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When it’s OK to allow literature to influence dining

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Why just read when you can eat and read? From “A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook” to Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Recipes,” the literary canon is going gourmet. It’s not enough to simply read Harper Lee anymore — true fans drink Tequila Mockingbird cocktails. Who wants to solve mysteries when you can make meals from “The Nancy Drew Cookbook” instead? Can you truly experience Fannie Flagg if you aren’t snacking on fried green tomatoes?

It may sound absurd — this compulsion to make books come alive by eating the foods they reference — but before you laugh, Whitefield, N.H.-based registered dietitian nutritionist Kelsey McCullough says there’s a psychological reason behind the trend: “Emotion is intertwined with food,” she explains, and story affects the way we feel like nothing else. When “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” fans eat turkish delight, they better grasp Edmund’s temptation. When “Little House in the Big Woods” readers have maple sugar candy, they understand Laura Ingalls’s joy in making her own. “It’s just such a tangible part of wanting to feel like you’re living it,” says McCullough, and enjoyable food experiences are missing from today’s South Beach, Atkins-driven culture. “We pretend like food is just something essential, but there’s so much emotion connected to it,” she explains, and when it comes to our health, “how we feel about the food that we’re eating is almost just as important as what we’re actually eating.”

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In other words, the fact that Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Havisham kept a 20-year-old wedding cake says a lot about her well-being. And if you eat one just because you like “Great Expectations,” that says a lot about you, too. People who gobble their way through literature aren’t mere readers — they’re literati, bibliophiles, superfans. But are they healthy?

McCullough says it depends. Mrs. Havisham’s cake was so old and moldy, Dickens wrote that it “seem[ed] to grow” and that “speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies [were] run[nig] home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.” In addition to the mental health concerns this conveys, eating it would probably create physical health problems as well. But it’s perfectly OK to dine on braised duck or corned beef after reading a Nero Wolfe novel or to have haggis and scotch on Robert Burns Night. Just don’t eat that way every day.

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Nutrition, McCullough explains, is “not necessarily about each individual meal — making sure that you got your carb, your protein, your fat,” and so on, saying readers should instead “look at your eating more as a whole.” It’s OK to eat like the Ingalls every now and then, but unless you plan on exercising like pioneers as well, don’t make “Little House” your permanent diet. “Times have changed,” says McCullough, “We are generally less active” than people were in the late 1800s, when the books were set. Modern readers don’t tend to chop firewood or plow fields after eating Pa’s favorite breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, molasses, and ham.

Also don’t assume literary diets are healthier because historical meals were all organic. Food insecurity is rampant in Dickens; if you ate like Oliver Twist, you’d starve. The desserts surrounding the Ghost of Christmas Present sound tempting, but plum pudding isn’t best for diabetics’ blood sugar. In general though, McCullough says, “We know that whole foods are good for you. We know that eating potatoes [and] veggies — growing your own food — is so ideal” and “we still have those essentials that they had then,” so why not? The onions and turnip-radishes Nicholas Nickleby’s wife loved are the exact same vegetables that grow today.

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Just don’t eat only book food long term. “When you start restricting or blocking out entire food groups all together, that can quickly kind of lead you to some unintended consequences,” she explains. Say for example you feast like Beowulf for a month, eschewing water for ale and mead — or “Alice in Wonderland,” having only tea and cake.

There is one author, though, who is safe for daily dining: Jane Austen. McCullough says, “She talks of eating in a way that is sustainable and natural for our body.” A few of her characters are on the heavy side, but as Bryan Kozlowski writes in “The Jane Austen Diet,” during the Regency, weight was not the focus it is today. In the late 1700s, our numerically driven concept of fat did not exist: Anne Elliot was petite and Harriet Smith had curves and both were the figure of beauty. The point of eating wasn’t to gain or lose pounds, rather to achieve overall physical health — so much so that the word itself appears more than 100 times across Austen’s six novels.

“She wrote about the value in actually enjoying your food,” says McCullough, “a premise that is becoming lost in modern-day society.” In fact, if any emotion is strongly connected to Austenian eating, it’s disgust as Mrs. Bennett proudly tells Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice” that “her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.” That’s right. Lizzie never stood in an open refrigerator door crying about Mr. Darcy over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.

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“This idea of eating for pleasure and health sounds so simple but has become so obscure in our diet-crazed world,” McCullough said. And perhaps this is the real gift that literary dining can give us: Eat your way through books long enough and one day maybe you’ll feel as joyful about food as you do about reading.

So go for it. Have a mint julep as you finish “The Great Gatsby”; eat a few vegetables with “Peter Rabbit.” Just don’t steal them from anyone’s garden, and as Hesiod wrote, “Observe due measure; moderation is best in all things.”


Terena Bell can be reached at terenaebell@gmail.com.