“If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food [in books]. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation” (Terry Eagleton). Below is the list of 10 fiction books that include food as part of their narrative/descriptions or revolve around food/its preparation. Food can play different roles in a book, such as emphasise the character’s belonging to a particular culture or simply be there to stress the coming of people together, such as at a dinner table, where they can form or cement their relationships.
I. Sweet Bean Paste  by Durian Sukegawa
Food/its preparation is everywhere in this heart-warming novel by Japanese author Durian Sukegawa. In this case, it is delicious home-made dorayaki (Japanese red-bean pancakes), which the main character decides to cook at his street stall and employs an elderly woman with a secret to help him. Both subtle and powerful, this short novel stresses the love for good food, as well as the importance of friendship and the fight against societal discrimination.
II. Chocolat  by Joanne Harris
This book is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother who arrives to one provincial French town and opens there a chocolaterie. The novel explores such themes as the mother-daughter relationship, discrimination and hypocrisy, and all in the background of sumptuous chocolate and chocolate-making descriptions. The film of 2000 with Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench is a perfect companion to this book.
III. Pachinko  by Min Jin Lee
You may wonder what food has to do with this novel about three generations of one family torn between their native Korea (and its roots) and their life in Japan. I simply thought that food played an important role in this novel, especially in showing Sunja’s link to her home in Korea. In this story, Sunja makes a start in Japan by making some excellent kimchi, a classic Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage and carrots in a spicy sauce, and there are also descriptions of a restaurant culture in the novel.
IV. The Belly of Paris  by Emile Zola
This book centres on Florent, an escaped political prisoner, who arrives to Paris and is instantly drawn into the affairs of its main food market, Les Halles. Zola describes the market in colourful terms, but also food shops that are in the vicinity of the market. There are sumptuous descriptions of cheeses, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit, and the personages that frequent the market are as colourful as the produce they sell.
V. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone  (+ other books in the series) by J. K. Rowling
I love food and its presentation in the Harry Potter series (who doesn’t, right?). Even before Harry Potter gets to Hogwarts, he and Ron indulge in sweets so common in the wizarding world. On the train, they eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, as well as Chocolate Frogs, but probably also Cauldron Cakes, Liquorice Wands and Sugar Quills, among other sweets. Later, there are descriptions of lavish banquets at the Great Hall, Fred and George’s sweets, cooking at the Burrow and at Hagrid’s place, the Three Broomsticks’ butterbeer, among so many other food descriptions.
VI. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café  by Fannie Flagg
This books revolves around one café in Whistle Stop, Alabama, run by two extraordinary women. That café is known for its food, coffee and friendly atmosphere. The parallel story set in the present time also revolves around food because the two women at the nursing home share their stories and form their friendship through the sharing of their food, such as Butterfingers and chocolates. At the end of the book, one can find cooking recipes for skillet cornbread, pecan pie, coconut cream pie, sipsey’s black-eyed peas, fried okra, and, of course, fried green tomatoes.
VII. Like Water for Chocolate  by Laura Esquivel
Romantic passion and food are interlinked magically in this short novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. In this story, Tita has a talent for cooking deliciously, and seduces her beloved with the dishes seemingly from heaven. This is a poignant tale of tragic and forbidden love, and it is through recipes that Tita’s story is told. Each chapter starts with a different month, and, for example, in January, we read how to make Tortas de Navidad (a Christmas cake), in February, we learn how to make Pastel Chabela (a wedding cake), and, in September, there is recipe for Chocolate Rosca de Reyes (sweet bread shaped in the form of a wreath with candied fruit on top and chocolate), etc.
VIII. With the Fire on High  by Elizabeth Acevedo
Cooking and food form much of this YA novel because the main character here is Emoni Santiago, a seventeen year old mother who dreams of becoming a chef while honing her culinary skills in her kitchen. The book starts with Emoni’s Lemon Verbena Tembleque recipe (tembleque is a Puerto Rican dessert pudding made from coconut milk), and frequently references food throughout. Much of the food mentioned reflects Emoni’s Afro-Puerto Rican roots.
IX. Kitchen  by Banana Yoshimoto
This book explores grief and loss as the main character experienced the death of her grandmother and now has to find her own path in the world. The main character’s love of kitchens means there are culinary descriptions, and tofu, pork and rice (katsudon) (pork and eggs cooked in a broth and placed over rice), and green tea are all mentioned in the story. It seems that food and kitchens provide a relief for the depressed or still grieving Mikage, as well as help her relate to others.
X. The Joy Luck Club  by Amy Tan
This novel focuses on four Chinese American immigrant families in San Francisco who begin a club – The Joy Luck Club. They play a Chinese game of mahjong there, as well as feast on diverse food (long rice noodles, dumplings, etc.) There are stories that emphasise the immigrants’ experience (Chinese-American traditions), generation gaps and mother-daughter relationships. American and Chinese food, as well as table-manners of both countries, are contrasted in the story.
Do you have favourite books that feature food? Given the quote above, what do you think can be the significance of food in books?