5 Culinary Novels for Foodies Who Read
The Liquor series by Poppy Z. Brite
I could conceivably make the three books in this series over half my list, but that feels more than a little like a cop-out and rather defeats the purpose. Regardless, no other author save John Kennedy Toole has ever written about the city of New Orleans (without question my favorite American city to visit) with the depth and appropriately absurd realism achieved by Billy Martin (publishing then as Poppy Z. Brite), and if any other author has written fiction about the singular and phantasmagorical food of New Orleans even half as well as Martin I’ll thank you to steer me in their direction. Starring two of my favorite Martin characters, budding superstar chefs and lovers Rickey an G-man, each book in the Liquor series is folded around the opening of a new restaurant, the theme/gimmicks and menus of which are all worthy of existing in the real world and all at once breaking my diet, wallet, and GI tract. Liquor is a huge influence on my own foodie, kitchen-set Sin du Jour series, and even managed to eclipse the earlier Poppy Z. Brite horror novels for me, which were utterly dear to me as a teenager and aspiring author. It’s a hell of a thing to be able to grow up with one of your favorite author’s fiction and actually have that fiction grow up with you, as well.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
We were given Laura Esquivel’s novel in AP English one of the years I actually attended high school. It was the first novel I’d read set in Mexico, about Mexican protagonists and Mexican families. Growing up in the Hispanic and Latinx concrete wonderland of beautiful scenic Bell Gardens and belonging to a family that is half-Mexican, I connected with the book in a way I hadn’t with any other I’d read up to that point. It was my introduction to “magical realism,” and while not a fan of that idiom the concept opened up my notion of what contemporary and/or real-world set fiction could be. As a hardcore foodie and home cook now, it was also the first novel to show me food and cooking as a means of self-expression and even intensive therapy and self-care, which it remains for me to this day. We were shown the movie as well, which at the time it was filmed was the largest Mexican film production ever mounted. That was an integral part of another book that had a profound influence on me a couple of years later, Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew, which documented Rodriguez making his first no-budget one-man movie El Mariachi, which in-turn inspired an entire generation of outsider filmmakers, myself included.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
I plainly and purely accept the obviousness of this choice, and I’ll raise you an “I don’t give a damn.” Douglas Adams was the SFF humorist who made me want to both write humor and inject humor into SFF. I tend to view all the books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series as one opus (I can look up and see my beloved hardcover omnibus edition on the shelf in front of me, which has knocked around the world in my bag for over twenty years), but if I step back and look at them individually, Milliways would be my favorite single edition to the canon. It contains the single greatest food-related gag in fiction: the animal who wants to be eaten, and is capable of telling the diner as much in a loud, clear voice. As someone who writes a series of comedy books about the NYC restaurant world and the supernatural, nothing tops that. It also contains my favorite Marvin the Paranoid Android (who is in-turn my favorite HGTG character) gag, in which they find Marvin parking cars millions of years in the future after leaving him behind in the past.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Picture this: I’m 14-years-old, I look like a varsity linebacker and dress and groom myself like a hayseed, I’m white to the point of Jellyfish translucency, and I’m checking out The First Wives Club and The Joy Luck Club from my high school library. People did stare, librarians included. But as a kid I possessed no real hardwired palate for anything. I had very little human or media influence in my life. All I had was a seemingly boundless facility for reading and an abundance of friendless free time. So, I tried everything. One narrative preference that has long abided, however, is my love for generational sagas in all their forms, from Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped animated classic American Pop to Steve Earle’s pounding yet mandolin-finessed ballad to a bootlegger clan, “Copperhead Road.” I’ve never read a generational saga in novel form that’s better than what Amy Tan did in The Joy Luck Club. The interconnectivity of lives and stories and different time periods, inherited consequence and rejected or embraced responsibility, the inescapable parallels that form between generations; it’s all there, beautifully and painfully executed. You’ll also find no better use of food as metaphor, symbol, character device, or just generally food used better in a story, period. Also, its deep literary merits totally aside, you want the food. You want to seek out the food in this book and eat it until the ensuing coma is welcome and blessed.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Most people don’t realize Herbert’s revered/despised (depends on who you talk to these days) classic is actually about food, let alone overwhelmingly dependent on food as a thematic and narrative device. The Spice mélange, the substance that, among many other things, allows the Spacing Guild navigators to fold space and facilitate interstellar travel, is without question the most important culinary item in the history of literature. Ingesting the Spice has not only altered, but also defined the geography, politics, society, and even the physiology of the human race throughout the entire known universe. We rarely think about our personal relationship with food, particularly in America, let alone think about how food and its consumption influences the development of our society and our very species. Dune takes that connection between society and biology to a place untouched by virtually every other author, save perhaps David Cronenberg. Much of the rest of Dune has not aged well for me, from the writing style to some severely problematic themes, but it remains one of my favorite novels, even if only because in addition to food, knife fighting in integral to the geopolitical make-up of the entire universe.
This post was written by Matt Wallace, author of Pride's Spell., the third installment in Matt Wallace's Sin du Jour series. Matt Wallace is the author of The Next Fix, The Failed Cities, and the novella series, Slingers. He's also penned over one hundred short stories, some of which have won awards and been nominated for others, in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler and unarmed combat and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He now resides in Los Angeles with the love of his life and inspiration for Sin du Jour's resident pastry chef.