By Allyson Vaughan
The tragedy of fiction is that it is not, try as I might to make-believe it is, truly real. Except that, in so many ways it is. It’s true I will never taste champagne and feel the bubbles pop against the smooth insides of my cheeks with Daisy Buchanan as we party our bodies down to the bone in the 1920s, but as I read we do. I cannot share in the feasts in the mead halls with Beowulf. I cannot sit across a table from the fictional characters that become so real to me for the time I am with them. I cannot feel their hands or see their eyes save for in my mind. But there are other ways to dine with them. I have always tried to reconcile my love of food and literature into one. Whenever I read, I often desire to taste and know the same foods the characters eat when it’s mentioned. Fiction and food are sensory experiences, and as I have to live on a steady diet of words and carbs to feel satisfied, I often find myself cooking in my mind for two. Often this is with a book in one hand and a spoon in the other. There is no diet more fulfilling than to be filled with words almost sweet as honey and then to taste fiction in reality. To taste life twice is to live it well.
Years ago, I became immersed in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans, and I craved dates, goat cheese, and grapes as often as I craved the next tragedy, the next quest. I was wrapping myself in Jason’s Golden Fleece and then using it as a napkin. Perhaps, I thought, in the juices that ran out of each black grape I ate was some bit of knowledge I was not getting. There was something more to know, I felt, and other than in what I read. There were centuries of stories to taste and I wanted every last bite of them. Always, I wanted to be closer to living the fiction I read. This way, I could eat a malted milk at a diner like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and for a time it was as if he was sitting next to me. As we drank, we’d scoff and say, “What a phony” to everyone who passed. Eating with fictional characters by tasting what their creators described for them allowed for an intimacy with each book I read. I never ate alone.
“After I had left the skating rink I went to a drugstore and had a Swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk.”–The Catcher in the Rye
And that’s how it all started, with a book and a little loneliness as a kid. I read Oliver Twist and wanted more because I was as alone and hungry as Oliver was. But I didn’t have to beg to be able to turn the book over and start again, or go to the kitchen and make some oatmeal, which is what I imagined all poor Victorians ate. I even shared a few meals that left me hungry still. For one thing, I learned that if I was going to share a meal with fictional characters, I best avoid novels set during The Great Depression or Victorian London. Meaning, I lost three pounds reading The Grapes of Wrath and lost my table manners while I read Lord of the Flies. Sometimes, if a book didn’t have a particular taste I could recreate in the kitchen, I’d make one up myself. I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and found myself researching not just the culinary customs of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the novel took place, but also the people and the politics behind Hosseini’s novel. And then I made some Mujadarr (a classic Middle Eastern dish of brown rice, carmalized onions, and lentils.)It brought me closer to understanding the characters and their hardships.
Even now, I connect food and literature together as a way to fully realize the worlds created on the paper. But when I read I want to get the feeling of standing in that world mapped on the page in front of me. Tasting what the characters do has always just been one way to make fiction feel as real as I want it to be. Of course, the older I’ve gotten the more I think that fiction is only reality served on a dish with a garnish to distract us from what’s being said until our brains have already fed on it, and then it’s too late. We have learned despite any attempts to not. I have dined on the words and tasted their meaning, and it’s as effecting as discovering a new dish of food with all its flavors. So, I will go on harvesting and preparing my palate along with my bookshelf. And it is no small comfort that I will never have to dine alone.