Fictional characters who cook
October 30, 2013 10:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples from literary fiction where characters cook something or describe a cooking process or technique within the narrated text. I'm not looking for an entire recipe detailed. Rather, which literary characters have taught you how to hold a chef's knife, how to deglaze, how to spread icing on a cake. Example below of fire-roasting a bell pepper from John Irving's "The World According to Garp."

"Garp took a green pepper and propped it in the center of the gas burner; he turned up the flame and the pepper began to burn. When it was black all over, Garp would let it cool then scrape off all the charred skin. Inside would be a roasted pepper, very sweet, and he would slice it and let it marinate in oil and vinegar and a little marjoram. That would be his dressing for the salad. But the main reason he liked to make dressing this way was that the roasting pepper made the kitchen smell so good."
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Food & Drink (43 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't quite what you're after but "Of Bees and Mist" has a lot of cooking as part of the narrative....
posted by misspony at 10:24 AM on October 30, 2013

You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about making the perfect lemon meringue pie from The Adventures of Blue Avenger by Norma Howe. The quest for said perfect pie is one of the book's major plot points, and there is a recipe included.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:25 AM on October 30, 2013

I recall at least one instance of this in Hannibal.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:26 AM on October 30, 2013

This isn't cooking so much as other kitchen activities --

I very much doubt I will be able to remember the book, although I feel like it's on the tip of my tongue, but it took reading in a novel a comment by a relatively young girl about washing items with cheese on them in cold water first. I always kinda sorta knew it, but once I read that I was like oh RIGHT and now I do a full on wash with soap etc in cold water, clean any trace cheese out of the sink, and then a full on wash in hot water.

I'm also pretty sure that it was the book Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm that taught me to rinse in extra hot water in order to speed drying.
posted by janey47 at 10:26 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Haruki Murakami often describes characters preparing food. I think it might be a little bit more whole-recipe than you are looking for, but I'm not sure. This fan blog quotes a few examples.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:27 AM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks has a pretty involved passage about making the perfect barbecue.
posted by tracer at 10:28 AM on October 30, 2013

AH! The little house on the prairie books! I always had my mouth watering for some Johnny Cakes or "pumpkin" pie made from Ma's green apples- because that's all she had....
posted by misspony at 10:28 AM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

And Rosumunde Pilcher novels- the characters are always putting out a spread of the most amazing things- she makes a ham sandwich and a cup of steaming coffee sound like the most amazing thing in the world!
posted by misspony at 10:30 AM on October 30, 2013

Babette's Feast comes to mind.
posted by gkhan at 10:35 AM on October 30, 2013

Edward X. Delaney, the detective in the various Lawrence Sanders "Deadly Sins" books had particular sandwich making (and consuming) moments like this. The Scarpetta novels are about 20 - 30% cooking too.
posted by macadamiaranch at 10:38 AM on October 30, 2013

Definitely the Little House books. Little House in the Big Woods tells about how to make head cheese, roast a pig's tail, and sugar maple sap. (It also tells how to make bullets and straw hats, if you like more instructional fiction.) Though I believe Ma made "apple" pie out of green pumpkins. (She also made "chicken" pie out of blackbirds.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:41 AM on October 30, 2013

I've long been obsessed with the "crash cassoulet" described in Donald Barthelme's story "Visitors":

There’s some leftover duck in the refrigerator he can use for the cassoulet.
“Well,” he says to Christie, “are you hungry?”
“Yes,” she says, “I am.”
“We just ate,” Harry says. “You can’t be hungry. You can’t possibly be hungry.”
“Hungry hungry hungry,” she says, taking Bishop’s arm, which is, can you believe it, sticking out.
Putting slices of duck in bean water while Christie watches The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbonne, on the kitchen TV. At the same time Hank Williams, Jr., is singing on the FM.
“I like a place where I can take my shoes off,” she says, as Errol Flynn throws a whole dead deer on the banquet table.
Bishop, chopping parsley, is taking quick glances at her to see what she looks like with a glass of wine in her hand. Some people look good with white wine, some don’t.
He makes a mental note to by some Mazola-a case maybe.
“Here’s sixty seconds on fenders,” says the radio.
“Do you live with anybody?” Christie asks.
“My daughter is here sometimes. Summers and Christmas.” A little tarragon into the bean water. “How about you?”
“There’s this guy.”
But there had to be. Bishop chops steadfastly with his Three Sheep brand Chinese chopper, made in gray Fushan.
“He’s an artist.”
As who is not? “What kind of an artist?”
“A Painter. He’s in Seattle. He needs rain.”
He throws handfuls of sliced onions into the water, then a can of tomato paste.
“How long does this take?” Christie asks. “I’m not rushing you. I’m just curious.”
“Another hour.”

