The principal pleasures in the lives of most come from three things: food, sex and sleep (pick your own order). But the pleasure that food brings doesn’t always come directly from hand to mouth – sometimes, the majority of the delight comes from anticipation and imagination. That feeling you get when you read a delicious menu ahead of a planned night out, or when you walk into a room fragrant with things you’ll imminently indulge in.
These books do just that: conjure food to life. This list covers the full range, from books in which food is the main protagonist, through to classic novels so salaciously rife with ripe tomatoes and fresh crusty bread that despite the plot, the food is what sticks. Enjoy. Indulge. Perhaps have a cupcake standing by.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
No list about food is complete without the conclusion of perhaps the most taste-bud-stimulating novel of all time. It’s not just the preponderance of incredible imaginary flavour: it’s that moment, early on, when a starving Charlie puts a piece of chocolate to his lips, and is flooded with warmth.
We’ve all known that sensation, though perhaps not to Charlie’s eight-grandparents-in-a-single-bed degree. Plus, the chocolate river. Oh, the chocolate river. Swimming has never been the same again.
Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris
For the sake of not seeming partisan towards chocolate, we’re using this novel by Harris, though Chocolat and Blackberry Wine and just about anything else with her name on it could stand in fruitfully. This is an author who knows that flavour sits hand-in-hand with scent – and Five Quarters is the bitter tale of Framboise (yes, she named her main character after food), a lonely widow exploited by her nephew, as she attempts to navigate her relationship with her long-dead mother.
As filled with incredible food as it is emotional manipulation, it’ll have you smelling oranges in your sleep (and not in a good way).
Five Do A Thing Somewhere by Enid Blyton
It’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the best culinary classics were written for children – after all, that’s really the only way you can attain the full attention of a young ‘un.
This title is a stand-in for just about anything penned by Blyton, who delighted in ramming her books full with tomato sandwiches, crusty bread, tinned sardines, squares of shortbread, tins of pineapple chunks and boiled eggs (with a screw of salt).
While we can now identify these picnics as something of a celebration of austerity, there was a vigour in her writing that drew saliva. And what mention of Blyton would be complete without Pop Biscuits, a fictional treat from the Faraway Tree that I still long to feel on my tongue today?
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Though the “feast” Hemingway refers to in his title is the experience of having lived in Paris, this much beloved collection of Hemingway’s personal papers is a fascinating insight into the life and mind of the author, together with his encounters with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald – and it’s not without its own literal feasts. Try this quote on for size:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
I don’t even like oysters, and I want 9.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café by Fannie Flagg
Leave your questions about the author’s name at the door of this doorstop novel, and find yourself in a lost world: Alabama, during the Depression, and the lives of the families that lived there.
Alternating between two time periods (the former, and the possibly more familiar one of Birmingham in the mid-80s), Fried Green Tomatoes tells the story of Igdie and Ruth and the people that visit their café, where you can get eggs, grits, bacon, ham and coffee for 25 cents. It’s not all about the food (you’ll find, for example, strong undertones of lesbianism, plus analysis of racism at the time), the book does end on a recipe for the eponymous tomatoes.
Fannie Flagg (who is still going strong) is the queen of novels that welcome you into a family, and make you feel like someone has died when you’re forced, by the last page, to leave.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Yet another inter-generational tale (all the best food stories span centuries), this novel centers around four best friends in 1949, who have recently emigrated to San Francisco, and who meet weekly to play Ma Jong, and share stories from their past.
Their stories, past and present, are loaded with dumplings and noodles and broth – but the food isn’t merely food. Food is love. Food is happiness. Food is hope. One (highly dedicated) lover of the book has listed every single item of food mentioned therein in this epic blogpost. Wontons, anyone?
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Murderer, yes; psychopath, also yes – but what we should also be remembering the twisted Patrick Bateman for is his fine, fine taste in cuisine. After all, as well as the tang of human blood, the title psycho himself lives only for restaurants, parties and clubs.
Food, alcohol, drugs, sex and violence are the cornerstones of this modern classic, and while you might want to have a long, hot shower after reading, you’ll also be desperate to eat shad-roe ravioli with apple compote, and meatloaf with quail-stock sauce, and fiddlehead ferns with mango slices, and cold corn chowder lemon bisque, and kiwi mustard.
World of Pies by Karen Stolz
A bildungsroman littered with pies? Yes please. Placed in Texas in the 60’s, this novel follows the birth and life of Roxanne Milner as she navigates a world with surprise baby sisters, pie-judging competitions and one devastating death.
As with many tales of small-town America, there’s a touch of darkness threading through – but this is more than sweetened by a proliferation of tarts. Nice as pie, you might say.
Bread Alone by Judith R Hendricks
Books filled with really good food all seem to centre around the idea of recovery from emotional heartbreak – perhaps because food is the ultimate panacea (there’s a really good bread pun to be made there) – and this is no different.
Meet Wynter Morrison, the abandoned 31-year old trophy wife, who finds solace, not at a singles bar, but at the counter of a bakery. Naturally, her past includes an apprenticeship at a French boulangerie (whose doesn’t?) and so she soon finds herself invited behind the counter and into a world of friendship and flour. Will she find herself? Probably. Will you eat nine croissants while reading about it? Definitely.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
The name of the author alone should be enough to hook you into a purchase, but just in case it’s not: Rachel, a cookery writer who is seven months pregnant, has just found out that her husband is in love with another woman.
This tale of revenge and reconciliation comes studded with recipes and is equal parts hilarious and devastating. If you know anything about Ephron, then you’ll know that the plot is more than loosely based on her own dealings with ex-hubby Bernstein, but that won’t stop you enjoying the recipes for roast potatoes and pot roast – and especially the moment when she hurls an entire key lime pie at his face. Read it twice, cry a bit, give it to a mate, eat some pie.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert is a gorgeous writer whose skills are somewhat subsumed by the emotional quicksand that this novel delivers – but you’ll forgive her entirely when you read her passage about eating pizza in Naples:
“Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings contact high of glamour to everyone around her. It’s technically impossible to eat this thing of course. You try to take a bit off your slice and the gummy crust folds, and the hot cheese runs away like topsoil in a landslides, makes a mess of you and your surroundings, but just deal with it.”
Even if you’re completely uninterested in praying or loving, read it for the eating.
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Lewis might have been laboring under the impression that his seven Narnia novels were clever Christian allegories, but I’m here to tell you that they were nothing more than a brilliant marketing scheme dreamt up by purveyors of Turkish Delight.
Edmund might have sacked off his entire family for this rose-scented sweet, but there are plenty more food-laden scenes in the series that might convince me to hand off one or two of my sisters: so many, in fact, that there’s an Official Narnia Cookbook.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
A series predicated on the slaughter of children might expect to ignore day-to-day dietary requirements, but the lavish description of edibles in this series proves what we all knew: food is the most important and interesting thing of all.
From Katniss’ favourite lamb and plum stew to the broth that keeps Peeta alive, to the bread that warns them when it’s time to fight, to the Capitol feast that has them all deliberately vomiting in the bathroom, this is a book about decadence pitted against poverty, and the inevitable result of that.