When faced with the enormous task of writing fiction, of describing an experience through the senses, food can be a terrific resource. The relationship between food and fiction has a rich and satisfying past.
Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871 and lived until November 18, 1922. Coming of age in the era of the Third Republic in France, he lived in southern Paris, in an age when the aristocracy was beginning its decline, in favor a rising middle class. While he had a prolific career, he was beset by grief following the death of his beloved mother. In Remembrance of Things Past, he described a momentous event involving a simple little delicacy. This is an excerpt from the famous passage:
“Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theater and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother seeing that I was cold offered me some tea, a thing which I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, I changed my mind. She sent me one of those squat, plump little cakes called 'petites madelines,' which though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised my lips to a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no sensation of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disastrous innocuous, its brevity illusory- this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had now ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could, not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? How could I seize and apprehend it?”
Proust's thoughts on the experience continue on for another two pages. At the end, he speaks of the taste of a madeline dipped in tea, bringing him back in his mind's eye to the house in Combray, to the garden, to the village and to the county and with that memory, to the emotion of being exquisitely happy. The skill with which Proust describes that cookie has been talked and written about for almost one hundred years. It is unarguably the greatest passage about food in all of our vast library of literature.
Lest I give Proust all the credit I can name others whose talent lingered in my mind, and may have more than once sent me in the direction of the kitchen, or a restaurant with the hope of recreating the experience for myself. Ernest Hemingway used a very simple and direct method, in keeping with his personal style that would have me scurrying to recreate the same dish. In A Moveable Feast, he writes:
“Wine is the most civilized thing in the world. In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
As a young woman I craved the cakes and feasts of the Maritime Provinces described in turn of the century Canada, where as Lucy Maude Montgomery stated, “if you have not set your table with three kinds of cake, you have not done your family proud.”
When I wrote My American Eden, I took on the challenge of discovering what the diet consisted of in seventeenth century New England. I learned that the sky turned black with the plethora of ptarmigan overhead, that streams seamed to boil with the plenitude of fish, and that shooting game was as easy as walking out the door with musket in hand. Flour, on the other hand being scarce and precious, could not be spared for two pie crusts. Only the bottom of the plate would be lined, excepted in the finest houses, where the 'upper crust' found a home.
In my memoir in progress, now called Four Stanley Cups and a Funeral, I sometimes find my mouth watering describing the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding of my youth. If I recall picking apples from the trees in our orchard, I suddenly feel the brisk wind; I can bring to mind my jeans and cowboy boots, and I can hear the sound of the crisp bite into the first, newly ripe, Northern Spy, grown in the hardscrabble soil of Caledon, Ontario. From there, the smell of the barn comes squarely back to me, and I hear the steadying breaths of the horses lined up in their stalls, with inquisitive and friendly heads poking out the top.
Cultures are defined by their various dishes. You only need to let the reader know what your protagonist had for lunch and they will know something of who they are. How they start their day, what they have for breakfast and how they feel about it, will set the stage. Is the main dish fried, boiled, or grilled? Do they cherish fresh fish, or never eat it? Do they have Oysters for lunch on Boxing Day? Is there a large table set outside, or under an arbor, or do they eat in a dining room with starched and spotless linen. Who serves the food? Who prepares it? Do they eat in restaurants, and if so what kind?
More from Proust:
"Undoubtedly what it is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too confused and chaotic; scarcely can I perceive the neutral glow into which the elusive whirling medley of stirred up colors is fused, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter to translate for me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste, cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, from what period in my past life."
Run, don't walk, to your nearest bakery. I should have included a word of warning at the beginning. Writing will make you very hungry, diets impossible, and cooking the ultimate distraction.