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Literary Dinners; Crumbling Apartments

January 6, 2012 | by

I’ve been dreaming of hosting a cozy winter dinner party based on a famous meal from literature. What famous feasts are the most completely described? Id like to be able to re-create the menu, the atmosphere, and the attire, if possible.

There are probably a few people in the world more interested in this question than I—but, I’d reckon, a very few. As long as we’re being frank here, you may as well know that I belong to a literary potluck society in which we do monthly themed dinners. (We have yet to venture into the realm of costume.)

Laurie Colwin once wrote a whole essay on books containing good food; she singled out the early novels of Iris Murdoch, the Barbara Pym canon, and Anna Karenina. Inasmuch as I own and have used the Barbara Pym Cookbook, I can’t really agree that any of these vivid descriptions would make for very satisfying dinner parties (or, in the case of czarist Russia, a very relaxing one for the cook).

Here are a few other ideas to get you started: The Master and Margarita (for more manageable Russian cuisine—and think of the costume opportunities!). If you fancy something Dickensian, see any of the gluttonous Joe’s numerous meals in The Pickwick Papers. If you really want to take the guesswork out of it, Heartburn comes complete with recipes. Proust is a no-brainer—if Proust can ever be called a no-brainer. If your interest runs to tea, root out Enid Blyton. And at the end of the day, does any book in the world have better food than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy?

If you don’t feel like going the fictional route, there is always the food memoir. Nowadays, you’re spoiled for choice. Or (ration-bound Pym aside) consider the subgenre of cookbooks authored by enthusiastic writers: two whose quality is rivaled by their own idiosyncrasies are Roald Dahl's Cookbook and The Tasha Tudor Cookbook.

Whatever you decide, please drop a line and let me know—the group and I are always looking for ideas.

What do you think about movie adaptations of books? Are there any instances where you think the film actually improved on a particular story, or do you find that adaptations for the most part dont do justice to the original text?

Of course there are terrific adaptations. The Godfather, after all, made a thriller into a baroque masterpiece. We could list successful adaptations all day—I hope you will, in comments—but just a few that I like: The 39 Steps, The Dead, Persuasion, The Remains of the Day, High Fidelity, The Leopard, and, most recently, the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which manages to cover a lot of ground with enviable economy.

I recently moved into a crumbling three-bedroom in Bushwick, with peeling hand-painted green wallpaper in the cramped and poorly lit stairwell. The front door’s peephole, the tin cover of which unmoors itself at night and clatters to the ground, overlooks a dismal and gloomy green landing, where I can easily envision a seedy groping or muffled strangling taking place. My own room is separated from the living room by an old-fashioned sliding parlor door about the size and weight of a Prius. The bathroom window opens into a murky blue chute, which smells like laundry and cigarettes and exhales a strange warmth. What books should I read here?

Reading’s the easy part—sounds like your pad is made for it. What you should watch, and posthaste, is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.

On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t.

I’m tired of reading books about bad behavior. Do you know any books that make virtue look sexy?

A tall order in a post–Horatio Alger world (although sexy probably isn’t the right word there), but off the top of my head, try Carlene Bauer’s luminous memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. Lorin has intimated that the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End” trilogy, Some Do Not …, might fit the bill. (Although, again, I’m not sure sexy applies.)

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  1. Rose Gowen | January 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    A great book about food in books is Here Let Us Feast by MFK Fisher. It’s an anthology of meals in literature with Fisher’s commentary. Totally delightful. It appears to be out of print, but findable used.

  2. Sadie Stein | January 6, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    HOW COULD I HAVE NEGLECTED THAT?! Thank you, Rose, for an invaluable suggestion!

  3. Charlotte K | January 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Yes, “Farmer Boy” has the best food of any book I have ever read. Close second, “The Magic Mountain”–wow.

  4. Joe Carlson | January 6, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Crumbling apartment? Read: Dostoyevsky. Watch: PACIFIC HEIGHTS with Michael Keaton.

  5. James | January 6, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Food inspiration can be derived in copious quantities from James Salter’s Life Is Meals.

    The classic text of virtue rewarded is Mansfield Park, isn’t it?

  6. Taia | January 6, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    “The World According To Garp” was a better film adaptation than book.

  7. Daniel Cecil | January 7, 2012 at 4:37 am

    I really enjoyed the movie adaptation of Before Night Falls directed by Julien Schnabel. I understand it’s off a biography, but there is always something fictional and hallucinogenic about Reinaldo Arenas’ writing-whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

  8. Daniel Cecil | January 7, 2012 at 4:41 am

    Oh, and since I was on the subject of movies with Javier Bardem in them, No Country for Old Men is also a fantastic adaptation of the book by Cormac McCarthy. And, to leave Javier Bardem for a moment (although who wants to) what about the film adaptation of the Shining? I could go on, and on, and on …

  9. Kristine | January 7, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Mrs Ramsays meal in Virginia Woolfs “To the lighthouse”.

  10. Major Alfonso | January 7, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I’m really surprised that writing this post on January 6th and mentioning it’s adaptation in the second answer you didn’t immediately recommend re-creating the meal from The Dead! It’s a tradition for some to have a “Dead” dinner on January 6th and there’s no cozier time for it especially with the story’s talk of the snow being general across Ireland and what not. In attire the Edwardian costumes would be worth recreating though the food might not be the significantly different from Christmas fare.

  11. Joe Carlson | January 7, 2012 at 9:41 am

    John Huston starts and ends his film director career with a masterpiece: The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and The Dead in 1987. Whether either measures up to the original text is another matter. Huston specialized in adaptations, many of them quite fine: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Badge of Courage, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor. His Moby Dick – sunk not by a whale but by Gregory Peck – also had its moments.

    Get your galoshes out.

  12. brian cullman | January 7, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Movies….well, for starters —

    A Touch Of Evil
    One flew over the cuckoos nest
    Clockwork orange
    The Graduate
    Double indemnity
    Strangers on a train
    Purple noon
    The Invisible Man
    The Maltese falcon
    The Thin Man
    The spy who came in from the cold
    Gone with the wind
    From Russia with love
    The Man Who Would Be King
    Being There
    Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    In Cold Blood
    Out of sight

  13. brian cullman | January 7, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    And lest we forget …

    Purple Noon (The Talented Mr Ripley)
    To Kill A Mockingbird
    The Yearling
    The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
    To Sir With Love
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
    The Last Picture Show
    Mildred Pierce
    Cabaret (Berlin Stories)
    The Wizard of Oz
    The Caine Mutiny

  14. Kristoffer | January 8, 2012 at 4:40 am

    How can you leave out “Babette’s Feast”, the story by Karen Blixen, especially considering that the next question deals with films? One of the greatest meals in all of fiction.

  15. Joe Carlson | January 8, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Never read Fielding but this scene from TOM JONES is worth a nibble and a bite.

  16. Clara | January 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    I have to say that my favorite food books are still all the Redwall books. I’ve always wanted to try to have a Redwall feast.

  17. Erika | January 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    A literary potluck society! Why didn’t I think of that?

  18. Shelley | January 9, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Nobody can touch the Wolfe/Woolfs–Thomas and Virginia.

    They make all writers hungry.

  19. Joe Carlson | January 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Speaking of food? How ’bout singing of food?

  20. Seymour Clifford | September 18, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Ignatius J Reilly’s paen/ JK Toole’s panegyric to hot dogs is nothing shy of superlative.
    Also, A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is perfect for both winter weather and catering on a budget.

  21. Seymour Clifford | September 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm


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