It is sadly incomplete as a recipe (though in another piece, Barthelme mentions Knorr Oxtail Soup mix as "constituent of a fine fake cassoulet about which we can talk at another time"), but it's clearly a real thing. No particular techniques to learn, I suppose, but it does give a very accurate picture of a certain kind of ambitious improvised cooking, and I think about it often when I'm "throwing something togther" for someone I want to impress.
posted by neroli at 10:46 AM on October 30, 2013

Like Water for Chocolate by Esquivel. For awhile there a bunch of food focused novels. Peter Mayle's a Year in Provence in addition to his other books have food be a topic.
posted by jadepearl at 10:46 AM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has quite a few recipes for poverty food. I don't know if you would want to make any of them, but you can learn to make lots of things out of stale bread, coffee, the square gristly end of a beef tongue, maybe an egg, a bit of ketchup...
posted by telegraph at 10:47 AM on October 30, 2013

In a lot of the Spencer books by Robert Parker, Spencer cooks something in some detail.
posted by The otter lady at 10:47 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

A decent chunk of Ian McEwan's novel Saturday deals with the protagonist's preparation of a bouillabaisse.
posted by Perplexity at 10:50 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hannibal Lecter, both in print and on the teevee show.

Chocolat, although I have never seen the film.
posted by elizardbits at 10:51 AM on October 30, 2013

Robert Parker's Spenser books nearly always have Spenser cooking a dish or a meal, with plausible details.
posted by Bruce H. at 10:55 AM on October 30, 2013

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories almost always include interesting descriptions of food. Wolfe has a personal chef, Fritz Brenner, and his cooking is a part of the background. (Wolfe has three full-time employees in his household: Fritz the chef, Theodore who takes care of Wolfe's orchid collection, and Archie Goodwin.)

In "Plot it Yourself", for instance, at one point Wolfe becomes so enraged about some bad news he has just received that he swears he will stop drinking beer and eating meat until after he catches the murderer. There's a scene later between Archie and Fritz where Fritz describes a fancy omelette he just invented in his head that he intends to prepare for lunch that day, including things like mushrooms, almonds, white wine, apricot jam, shallots, and so on. Later that particular recipe becomes a staple in the house under the name "Hedgehog Omelette".

The first scene in "The Golden Spiders" is about a crisis: There's a special meal they have once a year, roast starlings, and Fritz has changed the seasonings without warning Wolfe about it. Wolfe gets petulant and orders Fritz to take it away.

"Murder is Corny" includes a description of how to roast cob-corn in an oven.

Wolfe himself is also quite a fine chef, though he prefers eating to cooking. In "The Mother Hunt" near the end, Wolfe makes breakfast for the client at her home.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:10 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I loved the food scenes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog and its companion book, Gourmet Rhapsody. One of the characters is a food critic and has amazing things to say.
posted by chatongriffes at 11:10 AM on October 30, 2013

I would recommend the Goldy Schultz series by Diane Mott Davidson.
posted by LightMayo at 11:13 AM on October 30, 2013

Just to clarify: Looking for descriptions of cooking techniques. Not recipes or descriptions of meals.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 11:13 AM on October 30, 2013

You can argue whether it's fiction or non-fiction, but Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a lot about food preparation in her stories.
posted by alms at 11:14 AM on October 30, 2013

Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti series describes a lot of preparation of Italian food.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:18 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

A classic: It can't always be caviar (orig.: Es muß nicht immer Kaviar sein) by Johannes Mario Simmel.


The first words of this book, translated from the German version, are:

"The Germans, dear Kitty, can make an economic miracle, but no salad," said Thomas Lieven to the girl with the black hair and the agreeable figure.

