In these aspects, science resembles those other human activities, like art, music, and literature, that distinguish humanity as a species. We don’t—or shouldn’t—ask what the utility of a play by Shakespeare is, or how a Mozart concerto or a Rolling Stones song upholds “the common good,” or how a Picasso painting or a movie like “Citizen Kane” might be in “the national interest.” (Perhaps it’s because we insist on thinking in such terms that support for art, music, and literature is also under attack in Congress.) The free inquiry and creative activity we find in science and art reflect the best about what it means to be human.
Ten years ago Random House published a wonderful anthology of food writing, Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. All essays, articles, and fiction featured in the book had earlier appeared in The New Yorker. I bought the book a couple of years after its publication and have since been consuming it bit by bit like a child hoarding something delicious. I have written posts about nonfiction food writing and references to food in fiction. Virginia Woolf’s novels have delectable descriptions of gourmet fare. But what about depiction of food in short stories? The section in Secret Ingredients that most intrigues me is “Fiction,” containing nine short stories. What’s most salient in these food-centered short stories?
After reading five of the nine stories—I have preserved some for later!—I have found a way to begin describing what constitutes the “genre” of food fiction. The food fiction story centers on food and drink, but not necessarily on gastronomy, with associations with passion, craving and desire for either food or something that mirrors the satisfaction—spiritual or carnal—that food provides. In other words, food or drink must play a key role in the theme or plot. Often craving for food or drink brings about disaster in characters’ lives or sates a primordial or elemental hunger.
Part time-slip novel, part ghost story, Michèle Roberts’ latest book flits butterfly-like between 1851 and 2011 to link a man and woman with very different attitudes but perhaps twin souls.