On my seventh birthday, my aunt and uncle gave me a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was bound in bottle-green leather and embossed with gold. It would have been a crime to let a toothsome book like that go un-devoured, so I read it straight through. From this book, I took three terribly valuable lessons: first, that one must always give bread to ragged old ladies, second, to word one’s wishes as carefully as if they are legal tracts, and third, that to be truly beautiful one has to be edible. This last was, I thought, evidenced by the fact that whenever the brothers Grimm described a beautiful girl, they did so by comparing her to food – cheeks like russet apples, hair like shining wheat, lips as red as cherries. When the Grimms traveled around Germany, collecting tales from starving peasants, how did those peasants describe beauty? As food, of course. While I concede that being actually comestible isn’t the most advisable life goal, I maintain that food is the height of aesthetic bliss, and if one consumes that food, either gastronomically or visually, one will take on its qualities.
Ever since that rosy apple of wisdom proved too much for Eve’s self-restraint, food has been a major feature in literature. From Proust’s evocative madeleines, to “Pass the damn ham!” in To Kill a Mockingbird, and my most beloved Holden Caulfield’s swiss cheese sandwich and malted. From toddlerhood, my favorite books have been those that highlight food. Even before Grimm’s Fairy Tales gave me my curious revelation regarding the relationship of food and beauty, there was a distinct theme in my childhood favorites – my Very Hungry Caterpillar board book is, let’s say, extremely well loved. The caterpillar chomped its way through apples, pears, plums, strawberries, oranges, chocolate cake, ice cream, a pickle, cheese, salami, a lollipop, a slice of pie, a sausage, a muffin, and a slice of watermelon. And, what do you know? It came out a butterfly. This was the first evidence that 1) food is lovely and 2) if you eat enough lovely food, you’ll become lovely.
Three years ago I came across this passage in M.F.K. Fisher:
“In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them…separate each plump little pregnant crescent…Take yesterday’s paper…and spread it on the radiator…After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them…On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow on the sill. They are ready…I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.”
This precise, visceral description made such an impression on me that I sent the passage to a then-boyfriend who had an antique radiator. He sent me back a photo of golden crescents of tangerine in the new snow outside his window. Although I was over two thousand miles away, the composition of that picture was so exquisite that I did not need to taste the oranges to know what Fisher meant.
Taste is only a fraction of the experience. One of my favorite passages about food is in Jessamyn West’s The Condemned Librarian:
“This afternoon the snack was orange juice and graham crackers, the orange juice in a plain glass, so that the deepness, the thickness of the color was almost like a flame inside a hurricane lamp. The graham crackers were on a blue willowware plate, and it just so happened that Dr. McKay’s card was Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”. It was a perfect still life, the colors increasing in intensity through the pale sand of the wickerwork table to…Van Gogh’s flaming sunflowers. I looked at the picture Mother had composed for me…for some time.”
The narrator has not even begun to eat, and yet she conveys the food so vividly through visual means that she does not need to describe the taste. Suppose she had gobbled graham crackers out of a box, and guzzled orange juice out of a carton. Would it be the same?
There are few real-life meals that stand out to me as having been almost transcendentally good, and none of them was characterised by five-star quality food. Instead, it was the setting – the aesthetic – that made the meal. One was dried figs and dark chocolate, eaten on a February afternoon while sitting in Music History. It was the quality of the sunlight that elevated this from simple snack to holy communion. It was the time of year when, although the wind still bites, the sunlight pools like clear honey and warms you to the bone. I was languishing in just such a pool that afternoon. The figs had caught the sun, too, and seemed to hum down to their very seeds with the sun’s warmth. The chocolate softened, not to melting, but to the mellow pliability of wax warmed by a flame.
As Natalie Goldberg said, “It’s a simple idea, really: eat a lot of peaches, you’ll become a peach.” The most beautiful foods are those that, like peaches, come directly from nature. They are the foods that the German peasants dreamed of. If Goldberg is right, I could attain my infant wish to be a beautiful fairy-tale maiden – with the exception of having hair like ripe wheat. I’ll have to make do with hair the color of a roasted chick pea, or a lentil.