When I was a child, one of the things I enjoyed about some of my favorite children's books were the food descriptions — I suppose kids are perpetually hungry. In Enid Blyton stories, for instance, the kids were always having picnics, and although the things they ate were ordinary enough — ham sandwiches, apples, lettuce, tomatoes, mustard and cress, home-made ginger beer and lashings of boiled eggs with a little paper screw of salt to sprinkle on them — they still sounded wonderful. And somehow that little detail of the paper screw containing salt really appealed.
Enid Blyton knew the power of food over children. In her many boarding school stories, the kids always had a midnight feast, and oh, the longing in me to participate in something so exciting as a midnight feast. I'm sure it was the reason I wanted to go to boarding school – because you had midnight feasts and adventures.
On occasion, the midnight feast had consequences:
Matron: You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork-pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger-beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.
The style of food is very much a reflection of the era — those books were published before, during and after WW2, and in the UK food rationing went on for years after the war was over, so I'm sure these are the foods people had either available as home grown, or as an occasional treat. Certainly things like sardines would be unimaginable as a treat today, and not what one would crave in a midnight feast.
In Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree series, the children there were always going to magical lands and as well as ordinary-but-still-delicious food, there was also magical food, like pop toffee that expanded until you thought your mouth would explode and then . . . pop! There were also pop biscuits that ran with honey when you ate them, and google buns filled with currants and fizzy sherbet, and other exciting-sounding foods.
I suspect Roald Dahl read these in his youth — he took it even further in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — he certainly did wonderful food.
Speaking of honey, here's a gorgeous little snippet from Winnie The Pooh:
Pooh always liked a little something at eleven o’clock in the morning, and he was very glad to see Rabbit getting out the plates and mugs; and when Rabbit said, ‘Honey or condensed milk with your bread?’ he was so excited that he said, ‘Both,’ and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, ‘But don’t bother about the bread, please.'
I remember scenes of toffee making and pulling from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. And they drizzled the still-hot maple syrup toffee into snow to cool and ate it straight away — you can bet this little snow-deprived Australian child fantasized about that one. (Sadly it was the only one of her books I read as a child — I didn't know there was a whole series.)
The enjoyment of fictional feasts and food descriptions continued into adulthood. Who among us did not crave to try fried green tomatoes, once we read Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café?
But the two food scenes strongest in my memory are from Mary Stewart. The first is from Madam Will You Talk, when after a long and exhausting chase the hero, Richard Byron feeds the heroine, and it is at this point we realize he is the hero, not the villain.
I heard him speaking in French. I supposed he was ordering food. And presently at my elbow I heard the chink of silver, and opened my eyes to see the big glittering trolley of hors d’oeuvre with its hovering attendant.
Richard Byron said something to him, and without waiting for me to speak, the man served me from the tray. I remember still those exquisite fluted silver dishes, each with its load of dainty colours . . . there were anchovies and tiny gleaming silver fish in red sauce, and savoury butter in curled strips of fresh lettuce; there were caviare and tomato and olives green and black, and small golden-pink mushrooms and cresses and beans. The waiter heaped my plate, and filled another glass with white wine. I drank half a glassful without a word, and began to eat. I was conscious of Richard Byron’s eyes on me, but he did not speak.
The waiters hovered beside us, the courses came, delicious and appetizing, and the empty plates vanished as if by magic. I remember red mullet, done somehow with lemons, and a succulent golden-brown fowl bursting with truffles and flanked by tiny peas, then a froth of ice and whipped cream dashed with kirsch, and the fine smooth caress of the wine through it all. Then, finally, apricots and big black grapes, and coffee. The waiter removed the little silver filtres, and vanished, leaving us alone in our alcove.
Hungry yet? Then let's try the feast in Nine Coaches Waiting, when the hero, the gorgeous Raoul brings the governess heroine and her charge, young Phillippe, a midnight feast purloined from the very elegant and sophisticated party going on downstairs. The feast consisted of:
"thin curls of brown-bread with cool, butter-dripping asparagus; scallop-shells filled with some delicious concoction of creamed crab; crisp pastries bulging with mushroom and chicken and lobster; petits fours bland with almonds, small glasses misty with frost and full of some creamy stuff tangy with strawberries and wine; peaches furry and glowing in a nest of glossy leaves; grapes frosted with sugar that sparkled in the firelight like a crust of diamonds … "
It seems to be de rigueur in Mary Stewart books that the hero feeds his heroine. I'm all in favor of that.
Are there any food scenes or special foods in fiction that you remember particularly? I'd love you to share them.
Or if you had a hero bring you a fabulous midnight feast, what would you want it to include?