Celebrating literature's memorable food-related moments

It’s a rare reader who hasn’t salivated over the well-written description of a dish or meal in a book.

We asked you, dear reader, to respond to our review last month of Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried, a lavish photography book that pays homage to favourite culinary moments from literature. Fried, an American designer and writer, believes that reading and eating have a lot in common, as she says in her book: “Just as reading great novels can transport you to another time and place, meals – good and bad ones alike – can conjure scenes very far away from your kitchen table.”

We certainly agree, and believe that it’s a rare reader who hasn’t salivated over the well-written description of a dish or meal in a book.

Well, when it comes to writing about food, apparently no one has set as many readers a-salivating as that grand old dame of children’s books, Enid Blyton. So many of you wrote in extolling the lure of her picnics, midnight feasts and magical meals that listing them all would make up a book of its own!

Coming in a close second is another female British children’s author, J.K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series – nothing like a touch of wizardry to liven up those mealtimes!

Here are some of the enthusiastic responses we got from readers on their favourite food-related moments from books:

Anuja Varaprasad, 28, homemaker: I think one of The Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton had a machine that could produce any type of food you wanted instantly. Or any type of ice cream flavour. At that point I desperately wanted to picnic with Moon-Face!


Daphne Lee, Tots To Teens columnist and book reviewer: I grew up reading a book called The Adventures Of Chunky, by Leila Berg. It’s about a boy whose parents are scientists and who is left very much on his own, but is always supplied with the most delicious-sounding lunches and suppers. Actually, the food is nothing out of the ordinary – it’s the way it’s presented, elaborately wrapped and parceled and bottled, that made me love those mealtime scenes.


Ee-Lyn Tan, 29, baker: C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe sparked my love for Turkish Delight, which is still one of my favourite things to eat today. The book was compulsory reading in the third grade for me and it was also my first taste of Turkish Delight when my teacher brought it to class for us to try.


Kalaverny Rasiah, 64, retired teacher: Picnics, in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, are my earliest memories of food in books.

There was a picnic hamper, blanket, cold lemonade, sandwiches and rich fruit cake. I also remember cold, fresh milk, scones, pies and tea cakes. George also always included a treat for her dog. The Famous Five seemed to spend quite a bit of time eating in those books!

This was my first introduction to British food. It was to me so exotic and far removed from my rice and spicy curries.


At school, I used to organise my own little picnics during recess. My contribution was cheese sandwiches, painstakingly made from the block Kraft cheese we had at home – the closest we got to British food.

Fifty years on those memories of food in the Enid Blyton books are still vivid and these memories prompted me to search for delectable scones and pies on trips to Britain and Australia.

Laveenia Theertha Pathy, 26, executive: The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series. I just have to know what that tastes like!


Meera Raj, 34, writer: When Laura Ingalls had a party in The Little House On The Prairie (by Laura Ingalls Wilder), her Ma made her vanity cakes. I was about nine when I read that, and I never quite lost the desire to taste them someday.


Melissa Perry, 32, lecturer: The Land of Goodies and Land of Tea Parties from The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton. And the Google Buns.

Mohanacelvan Jayaratnam, 23, student: The meals in the great hall at breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Harry Potter series! I’ve wanted to try butterbeer for the longest time, and have this weird yearning to try all the flavours from Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans!


Puah Ching Wern, 31, accountant: Ice cream, any flavour you want, from Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree!

Ronald S. Lim, 30, reporter: I love the scene in French writer Colette’s Green Wheat where the two teenage characters are fishing for shrimp. The English translation was so well done that it made that scene seem more sensual than it had any right to be.


S. Surya Lakshmi, 16, student: The sweet shop, Honeydukes, from the Harry Potter series (by J.K. Rowling) is most definitely a place of fascination. Other than its colourful toffee, chunks of nougat, and bars of chocolate, the shop also sells other extraordinary confectionery like exploding bonbons and cauldron cakes.

Another popular product is Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which are the similar to jelly beans, except with unusual flavours like spinach, paper, grass and even earwax. Then, you have chocolate frogs (they actually hop around like real frogs!) which come with collectible cards portraying famous wizards and witches.

I am sure I am not the only one who drools over these mouth-watering sweets when reading the books, wishing they were indeed real. Fancy a sugar quill, anyone?

Suloshini Jahanath, Star2 book reviewer: Those midnight feasts in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series!

Sunnil Mohanadas, 32, consultant: The snack Ashima makes from Rice Krispies in The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s the first thing you read, and I didn’t know at the time it was Bhel Puri (an Indian street snack), but the ingredients and how it is described make you very curious to try it.

Star2 writers’ faves

Davin Arul: In The Wagon And The Elephant, Chapter Six of James Michener’s generational saga Centennial, we are introduced to the Mennonite butcher Levi Zendt, a Pennsylvania citizen who would eventually elope with the orphan Elly Zahm to the US mid-west and settle in the town of Centennial, Colorado. Michener is skilled at weaving a wealth of detail into his narrative, but never more so to me than in the initial pages where Levi and his trade are introduced to us.

