I want to eat me some yummy books.
August 24, 2009 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I love food, and I love fiction. I'd love to read more fiction with tremendous descriptions of food. Any recommendations?

I was reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave today and stumbled across the following passage, which got my stomach growling:

"Cadal served me himself, and even fetched fresh bread hot from the bakehouse, where the first batch had just come out for morning. The soup was some savoury concoction of shellfish, which they eat almost daily in Less Britain. It was smoking hot and delicious, and I thought I had never eaten anything so good, until I tried the chicken, crisp-fried in oil, and the grilled sausages, brown and bursting with spiced meat and onions. I mopped the platter dry with the new bread, and shook my head when Cadal handed a dish of dried dates and cheese and honey cakes."

I've stumbled across similar passages in a few other books--notably, in John Christopher's Tripod series, in the few Redwall novels that I've read, and in The Wind in the Willows--and I've come to realize that I always really enjoy this sort of foodie prose, particularly when it's unexpected. I'm not particularly interested in novels about food; rather, I'd like to read more novels that are generally interesting and happen to include florid food accounts. Though the books I've named happen to be mostly sci-fi and fantasy (because that's largely what I read!), I'm open to any genre. Any suggestions, hive mind?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Media & Arts (61 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
The Little House on the Prairie series, especially "Farmer Boy".
posted by Melismata at 1:17 PM on August 24, 2009

My favorite food book is Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. Pretty far from sci-fi, but an easy read and a joyous approach to food and eating.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 1:19 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series. Besides being some of the best mysteries ever written, Wolfe is something of a gourmand and has his own private chef, Fritz Brenner.

Your library probably has a few of the novels or short story collections, give it a try!
posted by willmize at 1:19 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like Water for Chocolate is basically food porn. Not sci-fi, but it is magical realism, for what it's worth.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:20 PM on August 24, 2009

Like Water for Chocolate, in which the protagonist expresses her feelings via cooking.

Note: I absolutely hate romance novels and usually read sci-fi yet loved this book; don't be put off by its description.
posted by jamaro at 1:21 PM on August 24, 2009

Salammbô by Flaubert has some pretty great descriptions of decadent Carthaginian banquets.
posted by yesno at 1:23 PM on August 24, 2009

Hemingway is too obvious, right? A Movable Feast has food right in its name!

Less obviously, Lucy Knisley's travelogue French Milk has lots of little sketches and descriptions of everyday French food, if you dig on graphic novels. It's based on real life, so that may disqualify it from being fiction, but her art is awesome.
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:28 PM on August 24, 2009

Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series tends to spend a lot of times in restaurants. Of course, he describes fictional meats and wines, but I thought it was kinda neat. Also, he's an assassin :)
posted by phrakture at 1:29 PM on August 24, 2009

Try Tattoo or one of the other mysteries by Manuel Vasquez Montalban. It's a Spanish detective novel and part of a series. I'm not sure how many made it into English. The detective in question, Pepe Carvahlo is quite the gourmand.
posted by dortmunder at 1:30 PM on August 24, 2009

The Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian have many food related passages. Somebody has gone to all the trouble of finding recipes for many of them and publishing a cook book.

Steve Perry's sci-fi novel The 97th Step has a main character who is 'foodie' and waxes lyrical bout what he's most recently eaten.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:33 PM on August 24, 2009

John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure has some of the best descriptions of food and cooking I've ever read, and manages also to be a discourse on postmodern theory and a mystery novel at the same time. On the surface, it claims to be a cookbook, but it's actually something entirely more nefarious and wonderful.
posted by ga$money at 1:33 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Montalban. You can find them in English, but his detective Pepe Carvahlo has quite a penchant for the cuisine at the locations he visits during his investigations.
posted by OuttaHere at 1:34 PM on August 24, 2009

John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure.
posted by Skot at 1:35 PM on August 24, 2009

Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence has a lot of delicious meals in it and may be worth your time.
posted by SLC Mom at 1:35 PM on August 24, 2009

Smilla's Sense of Snow
People acquire bad coffee habits in Greenland. I pour hot milk right onto the Nescafe. I'm not above dissolving the powder in water straight from the hot-water tap.

He pours one part whipping cream and two parts whole milk into two tall glasses with handles.

When he draws the coffee from the machine, it's thick and black like crude oil. Then he froths the milk with the steam nozzle and divides the coffee between the two glasses.