Follows a pretty detailed instruction of how Successful Man makes his salad the proper way while Breathless Kitty watches. The salad, incidentally, is part of the preparation of a meal that is about to be served to a wealthy guest who will be blackmailed, due to his Nazi past, during the meal, while a recording with Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto is softly playing in the background...
And so it goes on. In terms of style and content no surprises after this intro: Old-fashioned James-Bondy male-dominated Spy nonsense (WWII until late nineteen fifties) in easily digested episodes with each their mini-plot and new cliffhanger; juicy writing style with too many adjectives; and some pretty great descriptions of cooking procedures (recipes included).
posted by Namlit at 11:20 AM on October 30, 2013

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon has a memorable passage describing the ideal way to eat a bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal.

Hemingway's Nick Adams famously describes eating an onion sandwich in the story "Big Two Hearted River".

Not literature, but I'll always be thankful for the movie Big Night, which showed me how to properly peel garlic. It seems like a ridiculous skill to not know now, but at the time it was an eye-opener -- oh, you just strike it with the flat of the knife, do you, then peel? Ah ha!
posted by mosk at 11:22 AM on October 30, 2013

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - the making of biscuits and pan gravy has always stuck with me since I first read it. All the more poignant when everyone's so hungry...
posted by fikri at 11:22 AM on October 30, 2013

Just to clarify about Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody, there is indeed food preparation! I was hunting for quotes, but couldn't find exactly what I wanted. Elegance of the Hedgehog has a pivotal scene featuring a dinner prepared by the new Japanese tenant, as well as the main character preparing meals for herself and Gourmet Rhapsody well...rhapsodizes about the preparation and eating of many meals.
posted by chatongriffes at 11:23 AM on October 30, 2013

There'a a lot of this in the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books ...
posted by lunasol at 11:40 AM on October 30, 2013

nora ephron's "heartburn".
posted by bruce at 11:46 AM on October 30, 2013

The Last Unicorn (book and movie) taught me how to peel potatoes.
posted by leesh at 12:26 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Leo Bloom in Ulysses fries up a kidney for breakfast.
posted by aught at 12:43 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are detailed bits about making cheese in one of the Tiffany Aching books, but I can't remember which one off the top of my head. I think it's the second one.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:48 PM on October 30, 2013

Toast. although it's not fiction.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:16 PM on October 30, 2013

One of the Scott Pilgrim books (I think either 2 or 3) opens with several characters preparing a vegan shepherd's pie. I recall it's more in-depth than just reciting the recipe, but not by a whole lot.
posted by ckape at 1:46 PM on October 30, 2013

The protagonist in John Le Carre's The Night Manager goes undercover working as a cook in a dive restaurant and greatly improves the quality of the food. I remember specific passages about mixing different oils for better frying and digging up a good set of knives that he polishes and sharpens and forbids anyone else from touching.
posted by sapere aude at 2:51 PM on October 30, 2013

The book Mostly Harmless from the Hitchhiker's Guide series has about an entire chapter devoted to the techniques of sandwich making, with the added complication that these sandwiches are being made in a pre-industrial village by someone with a thoroughly modern knowledge of the sandwich craft.
posted by radwolf76 at 3:28 PM on October 30, 2013

Manuel Vazquez Montalban. He wrote, lived and loved Barcelona. He wrote crime fiction and more. Inspector Montalbano, by Andre Camilleri, is named in his honour, but fails to be anything more than a thin slice of the depths of Montalban's central anti-hero detective, Pepe (José) Carvalho.

