Some of the best literary food moments I’ve ever read are also the most depressing. There’s just something about certain foods consumed alone, or offered and refused, or worst of all, the unwittingly observed meal that reveals the self one usually pretties up a bit for the public—call it bittersweet, call it a crushing blow to the larynx, but a sorrowful food moment is hard to shake off. In the optimistic spirit of literary inspiration, then, here are a few that have scarred me most deeply.
–In Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris’s guitar teacher, Mr. Mancini, seems almost swaggeringly masculine until his persona—or Sedaris’s view of it– starts to crack, and one day Sedaris glimpses him eating alone, dipping his hamburger into a “sad puddle of mayonnaise.” I don’t think the word “sad” is even necessary, but years later I still feel like going back to bed just thinking about it. I might not feel so gutted if the mayo had just been spread on the bun.
–As a teenager Rosemary Mahoney spent a summer working for Lillian Hellman, which she later described in the book A Likely Story. I read this book years ago, so my recall may be faulty, but two memories linger from it: 1, William Styron appears to have been a terrible person, and 2, the image of Hellman, in a moment when as I recall Mahoney was feeling a blend of rage and pity for her, consuming a meal of lentils and sausages. I think of this every single time I am confronted with even a mention of lentils and sausages, a dish that seems so hearty and wintery and inelegant, meant to comfort and sustain, and maybe that is why it feels so vulnerable an appetite for a woman who made it her business to be a terror.
–And for a culinary kick in the teeth so powerful and layered that it almost feels good, there is always Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “At Mrs. Sen’s,” (from Interpreter of Maladies) in which Calcutta-born Mrs. Sen is briefly a babysitter for an eleven-year-old boy named Eliot. This story is a primer in storytelling through food from start to finish. It’s also a study of loneliness and isolation, from Eliot’s mother’s constant refusal of food to Mrs. Sen’s constant production of it. At first, Mrs. Sen’s stationary blade, with which she settles herself on the living room floor to cut up great piles of vegetables, chicken, and fish, makes her seem proud and even warrior-like—it’s wickedly sharp and curved “like the prow of a Viking ship.” It’s also a bit of her lost community—Mrs. Sen describes all the women working together to prep food for gatherings, rather than alone with a boy marooned on the couch with a snack while she works.
As the story goes on, the food she prepares and the ongoing effort to obtain the best ingredients are essentially her only source of pleasure and industry, a way of passing the empty hours but also a standard to maintain. There comes a moment toward the end of the story, when she and Eliot have taken the bus to buy a whole fish, and on the ride home, a blood-lined bag at their feet and crumbs from clam cakes still clinging to the corners of their mouths, when every single thing about the journey to procure, prepare, and enjoy food, feels tainted. I could write many pages on the food in this story, but this is the moment I never forget: Mrs. Sen unaware of the crumbs at the corner of her mouth, the fish that seems to other passengers to be smelly and foreign, and what allure, authority, and power she has had for Eliot is dulled. She feels brought down to his level, no longer a trusted adult but an equally lonely companion. Honestly, the story hits its points hard, but it does so with such precision and such restrained emotion that the effect works. It’s the crumbs that do it, I think, the hard-won fish that no longer seems a prize, the eggplant cubes expertly prepped and then tossed in the garbage when the meal no longer seems worth cooking. I’m still not over it.