The meals at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Small house series sometimes sounded lavish despite their simplicity. In farm boy—Laura’s fictionalized childhood account of her husband, Almanzo Wilder – one such dinner included “a plate of trembling cheese, glass bowls of jam and jelly and preserves, and a tall pitcher of milk and a steaming pan of baked beans with a crisp fatty pork in the crumbling brown crust.” But after author Wendy McClure started cooking the meals in the series, she realized that Laura was partially trying to put some sort of positive spin on her family’s hardships: She wrote these things “about her husband after having so many difficult years together.” had, trying to live off the land, and sometimes not so well.”
Writers have long used food to obscure or reveal truths about their subject and to explore emotional connections. In her short story ‘Edge of the World’ Souvankham Thammavongsa begins with a 4-year-old girl who watches soap operas with her mother, who laughs loudly and shows an ease she has with no one else, ‘a half-chewed chocolate mash against the inside from her cheek.” During parties, she sits alone with her daughter in the kitchen, among the steaming pots and simmering pans, reminiscing about how food in Laos simply tasted better.
For other families, “the act of eating” can “strengthen the bond between loved ones,” Mayukh Sen notes. The musician Michelle Zauner, in her memoir, Crying in H-Mart, illustrates this by pooping in the kitchen with her mother late at night. Tasting braised black soybeans, cucumber kimchi, and yellow sprouts cooked with sesame oil and scallions not only cemented their bond, but also Zauner’s connection to her Korean heritage. Also, the poet José Olivarez, in his “Ode to Tortillas,” finds a way to raise as many questions about Mexican identity as descriptions of ways to prepare a staple food.
For these writers, a plate of tortillas or a glass bowl of jam and jelly points to something deeper: as Bill Buford writes in Soil“What happens at the table is one of the most important activities in civilization. It is about intimacy, sociability, creativity, appetite, desire, euphoria, culture and the pleasures of life.”
Every Friday in the Books Briefing we string together Atlantic Ocean stories on books that share similar ideas. Know any other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.
When you buy a book via a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thanks for supporting The Atlantic Ocean.
What we read
Food in fiction: how cooking brings you closer to the characters
“Paradoxically, McClure says, cooking through the recipes Laura trusted helped her overcome the hardships Laura suffered… [and] the extent to which the Small house books are a construction.”
Ed Jones / AFP / Getty
What does sadness taste like?
“Food is not just an object; it’s a character. It reveals Zauner’s newfound awareness of the cycles of birth and death. Everything she eats reminds her that she is still there.”
Inge Morath / Magnum
Ode to Tortillas
“there are infinite ways to eat a tortilla:
made by hand in ancient ways
& warmed up on a comal. made with corn
or with Taco Bell plastic. (what about flour tortillas?)”
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic Ocean
Edge of the world
“My mother’s laugh was loud and wild… She only laughed like that when we were alone. With my father or in the company of others, she giggled and put a hand over her mouth. I wanted everyone to see what I saw when we were alone.”
Books to read if you want to be transported to another place
“I love genius, meandering tours through Europe’s culinary epicenters, the more immersive and intemperate the better… Bill Buford went to Lyon to work – and more specifically to map out and discover the intricacies of French cuisine what elusive magic chefs absorb when they train in France.”
About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. The book she will read next is Emily Dickinson’s Gardening, by Martha McDowell.
Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.
Did you receive this newsletter from a friend? subscribe.