Issue 51 Contributor Lynn Levin blogs about food, fiction and aftertaste.
Certain meals described in fiction stay with me, and one thing I’ve learned is that disturbing meals stay with me the longest. John Lanchester’s 1996 novel The Debt to Pleasure, a recipe-laden murder mystery, and Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections, the saga of the Lambert family, are both gorgeously written books that offer many food scenes. But which food passages linger in my mind? The awful ones.
Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is narrated by an erudite and murderous gastronome named Tarquin Winot who dispatches just about all of those near to him. Tarquin Winot speaks with Nabokovian eloquence as he discusses the palate, food pairings, seasonal menus and world cuisine. Although he seduces the reader with eloquence and learning, Winot is so evil and sneaky that even his culinary rhapsodies leave me feeling queasy. Here, from the chapter “Spring: Roast Lamb,” is an example of one of Winot’s culinary observations:
That is to say, that the recipe in question shows that lamb and apricots are one of those combinations which exist together in a relationship that is not just complementary, but seems to partake of a higher order of inevitability—a taste that exists in the mind of God. These combinations have the quality of a logical discovery: bacon and eggs, rice and soy sauce, Sauternes and foie gras, white truffles and pasta, steak-frites…
The above list goes on for another six food couplings. Part of the lingering yucky effect that Winot has on me has to do with the too-muchness and richness of everything he describes. He is also a supremely untrustworthy narrator, so I have a problem trusting his food tastes, too. This, I believe, is part of Lanchester’s intention. He wants his silver-tongued speaker to both impress and disgust. And I’m not even going to describe Winot’s pièce de résistance: the poisonous mushrooms he lovingly prepares for his victims at the end of the book.
As does Lanchester’s Winot, Franzen’s Lambert family cares a great deal about food. One of the family members is a brilliant workaholic chef, and The Corrections has many descriptions of elaborate menus and meals. But the food scene that I can’t get out of my mind involves a vengeful waste of food. It takes place in the chapter entitled “The More He Thought about It, the Angrier He Got.”
Several times a week, it falls to Gary Lambert, a hardworking portfolio manager at a bank, to make dinner for his sons and semi-employed wife Caroline, a beautiful but cold and self-centered woman. One evening, several contentious conversations occur just before the family sits down to a dinner of mixed grill, which the stressed-out Gary has prepared. Gary, who doesn’t quite know when to put a lid on it, says one more thing to Caroline about a back injury she may or may not be faking. And then:
Without a word she slid off her chair, hobbled to the sink with her plate, scraped her dinner into the garbage grinder, and hobbled upstairs. Caleb and Aaron [two of their three sons] excused themselves and ground up their own dinners and followed her. Altogether maybe thirty dollars’ worth of meat went into the sewer…
Gary is left to contemplate not only the animals that died for the meal but also his growing depression.
If I thought about it, I am sure that I could come up with pleasing food descriptions in literature, tasty passages that inspire love, charm and nostalgia. But I’ve learned that, in fiction, food descriptions that disturb or table scenes that involve conflict make a stronger impression on me as a reader, and they also provide top grade fodder for me as a writer, most likely because literature feeds on trouble.
Lynn Levin is the author of the poetry collections Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, forthcoming in 2013); Fair Creatures of an Hour (Loonfeather Press, 2009), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry; and Imaginarium (Loonfeather Press, 2005), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award. She is the co-author, with Valerie Fox, of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, forthcoming in 2013), and her poems, essays, fiction, and translations have appeared in Boulevard, Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mandorla, The Rag, and other places. Her poem, “The Grip,” appeared in Potomac Review Issue 51. Lynn Levin teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.