I love books that don’t overly sentimentalise food.
There is a place for sensuality, nostalgia and emotion in foodie books for sure. But there is also a way in which food can be a source of real sadness. In my novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, food brings the characters together, but it also is a great source of sadness: reminding them of memories that hurt, places they can no longer visit, people that cannot eat or cook with.
The following three books do that exact thing, exploring the notion of food as something complicated, and fraught - and taught me much about the role I wanted to food to play in my own work.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron is chock-full of delicious recipes (bacon hash, bread pudding, linguine alla cecca), but nearly every one is tempered by a hefty dose of sorrow and loss. In Apricots, one narrator promises her husband (on his deathbed) to make him all his favourite foods if he gets better. Another narrator races around New York City, desperate for a recipe, which she is convinced will be the key to her mother’s happiness.
In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, Rose Edelstein can taste emotion: sadness in her mother’s lemon cake and the weariness of a dairy farmer in his butter. Eating becomes an exercise in heartbreak, in finding out the secrets of the people we love that we might rather not know. In Apricots, favourite recipes force the narrators to contend with notions of death, loneliness, regret.
The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace is a collection of 64 poetic vignettes, each featuring a different ingredient and its complicated role: often as complicated as sex and death, and equally fascinating, important, linguistically and emotionally rich. Crace’s language is what I learned most from here: how it can and should mirror content, and how food lends itself to that so very much.
The following two books were crucial in my writing the more nitty-gritty aspects of Apricots. Iraqi-Jewish cuisine is at the heart of the novel. One narrator is an Iraqi Jew and owner of an Iraqi-Jewish restaurant. The other narrator’s mother is a well-known chef, and trying to understand the ins-and-outs of her mother’s days is at the heart of her particular struggle.
Mama Nazima’s Jewish Iraqi Cuisine by Rivka Goldman is the definitive resource on this beautiful, and little-discussed food culture. The author mixes recipes with memories with history—both culinary and otherwise. Particularly interesting is the notion that the Iraqi Jews often ate according to colour, shunning anything black, for example, as it encouraged bad luck.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain is a must for anyone who is desperate to learn “Kitchenese”, the language of restaurant kitchens. Bourdain tells us why, for example, one should never order meat well done or mussels or fish on Mondays. Ever. It was writerly details like these that I pilfered for Apricots. They were invaluable.
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer is published by Hutchinson