The Zendts specialise in sausage, scrapple and souse, the last being Levi’s particular favourite to prepare.

We join Levi in the middle of his souse preparation:

“He then added twelve tablespoons of salt to give the souse a bite, three teaspoons of pepper to make it snap, and a handful of cloves and cinnamon bark to make it sweet. He placed the crock on the back of the stove, keeping it warm rather than hot. Twice he tasted it, smacking his lips over the acrid bite the vinegar and salt imparted, but he crushed two more cloves to give it better balance.

“He now laid out twelve souse pans and placed in each of them round disks of the sourest Lancaster pickles and here and there a single small slice of pickled carrot. Then like an artist he adjusted various items to produce a more pleasing design.

“After a few minutes he took the kettle of bubbling meat from the fire and with tongs began fishing out the larger pieces of meat, arranging them among the pickles and carrots in the bottom of the pans. It was here that Zendt souse achieved its visual distinction, because the meat came in two colors, white chunks from the fatty parts, red meat from the lean; he kept the two in balance, working rapidly, pulling up smaller and smaller pieces and distributing them evenly.”

In the space of those and a few more paragraphs back in 1979, I totally fell in love with the preparation and description of a dish that – to date – I have only dreamed of. A vinegared, gelatin-set concoction of pickles, meat and trotters, it sounded like a cross between two of my favourites at the time: chee kiok choe (pork trotters in black vinegar) and that chicken-in-gelatin thing that used to be a favourite centrepiece of the cold dish served at Chinese wedding dinners back in the day.

Subsequent mistreatment of my stomach has rendered me too sensitive to vinegar and pickles to ever eat souse, I fear, But the vivid images evoked by Michener’s prose lingered in my mind so strongly for so long after I read the book that they are infused into my brain, like the hickory flavour in meat that’s gone through a good smoker.

Jane F. Ragavan: The kiss between Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher (in Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer), while chaste by today’s standards, managed to scandalise this 12-year-old from a small town.

But although I was unfamiliar with courtship rituals, I could relate to the life Tom lived, which was similar to mine in some ways.

My siblings and I played make-believe just like Tom, Huckleberry Finn (my first crush!) and Joe Harper. We went fishing and rafting too, although their river was our monsoon drain, and we “sailed” our makeshift craft in knee-high flood waters during the rainy season.

There was no smoking – certainly not from a corn cob pipe, but it intrigued me that a food I loved could be turned into one. And I never stole a ham but I did get caught with my hand, literally, in the asam boi jar in the school canteen.

References to food in Tom Sawyer are made as a matter of fact – that’s not a criticism given the more exciting narrative of mischief, murder and other nefarious deeds. But perhaps it is that lack of mention that makes it so memorable to me.

(Note: Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was no food illiterate, as evidenced by his list of American foods that he missed while travelling in Europe, and which later became the basis of Andrew Beahrs’ book, Twain’s Feast: Searching For America’s Lost Foods In The Footsteps Of Sam Clemens.)

The pre-teen me said “Yuck!” when I read that the boys fried fish with bacon, not realising then how well surf and turf go together, and never imagining the truly bizarre pairings (think chocolate and chilli!) that would exist in the future and whet the appetite of the adventurous eater in the adult me.

I didn’t think much of the “dainty egg and fish dinner” either or that fried turtle eggs and boiled ham dried over an open fire could be “feasts”. But the fact that I can remember them clearly, due in part to the familiar circumstances in which they appear, says something of their impact.

Michael Cheang: I’ve always wanted to try the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (see recipe, right).

Why? Well, (besides having a death wish, of course) first and foremost, one simply does not refuse a drink called a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Secondly, is the fact that I have not had a single drink that even comes close to giving me the effect of “having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”. Sure, I’ve had some that left me feeling like my brain was smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large ordinary brick, but never a gold one. One drink even had me feeling like my tongue had been melted through by the lemon, but the brick was nowhere to be found.

Unfortunately, the original recipe invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox may be a bit hard to recreate on Earth. It calls for Ol’ Janx Spirit, water from the seas of Santraginus V, and the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger, among other strange ingredients that can’t exactly be found in the neighbourhood runcit (except the olive, of course – because all good cocktails need an olive, apparently).

Almost 20 years after I first read about it, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may never, ever, get to try a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. I would probably have a better chance of getting a Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser to make me a cup of tea than to get a decent Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster anywhere on Earth.

In any case, the late Adams once said in an interview that “there are a number of environmental and weapons treaties and laws of physics which prevent one being mixed on Earth”, so that’s that then. As Marvin the Paranoid Android would say, “Oh, what’s the point”.

Sharmilla Ganesan: One of the reasons the Anne Of Green Gables series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery is so revered is because of its lovable and absolutely relatable heroine, Anne Shirley. Imaginative, harum-scarum and well-intentioned to a fault, there is no one more prone to having their best-laid plans end up a complete mess.

