This article of mine appeared as an essay in yesterday's New York Times Book Review (May 3, 2009)
GO AHEAD. SPOIL MY APPETITE.
By Geoff Nicholson
Like many people, I’ve been spending time lately with Roberto Bolaño’s enormous posthumous novel “2666.” The book is strange and wonderful in all sorts of ways, not least because I can’t think of any other novel in which so many meals are consumed while being so little described.
In the 150-page opening section, four lovelorn literary scholars zip around the world, trying to find a fugitive author and (I think you’d have to say) themselves. They’re always away from home and going out for meals in bars, restaurants, trattorias, taverns and in one case a “Lilliputian” cafeteria. But what do they eat? I have very little idea.
Most of these meals aren’t described at all, and even when certain items are mentioned — a taco here, sausage and potatoes there — there’s no attempt to evoke any sense of how the meal looked, tasted or smelled. I find this curious. I also find it a tremendous relief. Haven’t we all read too many novels in which authors go to town describing meals in sumptuous, elaborate detail, in some cases even giving us the recipes?
It’s all very well for Bob Cratchit and his family to sit down to a Christmas goose whose “tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness” were “the themes of universal admiration.” But since I’m likely to be reading this while sitting alone on the couch sustained only by instant coffee, I tend to develop a bad case of food envy. It’s a lot like sex, I think. I don’t want characters in novels to eat better than I do, any more than I want them to have better sex lives than I do.
I’ve realized that the moments of literary eating I like best are the ones in which the characters suffer because of their food. In “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance, there’s an early scene in which the wartime inhabitants of a London maisonette enjoy bananas served in myriad forms, including mashed bananas “molded in the shape of a British lion rampant.”
This is good stuff, but the truly magnificent scene in the book has Tyrone Slothrop sampling various hideous English candies, flavored with the likes of quinine, pepsin, eucalyptus, tapioca, until, choking, he’s offered a Meggezone, “the least believable of English coughdrops.” This is a real product, a nasty little black lozenge, still available, and if my childhood memory is reliable, Pynchon’s description of its effects — “Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs” — gets it about right.
Of course, nobody feels guilty about mocking English taste, least of all the English. In “1984,” George Orwell details the hideous food served in the canteen at the Ministry of Truth, chiefly a “pinkish-gray stew” that he says at one point has a “sour metallic smell,” at another is “tinny” and elsewhere is a “filthy liquid mess that had the appearance of vomit.” O.K., George. We get the idea.
As with the Meggezone, I don’t think Orwell is actually inventing much here. He’s just remembering the terrible food he ate at school, in the army, and indeed in the BBC canteen. A few years earlier he’d written an article called “In Defense of English Cooking,” but since his defense was based on the virtues of bread sauce, marrow jam, suet and haggis, I wonder if it really helped.
I was recently rereading “Moby-Dick,” and it struck me as a vast smorgasbord (bouillabaisse?) of bad eating: the Try Pots Inn, where even the milk tastes of fish; the grim formal meals aboard the Pequod; and the notorious scene of Stubb’s Supper, in which the second mate gets a craving for whale steak and sends a crew member to slice some flesh off a poor dead beast attached to the side of the ship. The steak is “cut and cooked,” and although it’s not clear by what method, Stubb isn’t happy with the results and berates the ancient cook. He devours the steak regardless, and as he eats he hears sharks in the water far below tearing apart the rest of the whale carcass. This all leads Ishmael to ruminate about cannibalism — certainly some members of the ship’s crew are cannibals — and he concludes, “Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?”
Not me, honest. But I accept that in literature, all sorts of people are; from Tamora in “Titus Andronicus” to the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine” to Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman. I assume it’s the idea of eating human flesh that’s repulsive rather than the flesh itself (I’ll bet it tastes a lot like chicken).
I know nothing about the eating habits of Thomas Harris or Bret Easton Ellis, but I would think that authors who revel in inventing nightmarish food scenes probably revel in eating really good food. Not Franz Kafka, however. He was a food faddist, a sometime passionate vegetarian, a drinker of vast quantities of unpasteurized milk and, according to current diagnosis, also an anorexic. There are those who claim that his short story “A Hunger Artist” is autobiographical, the story of a man who can fast indefinitely because he’s never found any food he likes.
According to Kafka’s great friend and biographer Max Brod, there was a time in the 1920s when Kafka considered, or at least fantasized about, opening a restaurant with his lover Dora Diamant, who was apparently an excellent cook. Kafka was going to be the waiter. The mind reels. How very different the history of 20th- century literature could have been if Dora had managed to put some flesh on those dry Czech bones. We might still have “The Trial,” but perhaps we’d also have “The Franz Kafka Cookbook.”
It would have some good company. Today, we have not only “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” a literary memoir as much as a cookbook and source for Brion Gysin’s infamous hash fudge (not brownie, as is so often supposed), but also “Dining With Marcel Proust,” “Tea With Jane Austen” and at least four cookbooks inspired by Sherlock Holmes; there’s also a book called “The Joyce of Cooking” (as in James), a title so wonderful that if you’d thought of it you would have had to write the book.
I tried, briefly, to come up with some preposterously unlikely titles — “A Lettuce Leaf With Joan Didion”; John Updike’s “Rabbit Reflux”; “Venus in Curds: In the Kitchen With Sacher-Masoch”; or “The James Frey Stovetop Companion,” in which all the recipes sound pretty good but you just can’t trust ’em. Then I discovered there actually is a book called “Kafka’s Soup,” although to be fair this is an ironic enterprise giving “a complete history of world literature” in recipes in the styles of various writers, including “Cheese on Toast à la Harold Pinter,” “Lamb With Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler” and Kafka’s “Quick Miso Soup.”
Still, I think we can safely assume that nobody will be publishing “The William Burroughs Cookbook” anytime soon, and that’s a shame, since “Naked Lunch” contains my favorite description of disgusting food. Burroughs writes: “In Egypt is a worm gets into your kidneys and grows to an enormous size. Ultimately the kidney is just a thin shell around the worm. Intrepid gourmets esteem the flesh of The Worm above all other delicacies. It is said to be unspeakably toothsome.” This is surely Burroughs’s own hallucinatory invention, but I’d still like the recipe. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten anything that was unspeakably toothsome.