Devouring Food in Literature
How cuisine becomes a character in Southern novels, unlocking the secrets of a delicious culture.
When we read literature, we become observers in the spaces that surround the characters; we watch them interact with the society that influences their actions and thoughts. Food, in particular, is a vehicle for us to better understand a specific sphere in the world of literature. Many times when we look at a novel or memoir, we not only witness the history of the time period and the people, but also the food history of those people. By focusing on the references to food in literature, it can help to make those figures and their histories more tangible and accessible, even if those figures and histories are fictional.
Southern literature in particular provides rich insight into the culture that comes with the geographical location. For me, the pairing of food and Southern literature particularly stands out as an interesting one because food holds such an important place in Southern culture. Even though I did not grow up in the South eating traditional Southern cuisine, when I read descriptions of food, whether it is the process of creating the perfect barbeque, the smell of fried okra or even the refreshing taste of sweet tea and peaches on a hot summer day, I feel like I am right there with the characters. I can see the smoke rising from the barbeque pit; I can smell the okra frying; I can taste the juiciness of peaches and the sweetness of ice cold tea. No matter where I am reading a novel that is set in the South, I am instantly transported there through the food imagery.
Southern food is often described more generically; however, Southern literature can reveal variations through the different settings and time periods. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, we experience the French influence in New Orleans as Edna picks “the flaky bits of a court bouillon with her fork” (court bouillon is a flavorful liquid used in French cuisine to poach fish and other seafood). We also become aware of the class distinctions present in the 19th century when Edna’s husband constantly sends her “the finest fruits, patés, a rare bottle or two, delicious syrups, and bonbons in abundance,” items that were not commonly available to the masses.
I also love how Sue Monk Kidd’s writing in The Secret Life of Bees brings to life the atmosphere of small towns in South Carolina through narratives of rural peach farms and regional barbecue. When Lily finds herself outside of a local general store, she describes watching a man use a large oil drum to barbecue: “the smell of pork lathered in vinegar and pepper drew so much saliva from beneath my tongue I actually drooled onto my blouse,” Kidd writes. This small gastronomical excerpt from the novel makes my mouth water just as much as Lily’s, but it also provides deeper insight into a specific style of barbecue in South Carolina. This simple combination of vinegar and pepper used to barbecue pork actually comes from the coastal region of the state, where they use the whole pig, as well as the vinegary pepper sauce described.
Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe immediately draws in readers with its numerous mentions of food found in a classic Southern diner. Food is one of the novel’s major themes, as the cafe’s main cook, Sipsey, is referred to as the best cook in all of Alabama. Flagg even includes recipes to some of Sipsey’s best items, including pecan pie and her famous fried green tomatoes. Foods mentioned in the novel, like grits, fried catfish and black-eyed peas, resemble the same customary comfort food many Southerners know and cherish.
Whether intentionally included or not, food references in literature add extra depth to the settings and characters of the work. When writers mention food, they offer a key to unlock the secrets of the culture present in the plot, allowing the specific cuisine to become an additional character that shapes the overall atmosphere of the world in which the novel’s individuals live.