We take it out to the sofa. I do appreciate it when someone serves me something good. In the tall glasses the drink is dark as an old oak tree and has an overwhelming, almost perfumed tropical scent.
posted by rdc at 1:39 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

well, maybe a bit below your age range, but the redwall series has the most fantastic descriptions of things I would never want to eat scavenged from the forest floor
posted by Think_Long at 1:41 PM on August 24, 2009

Brideshead Revisited has some wonderful passages on food and drink. Waugh even thought he went a little overboard: "It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster — the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."
posted by otio at 1:47 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anthony Bourdain writes some pretty neat food pulp from time to time. he's got some short stories scattered around, and they're worth the search.
posted by radiosilents at 1:48 PM on August 24, 2009

The Feasting Season by Nancy Coons has more food porn passages than you can shake a stick at. Although there is romance involved, the food (French) really takes center stage. Many passages made me wish I liked seafood, the descriptions were so delicious.
posted by witchstone at 1:54 PM on August 24, 2009

I took a class in college called "Literary Feasts: The Cultural Meanings of Food." I basically got graded to read and watch food porn.

From what I can remember we read "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," and we watched "Babette's Feast" - tremendous.

I love how many other people grew up salivating over "Farmer Boy." It still has a place in my heart for just that reason.
posted by harperpitt at 1:55 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite part of the Harry Potter books is the descriptions of food. It's not a huge part of the series, though.
posted by soelo at 2:02 PM on August 24, 2009

A Literary Feast: An Anthology.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:06 PM on August 24, 2009

The sanitarium residents in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain eat five massive gourmet meals a day. The book closely observes six years over 854 pages.

If you were to take a pair of scissors and collect just those sentences pertaining to food, you'd have yourself a novella's worth of stuff like "dinner included a chaudfroid of chicken, garnished with shrimps and halved cherries; ices with pastries in little baskets of spun sugar; even fresh pineapple" and "plates piled with delicacies and garnished with little balls of butter, radishes, and parsley until they resembled showy flowerbeds."
posted by Iridic at 2:10 PM on August 24, 2009

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout. It's one of the Nero Wolfe murder mysteries. "Les Quinze Maîtres", the fifteen best chefs in the world, are in the habit of getting together once a year at the site of the most senior of them. Each of them is permitted to bring a guest.

Wolfe is invited to be guest of honor, and as such is guest of the host. Wolfe's friend Marko Vukcic is a member, and he invites Archie Goodwin because Wolfe likes having Archie around. It's held at a major resort in West Virginia, that being where the host works, and a large part of the story is about the way the various chefs all cook, and what they make.

Of course, there's also a murder. And Wolfe solves it. And there's a lot of interesting characterization, given that most of the fifteen masters are prima donnas. But food is the primary focus of the story.

It's one of my favorite of the Wolfe mysteries. But do be warned: it's from 1938 and attitudes, especially about race, were different then.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:12 PM on August 24, 2009

I was going to recommend Farmer Boy too! I see I am not the only one who enjoyed all the luscious descriptions of food in that book.

Years ago I read The CanLit Foodbook, edited by Margaret Atwood; it contains food-oriented excerpts from Canadian literature, as well as recipes from authors such as Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Margaret Laurence (The Stone Angel). It was a fun book and there were some good recipes.

You might also enjoy Proust's Swann's Way (part one of his multi-volume In Search of Lost Time. Madeleines, anyone?
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:21 PM on August 24, 2009

Seconding Redwall, if you're not opposed to anthropomorphic woodland animals. (As characters, not as food.) Seriously, they have about six feasts per book.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 2:27 PM on August 24, 2009

Seconding Redwall, if you're not opposed to anthropomorphic woodland animals. (As characters, not as food.) Seriously, they have about six feasts per book.