In every book, Carvalho cooks (he also burns books, attends lectures and speeches and critiques them), and when he does anything, we get the details, the full analysis. It's never just recipes (although Montalban published a couple of books of Catalonian recipes derived from his culture and Pepe's habits: Cocina Catalana and Recetas Immorales), it's also techniques. For the most part, the recipes and the preparations directly represent interesting features of the issues he (or others) are facing, so cookery (and techniques) can be read as interesting literary devices. His (ugly, working class, generally repulsive) manservant, Biscuitier, is adept at identifying the perfect wine for an occasion, and can whisk up a delicate aperitif or tapas at a moment's notice. Here, Carvalho is struggling with his issues with contemporary communism:
As he gazed at a cupboardful of tinned food, he was caught between the simplicity of just having hot milk and the alchemical possibilities of actually cooking something at that hour of the night… The pork chop was salted slightly, and then subjected to the rigour of a small quantity of oil sizzling in the earthenware casserole. Then came a diced potato, grated onion, pepper and tomato. Once the frying was under way, Carvalho added a little salt and paprika before putting in the pasta and giving it a turn in the pan. It was time to pour in the broth, to a depth of about half an inch. When the broth began to simmer, Carvalho added four thick slices of buttkfarra sausage and just before removing the pan from the flame he gave the final touch, a pinch of garlic and pimento fried separately. He had learned this way of cooking pasta with black butifrra from the nuns in a convent where he had gone into hiding at the end of the 1950s after the discovery of his party's printing press. The nuns would leave his food on a long, scrubbed, wooden table, the most beautiful table Carvalho had ever seen in his life. Carvalho still had a soft spot for nuns, a throwback to his childhood days, when he attended a school run by the nuns of St Vincent of Paul.
'Jose, what do you want to be when you grow up?'
'A saint.'
'Like St Tarsicio?'
'Yes, like St Tarsicio. Or like St Genevieve of Brabant.'
'You'd have to be like St Tarsicio, because you're a boy. St Genevieve was a woman.'
At that time he'd had no idea that angels were one sex or the other.
(The Angst-Ridden Executive: 60).
posted by Joeruckus at 5:44 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Patricia Cornwell's thrillers often contain detailed scenes of Italian meal preparation. She even published a cookbook with a little story wrapped around it.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:42 PM on October 30, 2013

From Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a description of butter-making:
In the whitewashed cellar the big wooden barrel churn stood on its wooden legs, half full of cream. Almanzo turned the handle, and the churn rocked. Inside it the cream went chug! splash, chug! splash. Almanzo had to keep rocking the churn till the chugging broke the cream into grains of butter swimming in buttermilk.

Then Almanzo drank a mug of acid-creamy buttermilk and ate cookies, while Mother skimmed out the grainy butter and washed it in the round wooden butter-bowl. She washed every bit of buttermilk out of it, then she salted it, and packed the firm golden butter in her butter-tubs.
This passage from Raymond Carver's "Menudo" (from Elephant and Other Stories) describes a character's method of cooking tripe, but I am not too sure if it treads too closely to recipe territory for you:
Tripe. He started with tripe and about a gallon of water. Then he chopped onions and added them to the water, which had started to boil. He put chorizo sausage in the pot. After that, he dropped peppercorns into the boiling water and sprinkled in some chili powder. Then came the olive oil. He opened a big can of tomato sauce and poured that in. The added cloves of garlic, some slices of white bread, salt, and lemon juice. He opened another can--it was hominy--and poured that in the pot, too. He put it all in, and then he turned the heat down and put a lid on the pot.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:11 PM on October 30, 2013

Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay had a profound effect on my scrambled egg technique, teaching me patience and not to stir too much.
Sammy broke a half-dozen eggs into a bowl, splashed them with milk, shook in pepper and salt....then he poured the eggs into a pan of foaming butter. Scrambled eggs was his only dish, but he was very good at it. You had to leave them alone; that turned out to be the secret. Most people stood there stirring them, but the way to do it was to let them sit for a minute or two over a low flame and bother them no more than half a dozen times. (p. 475)
posted by HeroZero at 9:15 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ha, so my suggestion is a Derek/Stiles fanfic - Cupboard Love, by moonklutz. "Chapter 1" is the story which includes lots of detailed cooking and baking scenes. "Chapter 2" is the list of recipes used in the story.
posted by Nickel at 9:43 PM on October 30, 2013

Around the middle of Hannibal, Clarice Starling's roommate Ardelia explains a few details of making jerk chicken.

Near the end of Hannibal, there are two cooking scenes: one in which Hannibal describes creating a stock and one in which he describes the method for cooking brains.

In Hannibal Rising, there is a brief scene in which Hannibal's uncle's chef shows teenage Hannibal how to cook a fish in a salt crust.

I'm pretty sure those are the only passages in Thomas Harris' books that describe cooking methods. The TV show Hannibal has plenty of scenes of food prep, but I don't remember any step-by-step instructions.
posted by neushoorn at 2:53 AM on October 31, 2013

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