DEBRA SPARK is the author of four books of fiction, including most recently The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception, and the novel Good for the Jews. She is also the author of Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing and editor of the anthology Twenty Under Thirty.
Spark’s work has appeared in Esquire, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Food and Wine, Yankee, Down East, Narrative, Five Points, the Washington Post, Maine Home + Design and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other places. She has been the recipient of several awards including a NEA fellowship, a Bunting Institute fellowship from Radcliffe College, and the John Zacharis/Ploughshares award for best first book. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives with her husband and son in North Yarmouth, Maine.
Once, when I was in my twenties, a particularly evocative description in a novel sent to me the grocers to buy oranges. Suddenly, they were all I wanted to eat, though back in those pre-Clementine days, I was really too much of a lazy neatnik for a regular orange. In literature, descriptions of food can have numerous functions. Probably making the reader hungry is low down on most novelist’s list. Revealing character and setting scene being a nobler affair. Below, my top ten list for best food (and drink) in recent literary fiction (that I happen to have read). To make it on the list, the food had to have literary merit, or make we want to laugh, or make me want to eat.
Top 10 Foods (or Drinks) in Recent Literary Fiction (That I Happen to Have Read)
Margot Livesey, The Flight of Gemma Hardy
The heroine of Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy rarely gets much—or much good—to eat. She’s an orphan at a nasty boarding school. Early in her stay, a monstrous headmistress restricts her to a bread and water diet for a fortnight. When the school’s cook sneaks Gemma some stew, it consists of “turnips and grayish meat.” So imagine Gemma (and this reader’s) delight when Gemma sneaks away from school to a hospital where a nun feeds her “two fried eggs, two sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, and white toast.”
Lisa Zeidner, Love Bomb
Personally, I hate champagne. It does something weird to my esophagus, making it painful to swallow. And even if it didn’t, the sweetness doesn’t appeal. (Am I ever going to get a chance to sit in a bar and say, “Well, honey, I like my alcohol like my humor: dry.” I guess not.) But anything enjoyed after privation is particularly delicious.
In Zeidner’s novel, a wedding party is taken hostage by a jilted lover. The guests suffer through a day without food, water or toilet facilities, before the terrorist allows a surprising bit of sustenance into the room: three bottles of champagne. Some hostages decline to partake, “preferring to keep their wits about them.” But among those who drink are two young woman who “took off their high-heeled sandals, amazed that they hadn’t done so before now. They flexed their feet, admired their wedding pedicures, and let their toes breathe. The cava was perfectly chilled, the bottle dripping as if it had just been pulled from ice.”
Dan Zevin, Dan Gets a Mini-Van
Technically this book is not fiction. But then it isn’t nonfiction. (If Jonah Lehrer’s misattribution sins were enough to get him fired from The New Yorker, one suspects that Zevin’s misattribution sins are enough to get him fired from his family.) Dan Gets a Mini-Van is “humor,” which means it’s nonfiction altered to get a laugh. Which is close enough to fiction for me.
After mulling over the separate virtues of life in the city and suburbs, Dan Zevin temporarily returns to his Brooklyn townhouse. He has rented his place to a family that is much like his own in reverse. They long for the city life that he is increasingly eager to escape. Dan enters his own kitchen and sees his renter: “He’s standing over my kitchen island. He’s serving his two little kids bite-size pieces of the falafel platter he just had delivered from my favorite Middle Eastern place on Atlantic Avenue. His kids are crying. They’re saying they didn’t want falafel, they wanted waffles.”
Maggie Shipstead, Seating Arrangements
Speaking of liquor I don’t like and Jonah Lehrer, I’d like to self-plagiarize myself, and lift a few lines from a review/essay I just wrote on humor: Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements takes place over the course of a wedding weekend on a New England island. It’s winning in a number of ways, not least its humor and the way in which it makes morally reprehensible characters rather appealing. Witness Celeste, the bride’s aunt, an alcoholic who has three former husbands and a tendency to frankness that unsettles everyone. We can’t help but like her. She speaks of the first sip of an afternoon glass of gin as “bitter and fizzy … unspeakably delicious,” and in the moment, we don’t want to ship her off to AA. We just want to enjoy the glass with her.
