Fictitious Dishes, by Dinah Fried, is a fairly small hardcover book that combines my two favorite things: books and food. And food in books! Fried has an extremely winning premise: she found descriptions of meals in great books, recreated the meals, and then took pretty, pretty pictures of them, like so:
(That one is from Alice in Wonderland.)
She has dozens of pictures from dozens of books. As I paged through it, I kept exclaiming, “Oh, she got that one!” because she’d remembered at least half of my own favorite meals in books. (Though for some inexplicable reason, she chose the Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe over the meal at the Beavers’:)
There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought – and I agree with them – that there’s nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle onto the fire so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment.
That’s the obvious choice, with runner-up being tea with Mr. Tumnus. Right?
But she makes a lot of wonderful, evocative choices: tea at Manderley; tea (again) with a madeleine, with Proust; roasted eggs and potatoes with Mary in The Secret Garden; toasted cheese with Heidi; gin and pineapple juice in Lolita; corn dodgers in Huckleberry Finn. Reading the descriptions makes me want to go back to the book all over again (as if I need encouragement to do that.)
The book isn’t perfect. For one thing, some of the meals Fried recreates aren’t the meals that are described in the book. When Holden Caulfield says he eats a Swiss cheese sandwich and a malted, I don’t want to see a grilled cheese sandwich made with bright orange American cheese, a milkshake, a pickle spear, and a packet of Sweet-n-Low. You know? The photos themselves are a bit repetitive, all taken from the same overhead angle. And for some reason, under the descriptions from the literature, she includes little factoids about the food: when Graham crackers were invented and why, for instance, or what malted milk is used for besides milkshakes. It’s distracting filler.
But as I said, the premise is so winning, and the choices of literary meals so engaging (strawberry-picking in Emma! kidneys in Ulysses!) that I can overlook a lot of minor flaws. This was a real pleasure to look through — and now I have a craving for tiny sandwiches, gingerbread, scones, angel cake, and tea brought in to the library by Robert.