FOOD FOR THOUGHT An Anthology of Writings Inspired by Food
Edited by Joan and John Digby Collages by John Digby Morrow. 480 pp. $19.95
CHOCOLATE, a group of modern scientists recently announced, has been discovered to produce a chemical reaction that can affect one's mental state. A hearty dose of chocolate may actually alleviate certain types of depression.
Shoot, any layman could have told them that.
John and Joan Digby's hefty, handsomely bound anthology fully acknowledges the emotional impact of chocolate; just read M.F.K. Fisher's recollection of the nickel candy bar given her by a grade-school sweetheart. And then there are madeleines (described in Swann's Way), and fruits (the grocery-store bananas that made poet Claude McKay weep for the tropics), and soup (Alphonse Daudet's cozily bubbling cheese soup, the mere anticipation of which galvanizes the performance of a weary actor).
In "The Women Cleaning Lentils," the Armenian poet Zahrad makes beautiful use of food as a symbol for the dailiness, the arbitrariness, of women's lives. ("A lentil, a lentil, a lentil, a stone./A green one, a black one, a green one, a black. A stone.") And in an excerpt from Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, food provides the counterpoint for a widow's grief when she intersperses her instructions for cooking a fish stew with a private lament for her aching loneliness.
Not all of food's messages are benign. Marge Piercy's poem, "What's That Smell in the Kitchen?" exposes the resentfulness that lies behind wives' scorched lamb chops. "Burning dinner," she concludes, "is not incompetence but war." And her "Attack of the Squash People" humorously describes another kind of war, the one waged by amateur gardeners who foist truckloads of zucchini upon their neighbors.
In fact, there's a good deal of humor here, from Ogden Nash's succinct "I don't mind eels/Except as meals" to Nora Ephron's series of potato recipes charting the progress of a love affair -- time-consuming Potatoes Anna for two at the outset, consoling mashed potatoes for one at the finish. Marvin Cohen offers a mock-portentous philosophical reflection called "Soup Spilled Versus the Monumentality of the Can," and William Goyen provides an endearingly funny tale about a woman whose cat keels over dead after eating the tapioca that the woman just served to her ladies' club.
Where Food for Thought runs into trouble is in its occasional tendency to include a piece even if it merely mentions food, however tangentially. Rivers Carew's "Catching Trout" describes a child's yielding to a hooked trout's panic and flinging it back into the water; the same person, grown, cracks the trout upon the head and it dies "almost at once." It's a fine poem, but it's not about food. Nor is the Indian Premchand's "A Handful of Wheat," for the fact that his poor hero's debt happens to be edible is of no particular consequence. You can picture how the editors must have pounced upon a culinary catchword -- "Aha, unleavened flour! Cake! Ragout!" -- and therefore anthologized the exhaustive dietary laws from Leviticus, the tedious wedding menu from Madame Bovary and a wordy passage from Tom Jones likening a book to the bill of fare in a tavern.
THIS DOESN'T mean that food as mere food is an unfit subject for literature. One of the collection's most appealing pieces is the description of clam chowder from Moby Dick. It's clam chowder pure and simple, it doesn't stand for a thing, but when we've finished reading about the hazelnut-sized clams and the pounded ship biscuit and butter and salt and pepper, our satisfaction is positively spiritual. The same goes for T.E. Lawrence's graphic account of a lamb dinner in an Arab tent. Compare Lawrence's description of the "little bits of yellow intestine, the white tail-cushion of fat, brown muscles and meat and bristly skin, all swimming in the liquid butter and grease of the seething" to Alphonse Daudet's "Couscous" -- much the same meal, but with all reference to intestines delicately omitted and the noonlit sands emphasized instead -- and you gain some insight into what made Lawrence such a good traveler.
For the perfect statement on food, though, you should look to William Carlos Williams. His "This Is Just to Say" is the kind of note you'd find on a refrigerator door:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
What is it that makes that poem such a universal favorite? All he talks about is the plums, although the "you" he addresses is implicitly important too -- someone whose forgiveness matters. Yet in just a dozen lines he reveals the very essence of food, its ability to satisfy the soul. "Man's real best friend," as John Updike puts it.
And finally, here are the concluding lines of James Wright's lovely "Northern Pike," which ought to give modern scientists something new to think about:
We ate fish.
There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy. :: Anne Tyler is the author of 10 novels, including "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant."