Essays

Because I, Too, Am Hungry: On Food and Reading

By posted at 6:00 am on August 22, 2014 8

800px-Good_Food_Display_-_NCI_Visuals_Online

1.
I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five,but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.

When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.

If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.

2.
covercoverHemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.

And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he — effortlessly, in my head — catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.

coverThe Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.

coverAtonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.

coverStop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?

coverZadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.

Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.

coverTony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.

coverAngela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.

3.
There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons





Share this article

More from the Millions

8 Responses to “Because I, Too, Am Hungry: On Food and Reading”

  1. Marie
    at 8:10 am on August 23, 2014

    Do you mean saucisson ?

  2. elle
    at 3:34 pm on August 23, 2014

    Plath’s tuna sandwiches

  3. Ben
    at 8:24 am on August 27, 2014

    Bolano’s sandwiches. Always sandwiches…in a diner in the stupefying heat of Mexico, on the Costa Brava, somewhere along the Eastern front in the winter of war… and then one more sandwich in Ciudad Juarez.

  4. Gert Loveday
    at 11:02 pm on August 29, 2014

    “sir, you hav been drinking BEER. Would you like a nice runy egg, sir?”
    Molesworth, of course.

  5. priskill
    at 5:39 pm on August 31, 2014

    Heidi and all those al fresco meals of hard cheese and harder bread whilst gamboling in the Alpine meadows. Also, goat’s milk at the gruff but kindly hands of The Grandfather.

    Jo March and her apples; Amy’s sorry attempt at lobster salad and ices to impress her snooty art school friends. Oh, and Amy’s younger striving self at grammar school with the highly prized pickled (sour? plums? some odd 19th century treat) but forced to THROW THEM OUT THE WINDOW by her officious teacher.

    Sara Crewe waking up in her cold garret to a lavish spread courtesy of “the old gentleman” next door and his manservant. The 2 overworked and abused maids wonder if they are still dreaming . . .

    Hmm — all from favorite children’s novels. . . Loved this article!

  6. Seth Sawyers
    at 5:52 pm on August 31, 2014

    I toyed with including movies but those might turn up in a separate essay. The one that stands out the most, for some reason, is the prison/garlic-slicing scene in Goodfellas.

  7. priskill
    at 6:44 pm on August 31, 2014

    Yesssss . . . I think of razors and Paul Sorvino everytime I make a Sunday sauce. Hope you do write the movie version.

  8. Evangeline
    at 11:22 pm on August 31, 2014

    Thank you for writing this article, Seth, I enjoyed reading it so much. Even though I’ve actually not read all the books you listed, you made me want to. I have read the two Hemingways, and do recall those raw onion sandwiches… and the wine and absinthe–or is it anisette–that they drink.

    Now I read a lot of books–memoirs and travel writing especially–with food at their core, but one of my clearest food-book memories comes from a childhood book, as some other commenters have also said. It’s from Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder–really, every description of eating in that book is just amazing, but the special dinner is a standout. I’m not sure if it was Christmas or Thanksgiving, but the courses just went on and on (including Almanzo’s favourite, apples and onions fried together, something I’ve still never tasted); I can’t imagine how he could eat so much. I wonder if Laura wrote so lavishly about the food he ate as a sort of vicarious pleasure since in the books about her life, they often had very little to eat. Though i do remember that blackbird pie…

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.