My favourite thing to write about in a novel is food. I love trying to conjure hunger in my readers, and I think food can anchor the maddest story in reality. The only difficulty is that writing about food makes me hungry, and I find myself getting up from my desk to go foraging in the kitchen.
My new book, The Explorer, is about four children trying to survive after a plane crash in the Amazon rainforest, until they discover a map, and a secret. They eat pancakes made from cocoa grubs; they catch piranha, and eat roasted tarantulas. I went to the Amazon myself to research the book, and ate the piranha, and caught a tarantula…but I was not allowed to eat it.
These are some of my favourite food scenes in children’s literature.
I have eaten a lot of chocolate in my life, but nothing has ever been as delicious as I know a Willy Wonka’s Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight would be. Dahl injects a glorious spirit of anarchy into his food, and the food, in turn, makes the stories feel weighty and real.
Amy’s pickled limes are both enticing and puzzling. “If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime,” she say. “If she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck.” A few years ago I found a simple 19th-century recipe for pickled limes: scrubbed limes in a jar of water and salt. Possibly I didn’t leave them to marinade for long enough. They were not even slightly delicious.
“Mr Wilderness’s porridge was very different from that served in Mrs Brisket’s school. It was eaten with brown sugar from a big blue bag, and with dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two cows.”
This is the best description of breakfast I have ever read. Although, for years – until today, in fact – I imagined they were eating the porridge itself out of the blue bag and had always wondered how that would work: like an icing bag, perhaps.
Pooh made gluttony look not only charming, but inevitable.
“When Rabbit said, ‘Honey or condensed milk with your bread?’ [Pooh] 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.'”
Daisy, caught in the middle of a war, says this: “I made jam sandwiches for breakfast, and they tasted hopeful.” In 10 words she evokes all the desperation and determination and love that colour the book.
It is almost impossible to read this, in the first pages of the book, and not fall in love, irrevocably, with Cassandra Mortmain:
“Goodness, Topaz is actually putting on eggs to boil! No one told me the hens had yielded to prayer. Oh, excellent hens! I was only expecting bread and margarine for tea, and I don’t get as used to margarine as I could wish. I thank heaven there is no cheaper form of bread than bread.”
“Grandma stood by the brass kettle and with the big wooden spoon she poured hot syrup on each plate of snow. It cooled into soft candy, and as fast as it cooled they ate it. They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have danger and love and bears in them, but all I remember of them with real clarity is the food, and the wonderful piercing hunger it produced.
I love the way Rowling uses food to conjure the detail of the world vividly in the minds of her child readers; I loved the idea of chocolate frogs, sugar quills, Bertie Bott’s immensely disconcerting-sounding beans. The food is itself a kind of magic.
The quiet wit and magic of this book comes out most sharply in its descriptions of food:
“The ‘something delicious’ proved to be weak vinegar-and-water. It was quite warm, but somehow, drank up there in the loft, and out of a bottle, it tasted very nice. Beside, they didn’t call it vinegar-and-water: of course not! Each child gave his or her swallow a different name, as if the bottle were like Signor Blitz’s and could pour out a dozen things at once. Clover called her share ‘Raspberry Shrub,’ Dorry christened his ‘Ginger Pop,’ while Cecy, who was romantic, took her three sips under the name of ‘Hydomel,’ which she explained was something nice, made, she believed, of beeswax.”
“The high tea that awaited them was truly magnificent. A huge ham gleaming as pink as Timmy’s tongue; a salad fit for a king. In fact, as Dick said, fit for several kings, it was so enormous…. ‘Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radishes, mustard and cress, carrot grated up – that is carrot, isn’t it, Mrs. Penruthlan?’ said Dick. ‘And lashings of hard-boiled eggs.'”
It may be that raw onions and radishes are no longer on most young people’s dream menus, but a list of fictional food without Blyton on it would be incomplete. The food in Blyton always seems real and attainable and satisfying: and the image of a lashing of hard-boiled eggs is a good one.