"I've stumbled across similar passages in a few other books--notably, in John Christopher's Tripod series, in the few Redwall novels that I've read . . ." :)

Great suggestions so far! Those for Farmer Boy reminded me that I have a Little House cookbook sitting around ignored somewhere. Keep them coming!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:29 PM on August 24, 2009

If you're into podcast fiction, both the Antithesis series (NSFW) and the Trader's Tale series (starting with Quarter-Share) (SFW) are excellent and tend to make me hungry whenever they discuss food.
posted by JDHarper at 2:32 PM on August 24, 2009

The first thing I thought of was the M.F.K. Fisher short story "I was really very hungry" that I heard read on Selected Shorts. You can read the whole thing on Google Books.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:33 PM on August 24, 2009

The last time a passage made me hungry was from Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse:
"The traffic was deafening, the smells stunning: petrol, exhaust, a spicy blend of restaurants. I bought a souvlaki from a takeaway and ate it in three bites. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted, the soft fragrant bread, the tender meat sauced and seasoned as if someone cared whether it was good, the subtle salty oils, the juices trickling over my tongue, staining the corners of my mouth."
She has a way of describing details so vividly you can almost smell and taste and feel them. The quoted passage is from a novel about a serial killer's misadventures, but if you liked it, she has three other books--Liquor, Prime, and Soul Kitchen--that are revolve around restaurants and consequently food, so you might want to try those.
posted by Lush at 2:39 PM on August 24, 2009

Oh boy, definitely more Redwall books and Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was in school, we had a quiet reading period right before lunch, and reading Redwall books and Little House on the Prairie books were pure gastronomical torture. I seem to recall that the L.M. Montgomery books had similar moments. One of my favorite literary food moments is from The Phantom Tollbooth, but the meal isn't quite what you'd expect. It probably means something that I read most of these books around the same time during my childhood and have been enamored with food most of my life.

Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things has some pretty intense Indian food-related imagery. Point of fact, I think most Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi related novels I've read have had some fairly explicit food descriptions (Midnight's Children, Jasmine, White Teeth, etc). There's also some great Japanese food bits in Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood.

There's also a lot of really incredible food poetry, if you love really pretentious food porn. "Persimmons" by Li-Young Lee is one of my favorites.

I could probably go on for ages, but I'll try to contain myself and just end with a nod to Douglas Adams, the man who always seemed to perfectly encapsulate the English relationship with tea.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:46 PM on August 24, 2009

I enjoyed the School of Essential Ingredients almost entirely for the food descriptions. Each chapter is a new dish, and while it leans more cooking than eating, I ended up with some serious cravings after each section.
posted by librarianamy at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2009

The banquet of Trimalchio from the Satyricon is certainly tremendous in its description of the food, although not particularly appetizing, e.g.:

While he was speaking, four dancers ran in to the time of the music, and removed the upper part of the tray. Beneath, on what seemed to be another tray, we caught sight of stuffed capons and sows' bellies, and in the middle, a hare equipped with wings to resemble Pegasus. At the corners of the tray we also noted four figures of Marsyas and from their bladders spouted a highly spiced sauce upon fish which were swimming about as if in a tide-race.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 2:51 PM on August 24, 2009

All books by Banana Yashimoto have glorious memories, descriptions of, and rituals focused around food and eating. Kitchen would be an obvious start.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:53 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ian Fleming's Bond novels tend to have a lot of food descriptions, mostly of luxurious restaraunt and cafe food.
posted by fearthehat at 2:53 PM on August 24, 2009

Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi is a short literary novel which includes some marvellously appetizing descriptions of Portuguese cuisine.
posted by misteraitch at 2:59 PM on August 24, 2009

Not a book as such, but Achewood is a webcomic that sometimes ventures into food-geek territory. The author has also published an Achewood cookbook (I have a copy and it's quite good) and has another in the works.
posted by tellumo at 3:06 PM on August 24, 2009

Food and books! one of my favourite things:

nthing "Debt to Pleasure" and "Like Water for Chocolate";

Cold Mountain is kind of a growner-up progression from the Little House series food-wise: lots of pork fat, beans and grits, campfire cooking and 101 ways with a flock of goats.

Lindsey Davis' Falco series gives nice insights into Roman street food and working-class cooking, maybe start with Venus In Copper which deals with how to handle a large fish in a small flat

Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer has lots of Appalachian abundance and farmhouse preserving

Allison Uttley's childhood memoir The Country Child is a bit on the sickly and sentimental side but has tonnes of gorgeous farmhouse feasting throughout a year. (Her childrend Mary Queen of Scots book "A Traveller in Time" could be about the same farmhouse five hundred years earlier, lots of shelling peas and marchpane)

Less appetizingly, Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders (heavy-going epic but entirely worth sticking with, it gathers you in) is very interesting about a how a culture lived off only meat and dairy, no grains or veg or alcohol.

Most of Roald Dahl too!

