Monday, October 3, 2011

An Armchair Foodie

Some of you may know that when I’m not thinking or writing about food (am I ever not thinking or writing about food?), I teach classes on literature. Call it my oral obsession if you must, but to my mind food and words go together like bread and butter, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly—well, you get the picture. Obsessed with food words as I clearly am, then, who can be surprised that I’d be especially happy whenever the book I happen to be teaching talks about food? From the Bible (whose very first story involves fruit) to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (whose central scene is a dinner party featuring that marvel of French cuisine, a boeuf en daube), the books that are dearest to my heart are the ones that have food in them.

Just the other day, though, I was made painfully aware of the fact that not everyone gets as hungry as I do, whether physically or imaginatively, at the merest mention of food in literature. Of course I knew this already (I’ve been teaching for a lot of years), but somehow this time I was called up especially short.

I had assigned my students to read a short story in which a young Indian-American couple isn’t getting along too well (it’s the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, for those of you who are interested). “Name at least one of the dinners Shukumar makes for his wife Shoba,” I asked on the quiz I handed round at the start of the class. The answers were very revealing—and I don’t mean that they revealed whether or not the students had done the assigned reading. “Er . . . something that involves meat of some kind?” one student tentatively wrote. “I’m not sure. I didn’t see much point to it,” another admitted. I was completely taken aback. I’d thought it was a give-away question. How could they not remember that it was the fragrantly spiced lamb stew called rogan josh the husband cooked for his wife one night or shrimp in coconut milk (shrimp malai) another? Every time I read Lahiri’s stories, I either cook an Indian dinner or go out for one as soon as possible. How could they remain so indifferent?

They’re not foodies, that’s why. And it’s not that they’re college students who live in dorms, eat in dining halls, and haven’t yet had the time (or money) to turn into foodies. Because here’s another response and it’s also from a student: “Spiced lamb stew with rice and lentils; Indian shrimp in coconut milk.” Perfect recall. “I love to eat,” he whispered to me as he turned his quiz in, completed in record time; “I love it when books describe food.”

Obviously, there are two types of readers in the world and the distinction has nothing to do with age: foodie-readers and non-foodie-readers. When foodie-readers unexpectedly happen upon a description of food in a story or a novel, their eyes lose focus and their mouths start to water. Plot and character fade into the background, entirely unable to hold their own against such as passages as “a glass of bright pink yogurt with rose syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins, a bowl of semolina halvah” and “April 2, cauliflower with fennel; January 14, chicken with almonds and sultanas.” Non-foodie-readers, on the other hand—the ones who, in the words of one such student, simply “eat to live”—skim over such passages impatiently, assuming them to be as irrelevant to the meat of the story as those insufferably intricate descriptions of landscapes are to nineteenth-century novels. Who really attends to such details after all? Fluff and nonsense—that’s all they are.

Well, here I am to say that I, for one, do attend to those details. I treasure such passages and remember them more clearly than I do almost anything else as years go by. I may forget the names of the characters and even the entire plot, but I’ll never forget if food appeared in the book. I remember a novel in which an unconventional and dissatisfied wife gives away the silly little bon-bons her husband imagines to be a properly feminine gift, preferring to eat such fortifyingly masculine foods as roasted chicken, broiled fish, cheese, and—heaven forfend!—beer. I remember another novel in which a hungry young Jewish immigrant woman resentfully watches her mother ladle out meager portions of Friday night’s chicken soup, carefully reserving all the glistening fat for the husband and father, the provider of the family, who, ironically, doesn’t provide a cent.

I’ve got hundreds of such memories, but my point is clear. To a certain kind of reader—the foodie-reader—food plays as central a role as characters, plot, setting, and all those other aspects of fiction you learned about in back in high school. When a young husband takes the time to cook traditional dinners for his wife who would just as soon have a bowl of corn flakes, you know the marriage hasn’t got a chance. When a woman forgoes bon-bons for beer, you know she’s rebelling against what a patriarchal society tells her she ought to like—and to be. When a young girl’s self-realization comes via the chicken fat in her Sabbath soup, you know that her resentment against her society’s values is about to boil over.

Why, though, do some students hungrily attend to such details while others skim indifferently on? Why do some understand that food, in literature as in life, conveys meaning while others see it as no more than a source of necessary vitamins and minerals? Who knows why some people are born foodies and others aren’t—and why, consequently, some grow up into foodie-readers and others don’t?

I used to think family background was responsible. Those whose memories of love, warmth, and belonging are intricately associated with food are more likely to appreciate that food is about so much more than nutrition. Those who grew up in houses where Monday meant pizza, Tuesday boxed macaroni & cheese, Wednesday hot dogs & baked beans, on the other hand, are less likely to associate food with joy—or sorrow or love or any other emotion for that matter. But this easy cause-and-effect may not be true. I know people who grew up in families where dinners were bland forgettable affairs to be gotten through as quickly and silently as possible, and who nonetheless grew up into incurable foodies, and I know others who come from dyed-in-the-wool foodie backgrounds yet somehow managed to remain immune to the pleasures of all things gustatory.

When all is said and done, I don’t think we’ll ever know why some people live to eat whereas others eat to live, but of one thing I’m entirely sure. If you don’t smell the spices in the rogan josh, or the wine and herbs in the boeuf en daube, or the slow-simmered chicken in the Sabbath soup—even if the aromas emanate from no more than words on a page—then you’re not a foodie-reader and you have not the slightest hope of understanding what the author (or should I say, foodie-writer?) was trying to express.

1 comment:

  1. Ina, my congratulations to you on recognizing the confluence of intakes of food and literature. Some time ago I wrote of an exemmplar of this, a man of huge intellect and girth. I would be most interested in learning whether Count Fosco and his preferred diet still survives in the minds of some of your students.
    Would appreciate your responding at your most convenient seance. Sincerely, W. Collins.