This summer, like millions of readers before me, I devoured George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire’’ series. It was HBO’s adaptation, “Game of Thrones,’’ that sucked me in, with its treacherous queens, backstabbing advisers, illegitimate children, and quip-happy dwarves, a cross between “Lord of the Rings’’ and “Flowers in the Attic.’’ What’s not to like?
But what kept me reading, through five books and some 4,000 pages, was the food.
Martin describes the dishes consumed by his characters with mouthwatering, loving specificity. He takes us through banquets course by course, venison pies “chunky with carrots, bacon, and mushrooms’’ followed by mutton chops sauced in honey and cloves, savory duck, peppered boar, and on through the sides, the kinds of bread, the desserts, and on through the cheese. The cuisines of each region in his imagined universe are so finely delineated, I found myself debating where I’d prefer to vacation. (I’m torn between the Arbor, with its fine wines, and Dorne, for its spicy dishes.)
When the character Areo Hotah thinks of his faraway homeland in the fourth volume of the series, “A Feast for Crows,’’ he thinks of food: “The taste of wintercake filled his mouth again, rich with ginger and pine nuts and bits of cherry, with nahsa to wash it down, fermented goat’s milk served in an iron cup and laced with honey.’’ Forget Proust’s much-flogged madeleine; we barely even learn what it tastes like, steeped in Aunt Leonie’s linden tea (sounds soggy). With Martin, the memory and the flavor are inseparable, equally important.
For the food-motivated individual, this is satisfying. For the reader, it is crucial. Who trusts a novelist who doesn’t write about food? It’s what people think about all the time - almost as often as they think about sex. A new study in the Journal of Sex Research designed to measure how often men think about sex vs. how often women do (an average of about 19 and 10 times daily, respectively, if you were curious) also shows men pondering food almost 18 times daily and women 15. I’m surprised it’s not more. At any rate, food is fundamental to the human experience and so to the reading experience, from the very first books we love.
Anyone who read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House’’ books at an impressionable age knows what I’m talking about. Martin’s fantasy world and the life of American pioneers in the late 1800s have nothing in common beyond a serious food fetish. Interacting with Indians, worrying about wolves, surviving long winters - all memorable, yes. But ask any adult what he or she recalls about Wilder’s volumes and it will be the food: maple syrup frozen into candy on the snow, cherished oranges at Christmas, snacks of crackers and sour green pickles, bean porridge, the step-by-step method for making corncakes over a campfire.
“Island of the Blue Dolphins’’ makes us think of harvesting abalone, “Heidi’’ of the goats’ milk that helped cure Klara, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’’ of Turkish delight, the world’s most disappointing candy. What I imagined as a child to be some sort of intoxicating nougat is instead a powdery gumdrop that tastes like a urinal mint smells. This confection aside, one wonders how much the food we read about in childhood shapes what we want to eat today. In “Little House on the Prairie,’’ for a special dinner the family eats “stewed jack rabbit with white-flour dumplings and plenty of gravy. There was a steaming-hot, thick cornbread flavored with bacon fat.’’ Rabbit with dumplings and bacon cornbread sounds like something that might appear in any of today’s crop of farm-to-table, nose-to-tail restaurants. Is the craze for urban foraging a product of children who read “My Side of the Mountain’’ one too many times?
Food is no less important an illustration in books for adults, of course. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, for instance, it connects characters to their homeland and each other. Perhaps no one has written so grimly of food as Jonathan Franzen, whose “Corrections’’ is full of miserable meals that limn one family’s dysfunction. (No one who reads it will ever hear the phrase “mixed grill’’ again without feeling simultaneously depressed and hysterical.) Everything we need to know about the dandy Eugene Onegin is revealed when he dines at a restaurant on “roast beef, red and gory, / and truffles, which have ever been / youth’s choice, the flower of French cuisine: / and pâté, Strasbourg’s deathless glory, / sits with Limburg’s vivacious cheese / and ananas, the gold of trees.’’ Likewise the Cratchit clan in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol’’ when they exclaim with delight over a dinner of goose “eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes’’ so that it feeds the whole family. Food reveals all - class, character, culture.
Until recently, though, the specifics of taste were left to the imagination. Now, as soon as a hunger-inducing book appears, it gets its own cookbook (or at least its own food blog). “The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook’’ teaches Muggles to make pumpkin juice, rock cakes, steak and kidney pie, and more. (There’s no recipe for butterbeer, but you’ll find plenty of those online, along with packaged versions of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and chocolate frogs.) “The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook’’ offers up lamb stew with dried plums, District 4’s seaweed bread, and several Greasy Sae specials, which don’t seem to contain anything untoward. Even “Twilight’’ has an unofficial cookbook, “Love at First Bite’’: The mind boggles. In March, a revised edition of “The Book Club Cookbook’’ appears, featuring the likes of oyster-brie soup inspired by “Water for Elephants.’’ This does not sound good to me, but then I never read the book.
One of the best current realizations of literary food is The Inn at the Crossroads, a website created by two Boston fans of “A Song of Ice and Fire.’’ Sariann Lehrer and Chelsea Monroe-Cassel often offer two recipes for the same dish: one historically accurate, one modern. This gives their endeavor a scholarly legitimacy lacking in some of the other efforts. And they don’t shy away from more-difficult dishes, such as Dornish grilled snake with fiery mustard sauce. Yes, they have a cookbook coming out, from Random House next year. (Martin’s series also inspired a food truck with a menu designed by Tom Colicchio of Craft and “Top Chef.’’ It delivered squab and black seafood stew with dragon peppers to New York and LA.)
It makes literature that much more real to read about your lemon cakes and have them, too. But eating the food from your favorite books is akin to watching the movie versions of them. The main character never looks like you pictured. Will the grilled snake taste like the one of your imagination? Something that was yours alone has now been codified and made concrete. Recipes are made to be tinkered with, and you can add lemon or adjust the spicing as you wish. But the realm of pure imagination is a fragile one. It’s easy and tempting to bring everything to life, in movies, video games, crowd-sourced online fan fiction, your own kitchen. Let Turkish delight be a lesson: Sometimes the unknown tastes more delicious.