The Art of Food and Literature

Christine Ha

Dec 05, 2011

The two things I love most in this world are food and stories. Perhaps this explains my attempts in the kitchen and at writing fiction (and, apparently, my penchant for rhyming words). We can eat all the finest French foods, read the entire canon of classic literature, but there comes a point in our lives when we can no longer be satisfied with simple ingestion; the pursuit of what we love (if the love is true and fervent) becomes the impetus for our evolution from being eaters and readers (there I go again with the rhymes) to cooks and book writers (okay, I failed at that one). But what I mean by this is the consumer eventually becomes the creator. Unlike others who are self-proclaimed culinary artists, I did not get my start in the kitchen watching my mother or grandmother prepare all the cherished dishes from my childhood. In fact, all I knew how to make when I went off to college were scrambled eggs, instant ramen, and frozen pizza. Much to the chagrin of Asian mothers everywhere, I did not even know how to steam rice in a rice cooker. It was only out of a need to survive that I finally picked up a chef's knife and wooden spoon, and thus began my kitchen adventures. I made many disgusting foods my friends and roommates found inedible, but every once in a while, I'd make something not only digestible but--dare I say it?--quite delicious: ginger braised chicken, sirloin beef kebabs, a four-cheese baked ziti. Seeing food coma written all over their faces (you know the look: eyes half closed, greasy lips parted, jaw slackened), I realized it made me extremely happy to feed people. It became my way of sharing myself, of imparting love, to those around me. It surprises me whenever I hear someone declare a food amazing or wretched after just one bite. Likewise, it's rare that I can immediately love or hate a story before ever reaching the end. And even when I've finished it, it still takes me a while to process everything before I can definitively say, "Yes, I liked it" or "I think I would've rather been [insert loathsome household chore here]." I used to envy this visceral polarity others possess--they are much quicker to enter into discussion while I am left sounding like an ignoramus: "Uh½I don't know½I guess so½oh yes, I concur"--but over the years I've spent in grad school, I've discovered that my slowness to process is not always a bad thing. When I taste something for the first time, I spend the initial bite acquainting myself with the food: what is my initial reaction? THen my second bite is spent dissecting the dish. Which ingredients are present? How do they complement each other? What is the texture like? The temperature? And this, too, is how I read. Perhaps I can't answer you when you first ask me how I felt about a particular book--my answers will almost always come off as lukewarm--but let me think a minute, and I'll get back to you. I can tell you, however, that if I find a story I decide I love after some time spent thinking about it, I will try to pick it apart, figure out the elements of craft that went into it, and go home and try to recreate something like it. And I know I'm not the only one. Isn't that, after all, what we're doing day in and day out in our graduate writing programs? There are artistic elements to both food and literature; the good ones speak to our emotions and energies while the great ones dance with them. Both help us commune with another character, another culture. They keep us open-minded and aware of the universality of life. Annia Ciezadlo, a journalist who left New York to live in Baghdad, said, "The path to hearts and minds [is] led through the stomach. You have to eat the meal [and familiarize yourself with their cuisine in order to connect with the people.]" Cheers to good reads and good eats. And here I leave you with a recipe for Margaret Atwood's baked lemon custard; she recently came to Houston for an Inprint Margaret Root Brown reading and will be this year's keynote speaker at the AWP conference in Chicago. Bon appetit! Margaret Atwood's Baked Lemon Custard Originally from an interview with Bon Appetit magazine INGREDIENTS:
  • 3/4 c. Sugar
  • 3 tbsp. Butter at room temperature
  • 1 tbsp. Grated lemon peel
  • 3 lg. Eggs, separated
  • 3 tbsp. All-purpose flour
  • 1 c. Buttermilk
  • 1/4 c. Lemon juice
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter six 3/4-c. Ramekins. Beat sugar, butter, and lemon peel with an electric mixer in a lg. Bowl. Beat in egg yolks. Stir in flour in three parts alternating with buttermilk added in two parts. Stir in lemon juice.
  2. With clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in a med. Bowl until stiff but not dry. Fold egg whites into yolk mixture. Divide batter among prepared ramekins. Place ramekins in a roasting pan. Add enough hot water to pan so that it comes halfway up the outside of the ramekin.
  3. Bake until cakes are set in center and beginning to brown, approx. 35 min. Remove from water bath. Serve hot or cold. Can be made a day ahead: cool completely, cover, and refrigerate.