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A Taste for Reading

It is remarkable how much of an impact the mention of food has on me when I’m reading. One of my earliest recollections of this comes from the childhood memory of reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Even as I judged the traitorous Edmund for selling out his family, and indeed all of Narnia, to the horrible White Witch simply for Turkish Delight, I was mindful of the magic it had over him. My sympathetic sweet tooth kicked in as I read about how he gobbled down a few pounds of the enchanted candy – each piece “sweet and light to the very center” – and washed it down with a sweet, foamy and creamy beverage he’d never tasted before that “warmed him right down to his toes.”

Yet if descriptions of delightful food in books have the power to inspire us to hunger then so, too, does the absence of food. I was lightheaded by literature-inspired hunger as I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, nearly overwhelmed by the notion of people wasting away from lack of nourishment. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes described one starving boy’s yearning for a simple potato so dearly that I was never again able to take for granted what for me had been a somewhat ordinary staple food. His fixation on “floury white potatoes” was so constant that the three words formed a distinct phrase that echoes in my head to this day.

Even when food isn’t pivotal to the plot, it can greatly enhance a reading experience. Last year I read several books outside of my usual genre, for a readers’ advisory class. Gail Carriger’s Soulless was an interesting mix of vampires, werewolves and steampunk that invoked a fascination for treacle tart so conspicuous that one of my classmates was moved to bake treacle tarts for us to sample. In Love Letters by Beverly Lewis, the simple, hardworking Amish lifestyle takes center stage – and the amount of time spent describing cooking, baking and canning made me famished! If I’m honest the book also caused me to wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of a simpler life spent attending well to daily tasks like cooking, instead of our modern focus on convenience and reliance on prepared foods, but I digress. In lieu of packing up and moving to Amish country, I now devote more time to cooking homemade meals, and hope to start baking the occasional pie.

As I read Gina Wohlsdorf’s novel Security I was fascinated by a passage in which a chef reflects on the profile cherries, lamenting that it has “a volatility that the common mouth does not comprehend.”  He goes on to note that cinnamon will make the cherries in his recipe too sweet while liquor will make them overly spicy. In a fit of pique, the chef exclaims, “I get desperate, monsieur – I try vinegar!”

This rekindled a curiosity I’d had about the strange alchemy of flavor that certain ingredients produce when combined. I was inspired to hunt for books on this topic, and ended up with a counter full of cookbooks from the library selected mainly on the basis of their titles. Of these, many didn’t fully address my question about the whys and wherefores of flavor combinations, they simply offered up recipes to try.

Luckily, two of the books had just what I was after. The Flavor Bible (by Karen Page) was a standout. The entries in this encyclopedia-style compendium of foods state brief characteristics for each item, followed by a ranked list of ingredients that pair well with it. I will look forward to testing the suggestions in this kitchen reference book.

Similar in concept if not format was Niki Segnit’s The Flavor Thesaurus, which contains a paragraph entry for each ingredient pairing, together with suggested recipes and variations of key ingredients. Many entries contain historical information. As an inveterate browser of cookbooks simply for the joy of it, I’ll look forward to reading this one in depth.

Since I am a member of the group of people who enjoys paging through cookbooks as entertainment, not necessarily in preparation to make a meal, I was led to some lighter fare such as The Geeky Chef Cookbook: Unofficial Recipes from Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and more. This is a fun little romp through creative (if not authentic) recipes such as one for the blue milk from Star Wars (spoiler alert: it’s not just made with milk and dye) or the lembas the travelers ate to keep hunger at bay on their journey in The Fellowship of the Ring. Each recipe is introduced by a paragraph full of pop culture references, there’s something for everyone.

Another title that caught my eye even though it was outside the scope of my search for information on flavor was What Einstein Told His Cook, an interesting compendium of over 100 science-based explanations and debunked myths for such wonderments as why we salt water before boiling pasta, or why recipes call for unsalted butter but then ask you to add salt. Although there is some practical information herein, this book is more for fun.

I realize that in order to satisfy my latest curiosity about flavor combinations, I will have to start testing them out. Yet I also admit that from the sublime to the silly, the cookbooks on my counter don’t just display a desire to learn how to cook. They suggest a love of books that showcase sustenance. You might say I have a taste for reading about food.

Kirstie David is a graduate intern at Morrill Memorial Library, currently enrolled in the Simmons College School of Library and Information Science.


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