Denis Johnson, Train Dreams
Having lost his wife and child to a fire, laborer Robert Granier—whose life has been harsh and deprived of all but natural beauty and a brief experience of love—thinks of a box of chocolates that his wife once owned. Granier remembers the chocolates cupped on white paper: “Once every week, she and the tyke had sucked one chocolate apiece.” Out of context that might not seem like literature’s most moving sentence, I know. In context, though, it is a heartbreaker.
Alix Ohlin, Inside
The characters in Olin’s novel have such an awfully hard time connecting that it’s a relief when they finally manage it, even if the circumstances seem niggardly. Anne, a young New York actress, takes in a homeless stranger with less a sense of compassion than resignation. What else to do with the apparent runaway who has been camping out in her building’s foyer? Though Ann doesn’t ask the enormous girl even the most basic of questions about her life, she does, on occasion, share a takeout dinner of noodles (on the couch and in front of the TV) with her. This generosity—as well as Anne’s later efforts to help the girl slim down by stocking the frig with fruits and vegetables—reads as what Anne otherwise seems incapable of: Love.
Joan Wickersham’s The News From Spain
Wickersham’s collection consists of seven stories, all titled “The News from Spain,” and all dealing, on some level, with love, betrayal and identity. In the third story, the variants of sexual desire seem to play themselves out on cookies. The narrator is one of two girls attending a boys’ school. She experiences herself as a big galumphing girl, unlike Lily, the school’s other girl, who appears first in the story as “small, sullen girl, dressed in a short skirt and white vinyl boots, wearing lip gloss.” When together, they cram cookies–“hunky chocolate things”—into their mouths. But when with the school’s friendly, but slightly embarrassing, Spanish teacher, they enjoy cookies that are “small elusive feminine mysteries. What did they taste of? Lemon? Vanilla? Something pale and delicate.”
Bill Roorbach, Life Among Giants
Life Among Giants tells the story of David “Lizard” Hochmeyer whose life has been shaped by his parents’ murder, his troubled sister’s emotions, his athletic prowess and his life-long obsession with a prima ballerina, who lives near his childhood home. His is a world of tremendous passions, successes and excesses. Even what initially seems like a sideline—partnership in a soul food restaurant—brings big rewards. The chef, Etienne, is covered by tattoos: “even his scalp, even his face, the Virgin Mary benevolent on his forehead, her soulful eyes gazing out over his own.” Before one meal, Etienne works alone in his kitchen,“sending out little leek tarts and strange squid sticks and samples of sweet teas, kale-pesto corn fritters, knuckle-jelly ‘caviar.’” Later he offers Vietnamese stuffed baby cabbages, seven fresh salsas, and “a flight of miniature knishes and blinis with three Polish noodle soups.”
A guest wonders if this is soul food and a dismissive Etienne says, “It’s all soul food when I make it, baby.”
Natalie Serber, Shout Her Lovely Name
All mentions of food cannot be welcome. In the title story of Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name, the frantic mother of an anorexic daughter tries to relax with a bath: “Play world music and pretend you are somewhere else,” she instructs herself. “Except of course you aren’t. You know you aren’t somewhere else because as you were filling the tub you noticed raggedy bits of food in the drain. Wouldn’t she vomit in the toilet? Your daughter must be terrified for herself to leave behind these Technicolor clues.”
Debra Spark, The Pretty Girl
Bad Taste Time (pun intended), or Advertisements for Myself. I’ve got some food in my most recent collection, The Pretty Girl. The book is a novella and stories, most of which circle around the theme of art and deception. In one story, a young woman bites into a chocolate egg and finds a little rabbi inside. Who doesn’t like food with a Cracker-Jack surprise? Well, many people, I know. In general, it is disconcerting to find something alive in one’s food. My husband considers bugs in the lettuce just an unexpected bit of protein, though I have different ideas about the matter. But a pocket-sized rabbi? Isn’t that always welcome?