We may never experience the world with the same madcap narrative imagination as our favorite writers, but we can at least get a taste of their edible inspirations through the dishes and recipes they most enjoyed. With food on everyone’s mind this week (oh, and giving thanks too), here’s a guide to recreating the cooking habits of literature’s most culinary-inclined creatives.
Long before Ernest Hemingway was seeking out fashionable oyster houses in Paris (a particular favorite), he learned to fend for himself as a savvy outdoorsman. In an article on camping written for the Toronto Star while still in his 20s, Hemingway described his process for frying a trout with the same witty sparseness that characterizes his later fiction: “Place the trout in the pan (this may require two batches, depending on your luck on the river). After 5 minutes, turn the trout and place 2 strips of bacon over each fish. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.” Hemingway’s eating habits and favorite recipes have since been compiled in The Hemingway Cookbook.
In an interview with the Vegetarian Times, Alice Walker once likened the choice to eat meat to “eating misery. You’re eating a bitter life.” The pescatarian author’s attitudes about dietary habits is also featured prominently in her novel In the Temple of My Familiar , which interrogates the origins and authenticity of soul food traditions while offering up recipes through her vivid descriptions (one crab gumbo preparing scene could practically be its own cooking show). In her day to day, Walker also grows strawberries, artichokes, and collard greens in her garden, referring to the latter as her “power plant.”
Though Truman Capote’s writing was mostly occupied with social dealings, he managed to find time to write a forward to Myrna Davis’ The Potato Book, a cookbook penned to raise funds for a Long Island day school. In his brief contribution, Capote offers a recipe for what he describes as “my one and only most delicious ever potato lunch.” In a tribute to the then existing potato fields of Long Island, the recipe called for a baked potato smothered in sour cream and caviar, then paired with a chilled bottle of 80-proof Russian vodka.
Virginia Woolf’s views on the importance of food can best be summarized by her declaration that “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Although the Bloomsbury group icon was raised with servants to cook and feed her, she later learned to cook on her own. The domestic activity makes its way in inescapable details in her writing (her sumptuous, two-page description of boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse could practically convert a vegetarian), but she also turned to the kitchen as an escape from cerebral rabbit holes. She even concluded one particularly heady diary entry with: “And now I find with some pleasure that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”
One could hardly accuse Norman Mailer of being short on opinions, but what many people don’t know is that the prolific writer could get as impassioned about food as he famously did about politics and prose. In Mornings with Mailer, his friend and fellow foodie Dwayne Raymond recalls the particularities of these obsessions. Among Mailer’s surprising favorites were Häagen Dazs Raspberry Sorbet, which the writer once tried to use as a salad dressing base (preferring it to the “corporate raspberry flavor” that came out of a plastic bottle), and in later years, he became singularly obsessed with Wellfleet Oysters, even bringing home the shells to use as miniature doodle canvases.
Although V.S. Naipaul writes about food with more disgust than delight, he demonstrates a clear fascination with eating habits in both his fiction and travel writing. Raised in a Hindu household in Trinidad, the Nobel laureate has adhered to the restricted diet of his Brahmin caste during his far-flung adventures around the world. A New York Times writer once remarked that “his taste in food and wine is as impeccable as his taste in literature and art,” but he once refused food from a distant relative in India in favor of a pod of peas and most recently made headlines for his criticisms of local eating habits in The Masque of Africa. It seems that Naipaul’s favorite foods are not meant for consuming so much as they are enjoyed for his perception of their repugnant peculiarities.
Mark Twain may be synonymous with the American South, but his palette ranged from comfort classics to seemingly exotic concoctions. His farm favorites included everything from fried chicken to “smoking hot biscuits [with] real butter, firm and yellow and fresh” but he also had tastes for foods that are less common on contemporary dining tables. Among these forgotten favorites were diamondback terrapin turtles, raccoon (today it can only be found at rare “Coon Suppers”), and the now almost extinct prairie chicken. Still, if you want to learn more about the culinary landscape in which he was raised, look no further than Twain’s Feast: Looking for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.
Before she chose to take her own life with fumes from her kitchen oven, Sylvia Plath was a cooking devotee. In her slightly fictionalized autobiography The Bell Jar, Plath’s protagonist nostalgically gushes: “Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear…He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce.” A longtime collector of cookbooks, Plath’s favorite recipe go-to was Irma S. Rombauer’s self-published collection-turned-classic tome The Joy of Cooking. She took pains to prepare elaborate meals for her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and at other times sought out the methodical solace of cooking whenever writer’s block or procrastination hit.