Somewhere on a dusty chunk of earth bordered by two rivers, a king’s BFF got shit-faced on beer, then started yelling at the hooker who was trying to ply him with alcohol. You might think this titillating bit marks the beginning of a Middle Eastern version of The Hangover. But it’s actually from The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh, said to be the oldest example of written literature, not only winds up being pretty sexy for something carved into a bunch of stone tablets; the verses probably also contain the first written description of food and drink — as well as the earliest recorded idea that eating and imbibing can mean more to humans than mere sustenance.
At Fork in the Road, we’re nerds as much as noshers, so we decided to look at prose and poetry throughout the ages to come up with this week’s Top 10: Great Food Moments in Literature. As an added bonus: suggestions about where in New York to find some related dishes and eateries, so you can totally geek out with bookish gut-blasts.
1. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
In Flaubert’s famous novel, Emma gets hitched to a boring-but-kindly country doctor, cheats on him repeatedly, and winds up killing herself by swallowing a handful of arsenic. While this could sound like any ol’ story about a loveless marriage, Emma’s departure from morals and sanity happens because of fruit and condiments. When the middle-class lass eats pineapple — a rare delicacy reserved for the rich — for the first time at a ritzy ball, she realizes that her hubby ain’t exotic, exciting, or rich enough for her. Emma later tries to seek peace in church — but she ditches that plan when she sees an ugly mustard stain on a priest’s shirt.
For mean mustard that’s guaranteed not to send you into an existential crisis, check out Sigmund Pretzelshop. (29 Avenue B, 646-410-0333)
2. The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck
Wang Lung, a poor farmer, gets a wife, O-Lan, from a rich household where she has worked as a slave much of her life. At first, he doesn’t seem to see her as much more than a glorified domestic, but then he buys meat for his wedding feast. While he makes O-Lan do all the cooking for the bros-only wedding party, the fact that he splurged on pork and beef shows that he cares about his marriage.
If you want hearty, down-home dishes that would delight Wang Lung, but without the requisite mistreatment of a loved one, check out Shanghai Asian Cuisine. (14A Elizabeth Street, 212-964-5640)
3. “The Cafeteria,” by I.B. Singer
A kosher cafeteria, the kind that used to be common on the Upper West Side, becomes a gathering place for displaced Jews in Singer’s Yiddish-language classic. For Aaron, the main character, the routine of cafeteria dining leads to a sense of community with the émigrés he finds there, and a deep, sudden love for a chick he meets. But the old guard of cafeteria-goers is aging over bowls of rice pudding, and the place suddenly burns down. When it gets rebuilt, the old camaraderie is absent, and the girl winds up going batshit. More of Aaron’s friends die, and the resto permanently closes.
A favorite of kosher diners, this B & H Dairy promises to be crazy-woman free. (127 Second Avenue, 212-505-8065)
4.”Starving,” by Elizabeth Strout
Strout’s short story deals with an adulterous couple who decides to help an anorexic teenage delinquent. The donut-munching lovers feel guilty, but instead of talking about their present misdeeds, they chitchat about their own childhood antics, like stealing a pear from a neighbor’s tree. They also go on diets and put off cigarettes, which, unlike their cravings for each other, are bodily appetites that they can control.
One craving you should not resist: Bluebird Coffee Shop’s pistachio-cardamom donut. (72 East 1st Street, 212-260-1879)
5. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Enid — the perennial bitchy wife and clueless, overbearing mother in Franzen’s novel — prides herself on her homemaking. But she’s an embarrassingly bad cook, no more able to entice her kids to eat her food than make her daughter love her. That daughter, Denise, eventually becomes a top New American chef, and passive-aggressively makes a point of cooking rabbit — which Enid would never, ever prepare — when she visits home. Denise also thwarts her mom’s Protestant, women-in-the-kitchen values by using her position as a chef to do decidedly un-Midwestern, un-domestic things — like marry an older Jewish man, and meet lesbians.
Marlow & Sons serves up classic New American cuisine, but their chefs are probably much more well-adjusted than Denise. At least we hope so. (81 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-384-1441)
6. Symposium, by Plato
Arguably the most famous drinking party in the Western canon, Plato’s dialogue gives a whimsical, intimate look at a Greek cultural institution, the symposium: gatherings where men would drink copious amounts of wine and chat about politics, philosophy, and poetry. This talk is largely about the nature of love. Quite fitting, considering that Socrates — who gets krunk and winds up with ribbons in his hair — has a visit paid to him by his young “friend,” Alcibiades. Athens’s famed playboy shows up to the fete nearly naked, then hits on his older prof.
We wouldn’t suggest showing up anywhere drunk and barely dressed, but we would suggest eating Kefi Restaurant’s great Greek cuisine. Hemlock is not on the cocktail menu. (505 Columbus Avenue, 212-873-0200)
7. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez
When she agrees to marry the town’s most eligible bachelor, beautiful Fermina pushes the real love of her life, Florentino, into a downward spiral of romantic desperation and sexual debauch. Her disappointing decision to wed Dr. Urbino, chronicled in García Márquez’s masterpiece, largely hinges on one condition: that the physician won’t make her eat eggplant, which she has feared since childhood. Turns out, he kinda does. Fermina’s mother-in-law serves up aubergine every day, “out of respect for her dead husband.” The marriage doesn’t end up being a very happy one.
Brancaccio’s Food Shop prepares eggplant caponata that’s so good, even Fermina would like it. (3011 Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, 718-435-1997)
8. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
In Daphne du Maurier’s gothic thriller, food usually makes the unnamed heroine feel out of place. The narrator — who comes from simple means — gets paid by a grotesque, rich American woman to travel with her. The woman’s gluttony — and love of “plates piled high with ravioli” — pokes fun at the excesses of the wealthy. Later, when she marries a well-heeled, murderous guy (but a hot one with an awesome manor!), she pisses off the creepy maid by changing the house’s menu.
You might not be a patroness on holiday in Monte Carlo, but Babbo’s goose liver ravioli will take your taste buds on a luxurious vacation. (110 Waverly Place, 212-777-0303)
9. The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty
Laurel McKelva Hand has nobody and nothing in the world. Her husband died in a war, and her ditzy stepmom, Fay, basically scares her sickly dad to death. But Laurel’s pop loved the mean Fay a lot, so he willed her the family house. The only thing Laurel wants before she leaves home forever: her mom’s breadboard. Fay, though, has used the hand-carved wood as an ashtray and thing to crack walnuts on, and won’t readily give it up. At first, Laurel makes a big stink about this kitchen gadget — she dreams of baking bread like her mom and plans to fight Fay for the plank. Then Laurel realizes that a memento won’t bring the dead back to life, or make her feel any less alone.
Laurel should probably just go to Pain d’Avignon instead. (120 Essex Street, 212-673-4950)
10. Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton
Ethan miserably and dutifully cares for his wife, Zeena, who perpetually joneses for her mail-order patent medicine. Ethan wants to hook up with their hot servant girl, Mattie, whose bad homemaking suggests her eventual home-breaking. Ethan is sure that easygoing Mattie would make for a great wife and that she’d cook a mean biscuit and pie, “the pride of the county,” if the right man came along to tame her. The nubile lass unwittingly sets off a course of events, which eventually result in the smashing of the wife’s pickle jar. Domestic stability, neatly symbolized by the glass wedding gift, shatters.
DuMont Burger’s fried bread and butters make for a great pickle dish, and, luckily, don’t foreshadow anything too ominous. Not sure what Wharton would have made of Williamsburg. (314 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-384-6127)
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