The Literature of Food by Nicola Humble (Book Review)

by Sam Bilton on August 15, 2020 No comments

I cannot be alone when I say I have read more in the past few months than I have over the last three years. If nothing else that is the one benefit of the COVID-19 lockdown. Aside from researching and writing my own book, I have found the time to read for leisure whether it be reacquainting myself with classic novels or reading new titles recommended by friends. Being a food writer, it is of course a natural preoccupation to notice how often eatables and drinkables are mentioned in literature.

What is the essence of the book?

As Humble notes in her introduction ‘a trot through food in literature from the early nineteenth to the twenty-first century would have been simple to write, but it would have missed many of the interesting ways in which food appears in literary texts, and the very different forms of narrative work it performs.’ Humble has therefore opted for an alternative, and more intriguing, approach. Each chapter looks how food is depicted in literature from a different angle. For example, Chapter 2 examines the ‘difficult dinner party’ from the Victorian soirees filled with aspirational middle class guests eating gentrified foods (think mock turtle soup) where ‘the dinners are Society’ to the simpler, more bohemian, suppers of the early twentieth century that feature in the works of Virginia Woolf. Other chapters cover hunger, gender and fantasy food (which touches on cannibalism in children’s literature). Even the cookbook as a form of literary text is explored.

About the author

Nicola Humble is Professor of English at the University of Roehampton, UK. She is the author of award winning title Culinary Pleasures: Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food and Cake: A Global History, and also edited a widely cited edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Who will like it?

The Literature of Food is published by Bloomsbury Academic and it is primarily aimed at the academic market. That said, you don’t have to be an English student (under-grad or otherwise) to like it. Humble’s style is fluid enough to keep the unscholarly engaged and avoids too much academic jargon. An appreciation of literature is probably a given although even if social history is more your thing it would be of interest. If you are the sort of person who enjoys pondering the questions posed for book clubs at the back of a novel then you’ll definitely like the depth of this book and the alternative way of looking at the texts. An avid reader with an interest in food should find it doubly fascinating.

Who won’t like it?

The Literature of Food is not a recipe book. If you want to find out how to make porridge inspired by The Secret Garden or roast pheasant à la Danny, the Champion of the World then you would be better off with The Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young.

What do I like about the book?

I usually read as a form of escapism. Reading has always been a chance to be a voyeur into an author’s world, an opportunity to temporarily dismiss the everyday goings on in my own life, without any danger of becoming physically embroiled in the dramas of another’s. The Literature of Food made me really think about the significance of food in novels. Previously I would have accepted references to food as part of the plot without necessarily considering its relevance. Humble’s analysis does indeed demonstrate how rich and strange food can be in literature. It has also made me want to revisit books I have previously read and not always enjoyed, such as Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (which I had the misfortune to study for my A level English and gave me the horrors of anything by Dickens as a result); and has inspired me to pick up others that I have previously not read.

Where can you buy it?

The Literature of Food by Nicola Humble (Bloomsbury Academic, £22.49)

Sam BiltonThe Literature of Food by Nicola Humble (Book Review)

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