Monday, June 28, 2010

Writing Gastronomical Goodness

by Julia Buckley

I once had a part-time job which involved reading restaurant menus from all over the country and highlighting new dishes; my employer was creating a restaurant menu website and needed to update it constantly.

The job paid fairly well and I could work my own hours (I had a baby at home), so I was thrilled to get it. After a while, though, it became psychologically painful. Each day I had to read descriptions of delicious food written by people who had probably majored in creative writing in college. The entrees had names like "Macadamia Nut Encrusted Sea Bass with Mango Cream Sauce" and "Goat-Cheese Encrusted Lamb with Fresh Mountain Herbs." Everything was "encrusted" with something else, and it always sounded delicious.

The desserts were even more spectacular. Things like "Hazelnut Chocolate Praline Cake with Chocolate Drizzles and Raspberry Glaze." These menus were a tribute to the power of words. I always left hungry.

I was reminded of the great writers--usually mystery writers--who write so well about food that I have to stop reading and make a snack. Mary Stewart did this so well that I don't think I've found her equal. In Nine Coaches Waiting, she writes about a midnight snack shared between three people and it's one of the loveliest descriptions I've ever read. She does the same in Madam, Will You Talk?

Robert B. Parker wrote some food scenes that had my husband setting down the book and heading for the kitchen to forage. That Spenser does love to cook, and sometimes I think my husband pretends he's Spenser.

Who else writes food well enough to make you drool? Which mysteries made you hungry? And what's the most delicious thing in the world?

I vote for the chocolate cake I ate at an Italian Restaurant called Marros when my husband and I were on our honeymoon back in 1988. I've tried to find a cake that delicious ever since, and I haven't. Are taste and happy memories entwined? Or is some food just that good? :)


Paul said...

Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesan is about food and grace and transformation.

Julia Buckley said...

That sounds good; I'll have to read it.

And I just remembered LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, which was a lovely little read.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Among mystery writers, I'd give the prize to Donna Leon: both Venetian restaurant food and the meals Brunetti's wife Paola makes for lunch and dinner are worth drooling over. I hear she's got a cookbook in the works. Can you imagine an American cop going home for lunch?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

And let's not forget Nero Wolfe. He has his own cookbook too, and the Wolfe Pack hosts a dinner from the menus in the books at Bouchercon.

Julia Buckley said...

I've never read Donna Leon--I'll have to pick her up as well. But I agree about Nero Wolfe.

Sandra Parshall said...

Edith Wharton didn't write mysteries (unless you count the mysteries of the human heart)but she made sure readers appreciated the lavish meals eaten by 19th century high society types when they entertained. I loved the dinner scene in Martin Scorsese's movie of The Age of Innocence -- he got the food just right and probably made everyone in the audience drool.

Donna Leon, as Liz says, includes wonderful, authentic Italian food in her books. There's already a cookbook based on the food in her novels, but Leon didn't write it herself.

Martha said...

My contribution is one in reverse. Every time I read Josephine Tey's The Singing Sands I end up making scones. Her detective, Inspector Grant stays at an inn where he is served such terrible scones he burns them in the fireplace.

Perhaps I am just perverse in needing to go bake my own each time. Fortunately the ones I bake are delicious.

Julia Buckley said...

Scones! That does sound delicious. What great examples of the way reading affects our real lives. And what great food you've all described.

Martha, I just love Josephine Tey in general, but now you've made me want to re-read THE SINGING SANDS.

In Mary Stewart's THE IVY TREE, they made something that the North Country people called "Singing Hinnies." I don't remember exactly what they were, but they were baked, and I've always pictured them to be something like scones.

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, I read THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and loved it, but now I can barely remember it. Now it needs another look. I love Wharton. My favorite is THE HOUSE OF MIRTH.