When I first left home at the age of 20, for what turned out to be a largely nomadic existence, my grandmother gave me a packet of salt and a piece of bread inside a small jar. There was, she told me, an old Jewish folktale about a traveler who is given such a gift by an angel to make sure he would never go hungry. So that I too would never lack food, she wanted me to carry the jar wherever luck might take me. After dwelling in countless homes in more countries than I care to remember, the jar sits now on a shelf in what I hope will be my last kitchen, a reminder that stories are not just food for the soul.
I have always been attracted to literature in which characters spend time at the stove or gather around a table. As a child, I wanted to know more about the pie in which Peter Rabbit's father sadly ended his days and what was that mysterious substance called "jelly" that appeared so often in Enid Blyton's books and of which we, in Buenos Aires, knew nothing. When Captain Nemo serves Monsieur Aronnax a sumptuous breakfast 20,000 leagues under the sea, I too wanted to taste "what you believe to be meat [but] is nothing but fillet of turtle" and "dolphins' livers, which you might take for ragout of pork."
One summer during my adolescence, lost in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastical Middle-earth, I came upon the Vales of Anduin, which are guarded by the Beornings. These rather unfriendly people are vegetarians: Their main dish is a wonderful kind of honey cake. I decided I had to try to make it. The house we had rented for the summer had an ancient German cookbook, freckled with splattered butter and mottled with chocolate fingerprints, and in its venerable pages I found the recipe for lebkuchen. Perhaps these spicy hazelnut-honey cookies were not what Tolkien had in mind: I didn't care. I measured and mixed and cut and baked, and in the end I had a batch of Beorning cakes that allowed me to taste my way across fantastical landscapes as I lay on a lounge chair under a jacaranda tree in the garden.
There are those who will say that the charm of a book should be allowed to work unaided. W. H. Auden refused to read books in the same place in which they were set; for example, he said he avoided the works of naturalist Richard Jefferies while traveling in England's Wiltshire Downs. I, on the contrary, like the magic reinforced. I've sat in Kew Gardens in London reading Virginia Woolf's story on the place, and I've listened to Schoenberg while reading Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann's novel inspired by the composer's life. Context and contents mix in my imagination, and the taste of food eaten by one of the characters in the book I'm reading brings me, so to speak, into that fictional world. When later I discovered, in The Aeneid, that those who descend into the underworld must tame the three-headed guardian dog Cerberus with honey cakes, I remembered my lebkuchen and felt I knew exactly what spicy taste had silenced the barking monster.
We identify with the books we love; we become, in some sense, the character whose life we follow on the page. A Bombay writer friend of mine gave me his mother's recipe for vegetable curry and I was able to share the first meal that Kim procures for his lama in Kipling's memorable novel. Another friend, in Madrid, showed me how to cook duelos y quebrantos ("sorrows and distress"), a runny mixture of eggs, chopped peppers and bacon, which Don Quixote (we are told in the very first paragraph) eats on Saturdays. How many times have we come across a certain scene and suddenly thought, "That's what happened to me" or "I've felt like that myself," and all at once, the story acquires an autobiographical flavor?
One day, to please a friend who's a Virginia Woolf enthusiast, I decided to prepare for her the sumptuous boeuf en daube Mrs. Ramsay makes to impress a guest in To the Lighthouse, hoping that "an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice" would rise "from the great brown dish." When I served her my version, my friend immediately recognized the literary reference. After the first forkful, she exclaimed, like Mrs. Ramsay's guest, "It is a triumph." Then, over the meal, she talked about her love for Virginia Woolf, and of the first time she read To the Lighthouse as a young girl and felt an intimate connection with that moving chronicle of frustrated hopes and restorative memory. My friend spoke of visiting the places that Virginia Woolf knew and trying to see and touch and smell the things that her favorite author had known and had described purposely for her, she felt. And though she had tasted boeuf en daube before, and thought of To the Lighthouse, it had never been put in front of her as a specific memorial to her literary love. She said the words on the page came back to her, line by line, as she tasted spoonful after spoonful. That boeuf en daube sealed our friendship.
And so I eat my way through books. My children know this weakness and have taken unfair advantage of it. After we started reading The Wind in the Willows, they convinced me (it didn't take much) to have a picnic like the one which Mr. Rat offers his new friend, Mr. Mole, and one sunny Toronto day we carefully packed "a fat, wicker luncheon basket" with "coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwigespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater," exactly according to the text.
The children's hardest request, however, was for a meal described in one of the Tarzan books, which consisted, among other things, of a stewed elephant's foot. Obviously, we weren't going to prepare such a monstrous thing, but I did find a recipe for the dish in Alexandre Dumas's Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, which begins: "Take one or several young elephants' feet...."
I'm always looking for the moment in which a character must stop to eat, because, for me, the very mention of food humanizes a story. I am moved by the "chicken that warn't roosting comfortable" that Huck Finn and Jim eat when escaping on the raft; by the nuts, roots and berries that Frankenstein's monster places on the fire for his breakfast, only to find "that the berries were spoiled by this operation, and the nuts and roots much improved"; and by the "bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat's flesh...and a little remainder of European corn" that Robinson Crusoe rescues from his shipwreck.
Under all manner of guises, from the elaborate feast of an Arthurian romance to the simplest dinner eaten in a Mavis Gallant story, food (literature tells us) is in essence proof of our common humanity: bread to remind us of the earth from which we've all come and salt to remind us of the earth to which we must all return.
Alberto Manguel is the author of Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art and A History of Reading.