I love to read about food, especially when I’m down. Apart from being necessary for survival, great food is a compositional masterpiece, a labor of love and a sensory puzzle. Reading about food satisfies an elementary sense of curiosity while offering delectable imagery and a healthy dose of escapism. More than anything, it is comfort. Here are the books I turn to:
Food for thought: “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan
“Sourdough” is warm and fluffy, with the funkiness of a good starter. The story follows Lois, a software engineer who moves to San Francisco, where she starts to bake sourdough bread with a mysteriously animate starter culture. One would expect a book about bread to be apolitical; however, as you keep flipping through the pages, it’s easier to see undercurrents of Sloan’s commentary on technology and how it changes culture (as in a “fungal party hellscape,” but also the characteristic features of everyday life). Sloan asserts that “food is history of the deepest kind,” and follows Lois as she overworks herself at her day job while uncovering the source of her fungal party hellscape.
Lois continually questions her work. Her programming job needs her to solve an endless scope of new problems: “Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again, because every time, the solution was consumed. I mean, really: chewed and digested. Thus, the problem was ongoing. Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.” “Sourdough” wraps you in a soft, disarming hug — its taste is strongly thought-provoking yet wholesome. When reading it for the first time, I remember finishing a chapter, sighing contentedly and falling asleep. It’s not a book you want to down; instead, you want to savor it. Solving the same problem over and over again isn’t such a bad thing; Lois loves the meditative process of baking bread, and I love the equally generative process of reading “Sourdough.”
Bread and circuses: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
This one isn’t technically comfort food, but it’s a comfort read, and ultimately, a story about food. Set in a world of food insecurity where foraging is necessary, “The Hunger Games” is a dystopia where children are forced to fight to the death in order to feed their communities. There are too many examples to name: Characters are named after edible plants, like Katniss and Prim. There are symbols of hope, like dandelions, which characters forage after starving for weeks. And who could forget the boy with the bread? As Katniss moves through different worlds, she makes a point to notice the food around her. The game she hunts in District 12 is sparse but fresh; berries are plucked directly from bushes. As Katniss is first introduced to the rich, overly luxurious foods of the Capitol, she fights “to keep it down,” overwhelmed: “What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button?”
The more I think about it, it’s messed up to say that “The Hunger Games” is a comfort read — after re-reading the young adult series so many times in middle school with friends, I’ve fallen into the same trap as the Capitol’s audience. The world is ridiculously captivating: the political intrigue, the delectable luxuries of the Capitol and of course, the star-crossed lovers from District 12. Suzanne Collins used the trilogy to comment on how, as long as we receive our panem et circenses, we can neglect humanity. To love “The Hunger Games” is, quite literally, to enjoy our bread and circuses. But damn, if it isn’t a juicy read.
Forbidden fruit is the sweetest: “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel
Esquivel writes that “smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present.” “Like Water for Chocolate” is a sense-evoking, magical-realism-infused roller coaster ride. As the youngest daughter, Tita is required to stay at home and take care of her mother; she’s devastated as she watches her love Pedro marry her older sister. To cope, Tita, who was raised by her cook Nacha, begins to cook. It’s impossible not to be frustrated by Tita’s situation at the beginning of the book, but as Tita learns to break rules in her life and finally express herself through her cooking, the exultation is exhilarating.
In “Like Water for Chocolate,” food seems to speak a language of its own — one that transcends words. Heartbroken, Tita pours her emotions into her food. Tita bakes Pedro’s wedding cake; everyone at the wedding is sick with heartbreak. Tita makes quail in rose sauce, thinking of Pedro — everyone at dinner is overcome with lust (the book is so vivid that the Mexican magical-realism novel has been banned in multiple school districts for containing “inappropriate material”). “Like Water for Chocolate” plays with your senses and serves as a sweet escape from the real world.
Cooking up a storm: “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto
“Why is it that everything I eat when I’m with you is so delicious?”
As we started to read “Kitchen” in my high school English class, I started talking to the girl sitting next to me. Soon, every other morning, we would share the oranges in her lunchbox, and after school we would do homework in her kitchen. We’re still friends, but we’ve grown older and apart. When I’m down, I read “Kitchen.” And when I read “Kitchen,” I think of her.
Early in the book, the main character Mikage declares, “The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me.” “Kitchen” is a Japanese contemporary magical-realism novel written in 1988 about Mikage, a young woman coping with the death of her grandmother. She meets Yuichi, who worked at the flower shop her grandmother frequented, and immediately moves in with him and his mother, Eriko. As she struggles with grief, and as the weather changes, she begins to cook.
You fall in love with “Kitchen” slowly, the way Mikage does with Yuichi as they go through twin tragedies. I can’t say too much, but trust me: If there’s one book you should read for comfort, it’s this one. I think I’ll always remember discussing this book with my dear friend, through the rainy autumns, over snacks from her pantry; it revived a part of me after a difficult year, the part that likes talking about art and books, a part I forgot existed. Slowly, with her cooking, Mikage brings herself and Yuichi back to life: “There are many, many difficult times, god knows. If a person wants to stand on her own two feet, I recommend undertaking the care and feeding of something. It could be children, or it could be house plants, you know? By doing that you come to understand your own limitations. That’s where it starts.”
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.