April 21, 2014

“Nothing but tea”: eating one’s way through literature


Beyond Swann. From the author's website.

Beyond Swann. From the author’s website.

When fictional characters sit down to eat, what does it look like? One dedicated graphic designer set out to cook, bake, scrounge, and otherwise recreate fifty fictional meals, and the results are now a book, Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, with photographs of, among other meals, Holden Caulfield’s Swiss cheese sandwich, the clam chowder from Moby-Dick, the apple pie and ice cream from On the Road, one of the many sandwiches of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the fare at the tea party in Alice in Wonderland (where, in fact, there is nothing but tea, even though the March Hare offers Alice wine), and even the spread of food scraps that Gregor Samsa’s sister leaves for him to nosh on, post-metamorphosis.

Designer Dinah Fried spent two years on the project, assembling not only the correct ingredients, but also the plates, cups, silverware, side dishes, table linen, and even the tables themselves—the complete context for each scene. These are meticulous reconstructions, each accompanied by the passage from the book describing the meal. The most extensive slideshow online, of nine of them, appears an article about the project by Erin Corneliussen for Smithsonian Magazine. Some Amazon peeping indicates that other books represented in Fictitious Dishes include The CorrectionsGulliver’s TravelsHopscotchLolitaGravity’s RainbowRobinson Crusoe, and Valley of the Dolls (all pills, presumably).

Some meals were tougher to pull together than others: the buffet in The Great Gatsbyfor instance, is full of “salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs” and other fussy lost-to-time finger foods of the Jazz Age. The mutton kidneys in Ulysses also posed unusual problems:

“Luckily it’s supposed to be burnt, so I had a lot of flexibility in cooking it,” said Fried. But that was the easy part. She explains, “it was hard because it made my stomach turn and my house smell.”

Whereas others were both tasty-looking and simple: the roasted potatoes and eggs of The Secret Garden, tucked into a tin pot under a bush. Or, much less bucolically, the grapefruit with a side of tequila in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which Dr. Gonzo prepares like so:

Then he grabbed a grapefruit and sliced it in half with a Gerber Mini-Magnum—a stainless-steel hunting knife with a blade like a fresh-honed straight razor. […] He sliced the grapefruit into quarters … then into eighths … then sixteenths … then he began slashing aimlessly at the residue.

In fact, a lot of these meals tend towards the disturbingly minimal; there is a lot of tea, a lot of bread, some cheese, and the occasional pickle or wedge of hacked-at grapefruit. Man cannot live by bread alone, but fictional characters appear to be less calorifically demanding.

Then again, Fried’s project is ultimately a tribute to what authors have made of food, how they’ve imbued it with meaning and feeling. Interviewed for Bon Appétit, Fried talks about that “really wonderful, evocative series of passages in [To the Lighthouse] about the beef stew,” the Boeuf en daube that becomes such a key part of Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner. The hold these scenes have over a reader’s imagination is tremendous—so that Fried’s photographs almost diminish the meals they depict, cutting them down to visual size. Even tea, a watery twiggy drink that no one in their right mind would have more than once or twice, assumes surprising proportions in the right hands, on the right page:

in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.