(also with the excuse that its a short hop from flavours to smells I have to recommend Süskind's Perfume, the most viscerally sensuous book ever - with the worst film "adaptation")

(also the other two books in the Merlyn trilogy are just as ace!)
posted by runincircles at 3:13 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

(children's. it's.)

Almost forgot:
The Little White Horse (Rowling liked it? pfft) is lovely and has SYLLABUBS and similar gorgeousness.
posted by runincircles at 3:21 PM on August 24, 2009

Monique Truong's THE BOOK OF SALT, winner of the NY Public Library's Young Lions Award and the only American book shortlisted for the Guardian's book list that year. It's the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas from the point of view of their Vietnamese chef.

One reviewer writes: " Yet Binh is not without agency. The intimate act of cooking and serving food gives him a vantage point in the domestic space of the Stein-Toklas household–an access to the couple that their admirers envy. Food is one of the most overused metaphors in immigrant literature, with the pungent ethnic dish inevitably contrasted against decorous white bread sandwiches, but Binh’s position as cook is essential to the novel rather than a convenient peg for hanging up colourful ethnic differences. But that agency too carries seeds of betrayal within itself; there is no refuge for Binh, at least not in France.... (in the comments section) There are some really luscious details of food in the book. The description of Binh’s omlettes almost made me weep…"

From an interview

Q: In the novel, the man on the bridge tells Bình that he also worked as a cook. Is this based on fact?

MT: Yes, I had done some research on Nguyen Ai Quoc because someone told me that he had been a cook in France. It turned out that he was an assistant cook at the pie bakery of the Carlton Hotel in London, whose kitchen at that time was under the supervision of the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier. As a young man, he had left Vietnam by working as a mess boy on a French ocean liner going from Saigon to Marseilles. I decided that my cook, Bình, would take a similar route. Many of Bình's experiences on the fictional freighter Niobe were based on or inspired by the more well-documented experiences of Ba, as he called himself then, on the Latouche Treville. Nguyen Ai Quoc's travels out of Vietnam began in 1911, and they took him to Dakar, Brooklyn, London, Paris, and many other port cities around the world. From 1917 to 1923 he lived in Paris. Sometime in the summer of 1923, he left Paris for Moscow to begin his full-time education and activity as a revolutionary.
posted by johnasdf at 3:41 PM on August 24, 2009

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado is a nostalgic idyll set in Brazil in the 1920s. Gabriela is a country girl hired as a cook by Nacib the Arab, owner of a bar/cafe in a backwater town in Bahia. Romance blossoms, of course, as her divine cooking becomes the talk of the town. This book is likely to make you plan a trip to Brazil (it's that charming), or at least look for some Brazilian recipes to try for yourself.
posted by Quietgal at 4:01 PM on August 24, 2009

Robert B Parker's Spenser series tends to have a lot of food descriptions in it. He's a bit of a home-chef, and I've always enjoyed hearing how he cooks the dishes.
posted by Draccy at 4:31 PM on August 24, 2009

You might consider Poppy Z. Brite's Liquor series of novels, they're kind of fun.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on August 24, 2009

Oh, my God, syllabubs! Thanks, runincircles! I'd forgotten the title but the food descriptions are lodged in my brain forever.

If you're already reading Mary Stewart you may or may not know her first book, Madam, Will You Talk? There's just one scene of food porn, but it's a great catharsis of emotional tension that's been building up between the two principal characters for chapter after chapter.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:36 PM on August 24, 2009

Well, I dunno if you can call them unexpected, since food is the topic, but for my money some of the best discussions of food and meals are the essays of M.F.K. Fisher. Plus you get bonus reminiscences of faded coevals of Wilde's living in misty cabins on the pacific coast and dining on plucked herbs a la Exodus....Here's an excerpt of her on NPR's site. The only writer I know of to match her for sensuousness is Colette.
posted by Diablevert at 5:05 PM on August 24, 2009

Gone With the Wind is an excellent, epic read and also happens to have some amazing descriptions of antebellum Southern food throughout.
posted by balls at 5:17 PM on August 24, 2009

Imager by L.E. Modesitt, and many of his other sci-fi fantasy novels contain great descriptions of meals and restaurants.
posted by Melsky at 5:51 PM on August 24, 2009

