize.)

A different melding of books and food appears in a 1907 essay by Lewis Carroll, titled “Feeding the Mind.” “Breakfast, dinner, tea; in extreme cases, breakfast, luncheon, dinner, tea, supper, and a glass of something hot at bedtime,” Carroll writes. “What care we take about feeding the lucky body! Which of us does as much for his mind?”

Like the body, he continues, the mind needs healthy food. Just as too many sugarplums bring on fits of indigestion, too many “unwholesome novels” result in low spirits, laziness, and mental stagnation. Over-reading, like over-eating, is also a bad idea – that is, don’t gulp down too much all at once – and stick to the topic at hand: too much random variety is never intellectually satisfying. Finally, Carroll recommends that readers take time to digest their mental meals: think about what you’ve just read and process the information, so that you can readily refer to it when you need it.

“I eat my way through books,” writes author Alberto Manguel.

In one way or another, so do we all.

For more on author eats, check out Paper and Salt, a website dedicated to recreating and reinterpreting the dishes that iconic authors discuss in their letters, diaries, essays, and fiction.

And let us know in the comments below about your favorite authors’ eats.

This post is the third in our series on food and literature.