5 novels about food

By Yvonne Zipp
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

With food blogs mushrooming faster than Julia Child could whip up an omelet -- complete with glamour shots of dinner that would make a pinup blush -- writing about mealtimes involves competition Proust never faced. These days, everybody's an expert. A madeleine wouldn't rate unless it was drizzled with salted caramel and served with cappuccino foam and an assortment of handmade truffles. But the best food writing skips the deconstructed, the stacked, the drizzled and the foamed and just goes straight for the good stuff.

1.Mark Kurlansky made a name for himself by constructing entire histories around just one ingredient ("Salt," "Cod"). Now, in a new collection of loosely linked short fiction, Edible Stories (Riverhead; paperback, $16), he takes the opposite approach, allotting each menu item just a few pages. The first offering is among the weakest, as a man finds himself distanced from his life after he loses his senses of taste and smell. (Salt makes an appearance, although this time it's Hawaiian sea salt, and nobody manages to cook with it.) Far more satisfying are "Osetra," in which a Puerto Rican shoplifter develops a taste for caviar; "Menudo," in which a senator embarks on an affair with his translator; and "The Soup," set in Alaska and offering an unusual twist on comfort food.

2. Serious foodies will swoon over the meals in Richard C. Morais's The Hundred-Foot Journey (Scribner, $23). Hassan Haji's grandfather established a Tiffin Wallah empire in India, delivering lunches via bicycle, while his son turned what had been three tandoori ovens under a GI tent into a successful restaurant. After a tragedy, the Haji clan immigrates to France. There, they open a restaurant opposite one owned by the fearsome Madame Gertrude Mallory, who knows how to cook everything -- even a rat. (Rub it "in olive oil and crushed shallots, grilling it over a wood fire made from smashed wine barrels, and serving it with a Bordelaise sauce.") Morais throws himself into the kind of descriptive writing that makes reading a gastronomic event, whether it's a 12-course meal or Hassan's first egg-salad sandwich: "Never before had I experienced anything so determinedly tasteless, wet, and white."

3. Want a quick way to tell if a novel about noshing is being marketed as literary fiction or women's fiction? Check for comfort-food recipes. (This isn't a slam; I'm totally in favor of baked goods.) However, a candy-colored cover is no excuse for improbable plotting or partially hydrogenated characters. When we first meet Rose-Ellen "Zell" Carmichael Roy in Alicia Bessette's Simply From Scratch (Dutton, $25.95), she's wearing her dead husband's camouflage apron and promptly sets her kitchen on fire. Nonetheless, Zell is determined to win a baking contest to get the $20,000 that her husband, a photographer, wanted to raise for survivors of Hurricane Katrina before his death in New Orleans.

4. Far superior is Monique Truong's terrific Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, $25). Linda Hammerick, like Rose Edelstein in Aimee Bender's "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," has a fraught relationship with her sense of taste. She experiences words as flavors. (Her synesthesia comes in handy, since mom's idea of cooking involves using cans of mushroom soup as a bonding agent.) "Disappointed" tastes like "toast, slightly burned," while her childhood icon, Dolly Parton, is Sweet 'n Low. Her best friend's name tastes like canned peaches. ("Packed in heavy syrup or its own juice?" Kelly asks, and a lifelong friendship is born.) With a heroine who literally eats words, Truong is amply aware of the power of them. After an opening that feels like pure Southern Gothic, complete with an emotionally withholding mom and a gay great-uncle who could be channeling Tennessee Williams, Truong wields her narrative like a quarterstaff, knocking readers' expectations right out from under them.

5. Melanie Hoffman is another character who gets the wind knocked out of her -- in Stacey Ballis's Good Enough to Eat (Berkley; paperback, $14). After she loses 145 pounds, her husband promptly dumps her for her fatter friend. Faced with a depleted bank account and a teetering new business selling healthy takeout, Melanie has never had a better excuse to dive into the Häagen-Dazs. "Good Enough to Eat" boasts a wry sense of humor, but it relies too much on self-help lingo and stock characters. Melanie's confidantes include Delia, an African American woman who serves as the voice of common sense, and Kai, her gay best friend. (It's long past time for the sassy gay characters of women's fiction to go on strike, refusing to dispense fashion or relationship advice until they get their own blasted book.) But Ballis captures an overeater's complicated relationship with food: Loving descriptions of dinner parties are interspersed with Melanie's memories of her cherished Easy Bake oven and paeans to mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.

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