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Books for the Peckish Reader

I am of the school that likes to read while eating. (Is that even a "school"? And of what — reading?) No, needs to read while eating. I know this is both very bad manners and apparently bad for the waistline, too: I have read that the dieter should eat without distraction, so as to be aware of exactly how much he is consuming, for fear, I suppose, of gobbling down too much while engrossed in the story. But I can't help it. Whenever I am alone I reach for a stack of well-worn, badly stained volumes that are always close to hand. Lately that pile has gotten just a little taller.

It's commonly supposed that serious eaters enjoy an experience unhampered by other distractions. But for me, the pleasure of eating is heightened by reading about it, by combining two chief comforts into one super-pleasurable multisensory experiencefor me, the pleasure of eating is heightened by reading about it, by combining two chief comforts into one super-pleasurable multisensory experience. Tamasin Day-Lewis, in her memoir Where Shall We Go for Dinner?, writes chidingly of her boyfriend's practice of reading at the table. For Day-Lewis, civilized conversation is a crucial part of the pleasure of dining, and she wastes no time in breaking the American of his bad habits.

I'm sure she's right. Technically, in my childhood home, we were only supposed to read at breakfast, and the paper at that. But I frequently had a book on my lap at dinner and any time I could eat in my room. Of course, I had the shy child's general dependence on books; I was never without one and always found reading easier than interacting with my peers. But while this may at times have been a social crutch, reading while eating was a more private pleasure, sybaritic and primal.

Antisocial aspects aside, reading and eating is something better done alone: the results can be messy. If you're organized, you cut up your food, baby style, so as not to be distracted while multitasking. But drips and spills are inevitable (and remain both infuriating and inexplicable to anyone unfortunate enough to find himself living with a hungry reader).

I wonder if part of it isn't that I tend to care about food so much more intensely than the people around me. For as long as I can remember, I have measured geography and memory and expectations by the meals contained therein; I am always thinking of my next meal and bereft when I find myself rendered without appetite by illness or doldrums. It is always amazing to me that people can plan a trip without first nailing down meals. (As such, message boards like Chowhound are very reassuring indeed.) On a very basic level, it is nice to be in the company of someone — even if on the page — who also cares and is equally absorbed.

I can't remember a time when my twin loves of reading and food weren't intertwined. My favorite picture books were The Biggest Sandwich Ever, Bread and Jam for Frances, In the Night Kitchen, and an illustrated Hansel and Gretel that portrayed a particularly delicious gingerbread cottage. Later, of course, I graduated to chapter books filled with good food: Roald Dahl, Pippi Longstocking, Betsy-Tacy. I had a particular mania for those children's cookbooks based on books: The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook, The Louisa May Alcott Cookbook, and, of course, The Little House Cookbook thrilled me, even if the recipes varied somewhat in authenticity.

This is a passion that has continued into adulthood, and literary cookbooks make for particularly good reading companions: The Barbara Pym Cookbook, Roald Dahl's Cookbook, The Tasha Tudor Cookbook, At Willa Cather's Tables, The Hemingway Cookbook — the list of oddities goes on.

What I read varies depending on the cuisine. As stated, I enjoy cookbooks, but they need to be chatty cookbooks with plenty of text; pictures are immaterial. The relatively new phenomenon of the foodie memoir is of course a book to the reading eater, and along with Ruth Reichl's oeuvre and newer additions by Molly Wizenberg and Fuchsia Dunlop, Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking — both volumes — gets a lot of play (I recently had to replace my copy, although I didn't feel comfortable until a few pages were translucent with olive oil). Comfort food calls for either Jane and Michael Stern or Ann Hodgman. When in doubt, I enjoy Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. Of late, I have been turning often to Simon Hopkinson.

Then there is food-heavy fiction. This is a topic much debated amongst hungry literati; the blog Paper and Salt is devoted to the subject. Dickens is a name that always comes up, along with Tolstoy (oysters), Iris Murdoch (teas), and, needless to say, Proust. In fact, I tend to like writers with a healthy culinary interest; even when their work does not outline meals explicitly, they tend to write at a rhythm that encourages digestion.

Indeed, when you get away from explicitly appetizing work, choosing a dinnertime read becomes a more delicate matter entirely. Obviously, one does not want anything overtly repulsive or graphic. Nihilism is not conducive to good appetite. Thomas Mann is tricky; his elaborate meals may stand in for moral decay, but they're still pretty lovingly rendered.

Short fiction can be perfect: if you're a purist, you can even time the length of the pieces to that of your courses. I remember first doing this in middle school when we were assigned Great American Short Stories for Mrs. Cullinan's English class. I still associate "The Lady or the Tiger" with spaghetti and "A Rose for Emily" with these orange Popsicles that have since vanished from the face of the earth.

I am not saying this merely because I worked on it: Object Lessons, The Paris Review's new short-story anthology, makes for very good eating. Begin with Guy Davenport's "Dinner at the Bank of England" or maybe "Several Garlic Tales" by Donald Barthelme. Eat dessert over "Ten Stories from Flaubert." (Maybe save "Pelican Song" for later, but definitely read it.) I first admired this book on a professional level and then enjoyed it as a reader. It wasn't until I noticed the butter stains on my copy that I knew I truly loved it.

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Sadie Stein is deputy editor of the Paris Review. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story will be published by Picador this October.

Books mentioned in this post

Sadie Stein is the author of Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story

One Response to "Books for the Peckish Reader"

    Epheros September 28th, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    I, too, enjoy reading while eating, though I don't engage in it as much as I used to. You were speaking of chatty cookbooks and I found an enjoyable one is April Bloomfield's 'A Girl and Her Pig'. It is a cookbook but she has many anecdotes and observations for each recipe and throughout the book. It's great because you get a little of her voice telling you about each recipe and what it means or where it comes from or what it reminds her of. And, not only are these insightful oftentimes but these come in bite sized pieces to chew on at the same time you are truly masticating a some forkful of pork chop or hearty stew.

    I do love stories (I read dark fantasy mostly) that cleverly showcase food without actually telling the reader to pay attention to the exposition. It makes it feel realistic in the way that we tend to dismiss food when something else has our attention, a conversation between characters or some interaction of plot happening during dinner. The food is there but it's just quietly, deliciously, and ever so softly calling to you. It makes it so much more tangible yet more elusive.

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