Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
One of our most powerfully symbolic foods is the wedding cake, shared by a community to bestow good fortune on the newly married. With Miss Havisham’s mouldering uneaten cake Dickens creates its Gothic shadow, crawling with spiders and masked in cobwebs. The novel is a tour de force of food observation from Joe and Pip’s meagre suppers of bread and butter to the convict Magwitch’s threat to tear out Pip’s heart and liver to be roasted and devoured.
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem contrasts two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, tempted to feast on some of the most beautiful fruit ever described: "Plump unpeck’d cherries, Melons and raspberries, Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, Swart-headed mulberries". After Laura succumbs and pines away she is redeemed by sucking the fruit juices from her sister’s Christ-like body. Is it a Christian allegory or a repressed psyche longing for sexual pleasure? It is what is left unsaid that gives the poem such a mysterious power.
The Torrington Diaries by John Byng
While researching An Appetite for Violets I needed to find out what food was available to travellers in Georgian England. In The Torrington Diaries I discovered John Byng, "Grumpy Old Man on a Horse" and meticulous recorder of meals and prices at the inns. Like any hopeful traveller one shares his delight at "boiled beef, roasted leg of mutton and greens and a rice pudding and gooseberry tart all served up with smiles" for a mere two shillings (10p). Contrast that with The Roe Buck at Newcastle, savage and dirty, serving "oniony bread" that sends him running for his horse in hungry despair.
Fasting and Feasting by Anita Desai
This slim novella brilliantly evokes a bounty of cultural misunderstandings through food. With magical economy Desai presents an India of petty domination, pecking orders and that saddest of feasts, a sham marriage. Meanwhile in America the family’s vegan son boards with an all American family who misinterpret his excessive politeness for a liking for their beefy BBQs. In desperation the boy makes himself a comforting dhal. "You call that food", sneers his American host’s daughter, "I call that shit".
Good Things in England by Florence White
In 1932 Florence White, founder of the English Folk Cookery Association, compiled this ramshackle collection of lost recipes and family favourites. Capturing the quirky charm of England’s pre-industrial cookery the recipes celebrate ancient festivals (Clipping-time pudding) and long forgotten regional differences (eight types of frumenty). Who isn’t tempted to dive into the section called "Country and Schoolroom Teas: Only recipes for the homely favourite cakes, buns, jams and jellies and school tuck are given here…’"
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey is out on 22nd May from Hodder & Stoughton.