“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.”
Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating.
For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.)
If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton.
Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop.
On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it.
Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids.
Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals.
Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival.
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In Sophie’s Choice, Stingo recounts Sophie’s return to the pleasures of eating after barely surviving Dachau and the sickness and anemia following her journey to America. On her day off from work, she enters a deli near Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The following description is an exercise in food pornography: “The privilege of choice gave her a feeling achingly sensual. There was so much to eat, so much variety and abundance, that each time her breath stopped, her eyes actually filmed over with emotion, and with slow and elaborate gravity she would choose from this sourly fragrant, opulent, heroic squander of food: a pickled egg here, a slice of salami, half a loaf of pumpernickel, lusciously glazed and black. Bratwurst. Braunschweiger. Some sardines. Hot pastrami. Lox. A bagel, please.” Styron’s mouthwatering description is proof of his talent as a writer, savoring each descriptive word to make us feel Sophie’s hunger. But it is more than hunger—he reveals her appetite for life.
M.F.K Fisher was the high priestess of culinary writing. Her ten books on cooking and eating are chiefly literary, a delight for foodies and similarly entertaining to those without food knowledge. Fisher considered eating well to be one of the “arts of life.” In Fisher’s writing there’s no division between food and life—the two run together as if there were no better mixture. In the last ten years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in food, diet, and food culture. The New York Times and The New Yorker constantly dedicate large parts of their publications to writing on food: how it makes us feel, what to eat, why to eat, and where. Michael Pollan’s books, on food politics, meat eating and more sell thousands of copies. Food writing, it seems, reveals what we are interested in, what we’re afraid of, and what we want from life.
The economy has a huge influence on food writing. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf focuses on cooking on a tight-budget during WWII. Last year, the recession closed down Gourmet magazine, the monolith of food culture. More and more people turn to the internet for everything, and food blogs are some of the most popular on the web. Cathy Erway, a frustrated twenty-something decided in 2008 that she felt sick to her stomach and to her pocketbook on her frequent restaurant meals in New York, and created a blog called Not Eating Out in New York, which is now a book called The Art of Eating In. Emily Gould, of Gawker fame, spends more time updating her food blog Things I Ate that I Love, than her regular blog, Emily Magazine. She also recently began a web show called “Cooking the Books,” where she invites writers to come and discuss their book with her while they cook a dish inspired by the book. Dominique Browning, the former editor of House and Garden, writes in a piece published in the New York Times Magazine that “only food could ward off the rage, despair and raw fear” at her newfound unemployment. “I became obsessed with eggs, gazing on their refined shape in wonder. Perfect packets of nutrients. I ate eggs all day long. When I had a job, I never thought about eggs.”
Food is sustenance, but it’s also a physical manifestation of culture and emotion: one that is tangible, one that you can taste. For some, cooking and baking is a way to think, to work things out, and to comfort oneself and others against strife. The olfactory pleasure of baking your mother’s recipe calls forth memories of home and security almost immediately. The food consumed on a first date (that goes well) can be recalled with delight, and repeated.
In books, descriptive passages of food and eating trigger an emotional response to the text. Reading Sylvia Plath’s journal embeds the reader in a flux of feverish sensuality and a compulsion to record every feeling, sight, smell, taste, and thought. In college, Plath describes an afternoon “reading critical books about Yeats all day today, meals in bed, and the good corn-thickened soup and tuna salad, lush with mayonnaise and pink succulent laced shreds of meat, and sliced quarters of hardboiled egg, sliced rubbery white crescents cradling the brilliant powdery yolk, cool long gulps of milk, the savory brown resilience of ginger bread, and tonight the warm glutinous cheese-curded macaroni, green lima beans mealy and good on the tongue, a sweet syrupy mash of peach slices.” The indulgent nature of this meal is also connected to its description, and the activity of reading critical books about Yeats all day, cross-legged on our college dorm bed, retiring to the cafeteria for the very Macaroni and Cheese she describes: this is living, this is life. Moments of Being. Plath gets it, and now, so do we.
In Leonard Michaels’ “Black Bread, Butter, Onion” eating offers up a moment of reflection, doubling a recent sex act. The lust of eating and fucking entwined: “The tender, powdery surface of the bialys is dented by your fingertips, which bear odors of sex; also butter, onion, dough, tobacco, newsprint, and coffee. The whole city is in your nose, but go outside and eat the last bialy while strolling on Cherry Street.” Michaels’ hands serve as his reminder of the events of his day. He continues to consume before going back out into the world for more.
Gould, unable to sleep, writes on “Things I Ate that I Love” of dreaming up the perfect dinner party. “I woke up at 3 am and couldn’t fall back asleep without the peaceful white noise of the BQE outside my window, so I lay there planning a fantasy dinner party. The morning of the fantasy dinner party I would go to The Meat Hook and get a chorizo-type sausage and a beautiful free-range chicken. Then I would come home and roast the chicken Laurie Colwin style in a 325 degree oven for two hours, first coating it with a spicy rub, and I would baste it sometimes with butter. Then when it was done I would cool it, take the meat off the bones, and make stock with the carcass. I would use the stock to make a black bean soup with chorizo, which I would serve with lime juice and sour cream that had been whirred in the food processor with a small can of smoked chipotle peppers. Then the main course would be chicken tacos made with the roasted chicken and pico de gallo. For dessert I would make Katherine Hepburn brownies and maybe add a tiny bit of cinnamon to continue the Mexican theme. In this way I lulled myself back to sleep.” There’s no doubt had Plath been born in time for the internet age, she would have taken up on her Tumblr to update us on her writing, her eating habits, and her long luxurious hot baths as she does in her journals.
One of the most touching food memoirs is Judith Moore’s Never Eat Your Heart Out. Moore, a writer for the San Diego Reader, sadly passed away in 2006. Her collection of personal essays focuses on the emotional recall from food and its influence on her life. In “Breakfast,” she recalls her mother and grandmother force-feeding her oatmeal at the table—her last morning spent in her childhood home. Her mother was leaving her father and would eventually divorce him. “Memories come back to you in your mouth,” Moore writes. “Decades passed before I ate oatmeal again.” In another piece called “Adultery,” Moore describes the effect of an affair on her cooking: “I don’t think I ever better got the feel for that complicated business of insinuating cold butter into flour and thence into a high-pitched oven that produces milles-feuilles pastry, don’t think I ever stirred, sniffed, and tasted my way to a more provocative lime-ginger-soy-molasses marinade for duck than during the year I went out on my husband.” We know as well as Moore by the end of the piece that it is the swell and excitement of love that produces her newfound confidence in her cuisine: “About adultery, I don’t recommend it. I also have to confess for that year I was happier than I’d ever been before or have been since.”
Writing in itself is a sort of cooking, a combining of ingredients: sometimes the finished product turns all corners of our tastes, filling us with joy, other times, we’re not so lucky. And many writers, Plath included, cooked or baked as a reprieve from the arduous hours of writing, returning to their desks refreshed. Kate Moses, when struggling to finish her novel Wintering about Plath, followed her lead and took to spending time in the kitchen working out her ending. If one reads for pleasure, it’s no surprise that these authors end up on the reading list. M.F.K. Fisher said it best: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.” In writing about food, the themes of love and sex abound, and the current of living, the never-ending search for security propels us into the writers’ world. Gastronomy functions as biography. For meaning in literature and in life, the deepest pleasures often come from our plates.