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For National Book Month, a Food & Wine staff writer celebrates the novels that inspired her to learn how to cook. 

Elisabeth Sherman
October 10, 2017

When I was a little girl, my father and I spent time together by reading. Before bed, we would read Redwall and Lord of the Rings out loud to each other, but the books that the two of us came back to time and time again were the Chronicles of Narnia, especially the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was, in these intimate moments, helping me form a lasting love of a literature, which I would carry with me into adulthood. Novels are imbued with staggering magical powers—they can, of course, transport their readers to worlds of fantasy and pleasure, but in my case, some stories also illustrated the seductive world of food: How it can be magnetizing, a tool to evoke strong memories, and hard-to-resist emotions, how it can be a marker of your family’s history and status, how it, like books, can be the only effective comfort in dark and troubling moments.

Take The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Oscar Wilde lampoons the strict manners of Victorian England’s aristocracy, using teatime as a way to bring the world of his bumbling, scheming, snobby, society characters to life. Or Alice in Wonderland, which effortlessly captures the joys (and consequences) of eating dessert.

Here are the books, the aforementioned included, that made me appreciate the importance of food and its far-reaching influence, and that would eventually fuel my passion for cooking.

Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

In the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ seven-part fantasy series, which focuses primarily on the four Pevensie children, Edmund, Lucy, Peter and Susan, the children are sent away from their home in London during World War II, as German bombs are leveling the city. They climb into an enchanted wardrobe and into Narnia, where Edmund becomes entangled with The White Witch. In her campaign to bring eternal winter to Narnia, she tempts Edmund with Turkish Delight in the hopes he’ll betray his siblings.

Lewis writes, “The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”

The passage makes my mouth water still—no wonder the witch’s plan works. The treats sound sinfully good; even the strongest willed person wouldn’t be able to resist such an offer, no matter how dangerous it might be. Cold, separated from your family, alone, and afraid, a familiar dessert can put you in a trance.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I am an obsessive tea drinker. Earl Grey and English Breakfast are my favorites—there’s no better salve for the nerves than a hot cup of black tea with a splash of milk (best enjoyed, in my experience, on a grey weekend morning). Enter Arthur Dent, an unwilling space traveler who begrudgingly explores the universe, though all he really wants is to be home, comfortable, drinking a cup of tea. He becomes so desperate for the drink that he insists on teaching a machine on his spacecraft, which is designed to anticipate his dietary needs (but falls short every time), how to make tea. Why does Arthur so passionately love tea, even when there is literally a whole universe of beverages before him to choose from? “It makes me happy,” he explains, in a simple statement that none-the-less resonates as the true reason for tea’s enduring popularity.  

The Importance of Being Earnest

In one scene from Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, two friends—Algernon, at the mercy of debtors, but accustomed to his lavish lifestyle, and Jack, a wealthy orphan, head over heels in love with a woman whose mother disapproves of him—find themselves in the former’s parlor. Jack spies cucumber sandwiches and teacups set out for visitors. Gwendolyn, his paramour and Algernon’s cousin, and her mother, Lady Bracknell, are coming for tea. I latched on to this moment in the text—and food comes up again, when Algernon can’t stop eating muffins after the girl he’s trying to woo dumps him—as an intriguing moment. Cucumber sandwiches—even the phrase sounds like it tastes good, especially in a British accent. What a simple, yet decadent snack. Algernon eats nearly all of them before his aunt arrives for tea, though he says he ordered them especially for her. Cucumber sandwiches seemed to me from then on to be an indulgent treat, saved for special occasions, to be eaten by the handful. 

Delta Wedding

This woefully underappreciated novel, set in the 1930s, tells the story of the Fairchild family, who live in the Mississippi Delta, as they prepare for a wedding. It’s told, in part, by Laura Fairchild, who is sent to stay with her relatives after her mother dies, and her Aunt Ellen, the Fairchild matriarch. Ellen runs the house, looks after her nine children, and in one scene, invites Laura to help her bake a coconut cake. Laura pounds the almonds with a mortar and pestle alongside her aunt, who “beat the egg whites, and began creaming the sugar and butter.” As the two women bake together, in the domain of women at the time, the kitchen, Ellen becomes, momentarily, a stand-in for Laura’s lost mother. Ellen, in turn, who will soon see her daughter off in marriage, drifts off in memories of other romances, reminiscing silently about love’s transformative power. In this moment, baking, mesmerizing as it can be, triggers the strongest of memories and creates unbreakable bonds between women.

Alice in Wonderland

I am not going to lecture you about the goofy teatime scene in Alice in Wonderland that seems to enchant everyone. Instead, I remember, with pure delight, Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland, when she encounters a glass box that contains a “very small cake, on which the words ‘EAT ME’ were beautifully marked in currants.” I have a hard time thinking of a more charming, satisfying image that those tiny cakes in their glass box. Alice eats all the cake of course—to disastrous results—and I can say with near certainty that there’s no dieting metaphor here.  Eating cake is wonderful, and it usually spirals out of control. Such is the nature of cake. Earlier in the passage, Alice, drinks from a glass bottle, the contents of which tastes like “cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast”—an enchanting list of foods that evoke feelings of warmth and contentment. Such is the nature of food. At it’s very best, it brings joy.