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Eating their words

(article, Caroline Cummins)

In last week's New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik found himself wondering about the food consumed by characters in novels, and decided to make some of it himself. 

He started with fish fillets (Günter Grass) and continued with "a dish of cranberry beans, diced steak, and fresh corn, dressed with olive oil and cider vinegar" (Robert B. Parker) before concluding with a fish stew (Ian McEwan). 

This last is an elaborate dish constructed, in McEwan's novel Saturday, by the central character while watching the news. In the novel, Gopnik writes, the scene is believable, but in reality, the entire setup is false:

bq(blue). You can’t idly make a bouillabaisse while you brood on modern life any more than you can idly make a cassoulet; these are nerve-wracking concoctions. The mussels, which Henry drops into his stock straight from a string bag, need at a minimum to be spray-washed, and probably cleaned and checked for those obscene little beards they have ... The fish needs to be taken from its wrappings and washed; and then how fine do you chop the garlic, and are you sure the alcohol has boiled off from the wine?

It's easy, Gopnik asserts, to have characters ponder the meaning of life while, say, walking or driving, because these activities require, under the best conditions, a minimum of attention. But cooking is another story altogether. 

If we like to cook it is because, on the most basic mental level, cooking is relaxing and demanding at the same time. You cannot simultaneously scroll through tomorrow's to-do list and measure out that half-teaspoon of salt — oh, wait, maybe it was a whole teaspoon. Better check.

Cooking may not be rocket science, but it is still a science, with bubbling pots for test tubes and dinner as the experiment. And cooking, Gopnik concludes, is not much different from reading itself:

bq(blue). The act of reading is always a matter of a task begun as much as of a message understood, something that begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.