And while the series is rife with Anne’s blunders, one that always leaves me laughing uncontrollably is her attempt to make a cake for her beloved Mrs Allen, the minister’s wife in Anne Of Green Gables: in one of the most sincere and yet most disastrous instances of baking, she accidentally flavours her beautiful layer cake with anodyne liniment instead of vanilla essence!

Part of the chapter’s charm is the building excitement of having Mr and Mrs Allen over for tea: Anne is “wild with excitement and delight”, and even her guardian Marilla shows some rare enthusiasm.

The preparations are mouth-wateringly described, with baking-powder biscuits, jellied chicken, cold tongue, yellow plum preserves, “...two kinds of jelly, red and yellow, and whipped cream and lemon pie, and cherry pie, and three kinds of cookies, and fruit cake ... and pound cake and layer cake....”

Anne’s cake comes out “light and feathery as golden foam”, with “layers of ruby jelly”, and we readers, swept along in the moment, can’t wait for Mrs Allen to taste it ... until she actually does, and displays a peculiar expression on her face. Anne, afflicted with a cold and unable to smell, had mistaken the liniment for vanilla!

The incident is so memorable because it is the kind of mistake we can all imagine making, and the utter dismay she feels at all her efforts gone to waste is equally familiar. Yet, Mrs Allen’s generous handling of the situation, and the lifelong friendship that springs up between her and Anne as a result leave us feeling a little better about the world ... even without cake!


S. Indramalar: It may seem odd that the novel that has evoked the most reaction out of me, food-wise, was one about the Great Depression of the 1930s and colonies of poor farmers who, driven out of their homes, travel across America in hope for a better future. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck focuses on one family in particular, the Joads, and their struggle to survive. It’s a story of harsh realities, highlighting the disparities between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and powerless, and corporations and everyday people. It’s a story of material poverty versus spiritual wealth.

While the men-folk hunt for work and money to sustain their family, the women – led by matriarch Ma Joad – struggle to put food on the table. They often have to stretch inexpensive pieces of meat (more accurately, canned meat like spam) for days or just make do with “pone”, or cornmeal cakes that are cheap but filling. However, it is because they struggle so much that they appreciate what little they have.

Their meals, though meagre, are truly savoured. It is this appreciation of food – a small portion of pork with crackling, a few pieces of Cracker Jack candy, some bruised fruit – which strikes me in the book (aside from the story itself). Every morsel of what little the Joads have is described so vividly. Like how the young Joad children covetously watch a tractor driver eat a spam sandwich, for example. Or how the children and men hover around Ma Joad as she prepares her biscuits and gravy – “fried dough in drippings ... dough fried crisp and brown and the drippings poured over it”.

Food was an important element in The Grapes Of Wrath. But it was never just the food. Dinner time was the only time when – no matter the circumstance of the day – the deeply troubled family came together. It was a time when, for a moment, their troubles of the day were forgotten. It was a brief respite. And those moments were very powerful.

Tan Shiow Chin: For some strange reason, I’ve never considered Enid Blyton one of my favourite authors, despite devouring most of her books when I was in school. But when this topic was floated among Star2 writers, the first books that came to mind were her Famous Five series.

Set in the 1940s, this group of four pre-teen cousins – Julian, Dick, George (Georgina, actually) and Anne (and Timmy the dog) – were constantly getting involved in some adventure or the other during their school holidays in these books. With lots of their activities taking place outdoors, picnics were always an integral part of the story.

Hard-boiled eggs, bread and butter, sandwiches with potted meat or tomatoes, lemonade, tinned sardines, slabs of cake, lettuces, radishes, Nestlé milk, ginger beer, tins of pineapple chunks and squares of chocolate were regular features of these picnics.

As simple as these items may sound, the way Blyton integrated them into the story, and described them with a few well-chosen words, always made them sound utterly delicious.

And then I tried some of them in real life.

Oh, the disappointment of ginger beer! One sip, and I was horrified that anyone could actually like this drink, much less have “lashings” of it. Tinned sardines and radishes aren’t at the top of my picnic list either, or any food list for that matter.

But the rest of it ... mmmm ... hard-boiled eggs (no screw of salt required for me!), bread and butter, potted meat sandwiches, cake, tins of pineapple (a regular traditional feature in my house for Chinese New Year) and chocolate are among the simpler pleasures of life I can certainly indulge in at any time.

The only problem is, we don’t have the weather to make it a lovely picnic as the Famous Five did!

Get a copy of The Star today (Aug 3) for a discount coupon 

To celebrate your favourite food moments in literature, Kinokuniya Bookstores is giving Star2 readers discounts on Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried AND the books featured in it! Get a 20% discount on the titles below by presenting this page upon payment at Kinokuniya Bookstores at Suria KLCC (original page only, no photocopies accepted). 

This offer is valid, while stocks last, until Aug 17, 2014. It is not valid with other promotions and is not exchangeable for cash.

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