From Roald Dahl to Anthony Bourdain, the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest writes about the best descriptions of – and recipes for – food to switch on ‘the lamp in the spine’
“A good dinner is of importance to good talk,” Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.”
Written in 1928, the context of this statement was provocative – Woolf was distraught at the substandard fare at a women’s college and viewed it emblematic of the institutionalised sexism that seemed to desire women – the penultimate sentence in this quote has been an axiom of sorts in our comparatively less begrimed era. On its own, Woolf’s famous sentence seems like more than just a nod to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: “dined” as opposed to “eaten” connotes pleasure, intent, and discernment. While plenty of writers throughout history would have been extraordinarily happy with a meal of beef and prunes, the word “well” can certainly mean whatever the modern writer prefers. I’m sure there exist many great books that were fuelled by whisky and Pop-Tarts.
For great food writing, however, the lamp in our spine as readers demands more. The best food writing – about any kind of food – elevates it, recreates it, and broadens it with a keen sensory cubism. A great writer will make us hunger for things we’ve never eaten, conjure a consuming nostalgia from a list of ingredients, and make us feel like we’re dining well as we’re reading well. It was tough to narrow it down to 10, and I’m leaving out some great titles that you’ve already heard about, but here are a few favourites.
“For the first years of my life, there was a series, every summer, of short but violently active cannings. Crates and baskets and lug-boxes of fruits bought in their prime and at their cheapest would lie waiting with opulent fragrance on the screened porch.”
Fisher, a Michigan native whose lifelong passion for food, and food writing, was inspired by her early years in France , is the mother of modern mainstream food writing. Though some argue that her legacy has created a smothering, circumscribed sense of what constitutes the genre, there’s no arguing that her work is at its very foundation.
“During the day they made meat-filled dumplings and rolled noodles to feed the Koreans; at night, after the restaurant closed, they cooked a pot of dog meat and opened a bowl of strong white liquor. Each of them held a dog’s leg – two legs out of the pot, and two more inside – with its bewitching aroma, waiting to be eaten.”
Nobel prize winner Mo both retells his childhood in post-Cultural Revolution rural China as burlesque and critiques his country’s modern-day government in this surreal, wonderful, visceral novel set in a meat-obsessed town called Slaughterhouse Village.
“Many times a day, he would see other children taking creamy candy bars out of their pockets and munching them greedily; and that, of course, was pure torture.”
One of my favourite books from childhood. Dahl conjured a world commensurate to the fantasies of many children, both in the justice meted out to Charlie’s ill-behaved peers and in the fantastic elements of the factory. I teach a workshop a couple times a year at an educational non-profit organisation called 826LA where I have elementary school students create a country from scratch – drawing the map, writing the laws, designing the flag and so on – and chocolate rivers and edible realms are amazingly common even among kids who haven’t been exposed to Dahl’s work. I hope one day for a comprehensive and unintentional revision.
I first read this book in high school, and quickly realized that the adjectives “lush” and “sensual” evolved in speech to describe works such as this. The unusual structure, the fervid descriptions of food, the Mexican revolution setting, the sex, the violence, and aspects of magical realism in all of the above combined to blow my staid midwestern mind.
“In the past, Mr. Knipl had been forced, by circumstances, to watch this public display of a man’s need for cheap carbohydrates.”
Katchor’s illustrated stories of solitary urban photographer Julius Knipl, who tacitly observes the author’s version of a mostly-vanished New York, are often preoccupied with the lonely city dweller’s relationship to food. Eating alone at cafes, calling for public mustard dispensers and bemoaning the lost moments of afflatus that followed a Bromo-Seltzer, Katchor’s protagonist is as much wonderer as wanderer – and between his experiences and conjecture lie a humorous and quietly profound survey of the overlooked aspects of the urban food experience.
“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.”
At the time Bourdain’s first book came out, I don’t recall there being anything quite like it. His cynical, brash, and detailed look at the demanding milieu of restaurant kitchens and his often reckless and indulgent rise through the ranks is entertaining and revealing. For good reason, it helped make him a superstar. An essential title in contemporary food writing.
“Good bread and good butter go together. They are one of the perfect marriages in gastronomy, and they never fail to cheer me.”
There’s a reason that this book is beloved by my characters Lars and Eva Thorvald – I love it. This is the first cookbook I found myself cracking open and reading as if it were a novel.
“I designed these recipes to fit the budgets of people living on SNAP, the US programme that used to be called food stamps. If you’re on SNAP, you already know that the benefit formulas are complicated, but the rule of thumb is that you end up with $4 per person per day to spend on food. This book isn’t challenging you to live on so little; it’s a resource in case that’s your reality.”
Leanne Brown’s guide on eating well for US$4 (£2.50) per day, available in print and as a free PDF, is one of a chorus of welcome retorts to the notion that one cannot eat both well and inexpensively. With recipes like Filipino Chicken Adobo, Spicy Broiled Tilapia with Lime, and Potato and Kale Rolls with Raita, along with suggestions for how to reinvent the leftovers, it’s a book for anyone.
“Los Angeles is the best place in the country to eat the cooking of Thailand and Burma, Guatemala and Ethiopia, Taiwan, and any of a dozen states of Mexico.”
Dubbed “the high-low priest of the Los Angeles food scene” by Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker, there is arguably no other food critic that is as important to and revered by a city as Gold is to Los Angeles. Counter Intelligence, a compendium of his celebrated print series of the same name, captures everything that’s wonderful, wise, disarmingly informal, humorous, and discerning about the Pulitzer prize winner’s (the first ever for a food critic) work in one volume.
10. Honorable Mention: The Sun and Moon Guide to Eating Through Literature and Art
“Put everything to a boil / over a slow fire / for five hundred years / and you’ll see what flavor it has.” – Claribel Alegria, Little Cambray Tamales
Published in 1994, this wonderful anthology of original recipes, artwork, and previously published poems and excerpts captures, in a single volume, examples of food writing across a range of literary genres. With Samuel Beckett, Kathy Acker, Gabriel García Márquez, Ernest Hemingway, Junichiro Tanizaki, and many others.
- J Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest is published by Quercus, priced £14.99. Buy it for £11.99 from the Guardian bookshop.
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