The Epicure's Lament, trust me. Also MFK Fisher mostly wrote non-fiction, but if you love reading about food, she's the ace.
posted by Divine_Wino at 5:57 PM on August 24, 2009

In Life of Pi, the main character has vegetarian food-related fantasies.
posted by jschu at 6:39 PM on August 24, 2009

Also, also I was able to pick up The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison at a remainder table for a few bucks and it's one of my favorite books about the experience of eating.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:11 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try Millroy the Magician - Paul Theroux (if you like beets and fibre-rich biblical food).
posted by tellurian at 7:20 PM on August 24, 2009

Sunshine by Robin McKinley. The main character works in a bakery, and there are whole passages of delicious bakery descriptions mixed in-between the urban fantasy plot.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:59 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Norton Juster's childrens novel The Phantom Tollbooth has really delicious-sounding descriptions of foods, and also edible but non-food items, such as the taste of letters. Sure it's a kids book, but grown people can appreciate it too.
posted by illenion at 8:36 PM on August 24, 2009

The Road. After starving with the protagonists, old apples and sweet water made my ample stomach ache with want. Canned peaches, coffee, biscuits - nirvana.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:43 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh man, guys--these are all terrific! I'm going to pick up the anthology that Marie Mon Dieu mentions today, but I'll also stop by the library later this week to see what else I can find off this list. Really, terrific answers!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:32 AM on August 25, 2009

Also by Kate Christensen, The Great Man has some really, really delicious descriptions of food.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:25 AM on August 25, 2009

Diagonalize's mention of Haruki Murakami reminded me: you can read the full text of My Year of Spaghetti online.

"Fine particles of garlic, onion, and olive oil swirled in the air, forming a harmonious cloud that penetrated every corner of my tiny apartment, permeating the floor and the ceiling and the walls, my clothes, my books, my records, my tennis racquet, my bundles of old letters. It was a fragrance one might have smelled on ancient Roman aqueducts."
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:08 AM on August 25, 2009

Also also also, if you're not sure if you want to buy French Milk, Lucy Knisley's travel journal from her second trip to Paris is available to read online and is quite similar in style. Creme brulee, fondant chocolat, sandwiche avec jambon et buerre, full English breakfast, Moroccan tagine, croque monsieur, and macarons! Plus a little very vanilla cartoon sexing, if you're at work.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:32 AM on August 25, 2009

Oh man, George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire has some great food descriptions. Pretty much every feast is described in loving detail. In a way it's laughable amidst a fantasy story, but the kind of thing you are looking for is there.
posted by frecklefaerie at 10:21 AM on August 25, 2009

Coming in late on this thread, but I just finished reading Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. It's a fantasy set in China and has mouth-watering descriptions of Chinese food.
posted by creepygirl at 9:17 PM on August 31, 2009

Roald Dahl, particularly Boy (whenever I think of childhood candy I think about those passages). Laurie Colwin mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder's infamous food descriptions in More Home Cooking; that's how I learned someone actually made a cookbook based on those books! She also mentions Anna Karenina and she's right about that. Also Barbara Pym's novels.

Colette is such a good sensualist writer, and she was wild for food (Ms. "If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles"). My Mother's House and Sido include some delicious descriptions that make me sigh. And of course, who could forget Proust and his infamous madeleines?!

Gertrude Stein occasionally describes food, and my memory of it was it always filled me with longing. Makes sense; Alice B. Toklas' cookbook is fairly notorious. Yes to Hemingway!

I could be remembering wrong but I think Georges Perec writes amazingly well about food...pretty sure it's him I'm remembering and not Raymond Queneau...

I can't vouch for his fiction, but Jim Harrison of Legends of the Fall fame wrote a book solely about food, and in it he seems um, obsessed. So it's possible, probable even, there are descriptions in his fiction. Dunno if anyone wants to vouch...?

Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami come to mind. Yoshimoto's story "Dreaming of Kim chee" comes to mind fairly often for me, as I love the stuff.

Yes to Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, and Brideshead Revisited.

Toni Morrison is a whiz at lushly describing food. Oh help me.

Not fiction, but Gerald Stern's a poet who LOVES to describe food. Particularly Jewish Eastern European-NYC-transplant food, one of my favorite kinds. I love those parts of his poems. Yusef Komunyakaa does this too, come to think of it. And the recently departed Lucille Clifton.
posted by ifjuly at 1:52 PM on March 4, 2010

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