The best way to discover new cultures and places in my opinion, apart from actually visiting them, is reading about them and eating their food. It's like having a little holiday, and you don't have to leave your couch or your PJs. I had a little "holiday" of that sort this weekend, one of toast and tahini and trackies and books.
After reading a book set in a foreign place I'll often want to try some of the food that is eaten there--even if it's not actually mentioned in the book. After reading Saundra Mitchell's Shadowed Summer (a fantastic ghost story and a really quick read) I got a sudden craving for beans and rice, even though I'd never eaten bean and rice and it wasn't even mentioned in the book. Beans and rice is delicious. I made a cheat's version with tinned kidney beans and bacon, but still. Yum. I love books set in the South, like Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches Chronicles and To Kill a Mockingbird and R. A. Nelson's gorgeous novels. Plus there are TV shows like HBO's True Blood, which is partly set in a restaurant with actual booths. (Below left, the interior of Merlotte's.) I love booths but we just don't have them here! How I want to sit in a booth and eat a "coke float". We call them spiders and my cousins and I used to eat vanilla ice cream and coke spiders at my nanna's on hot Sunday afternoons.
But it's not just books set in America that make me want to eat. (OK, that wasn't a jibe against you Americans. I just tend to read a lot of books set there!) Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl made me crave hawker noodle dishes on the streets of Bangkok. Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, set on the Greek island of Corfu, makes me think of olives and frosty pink watermelon slices. The Kite Runner by Khaled Housseini and Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody, while heartbreaking stories, make me want to eat flatbread and spiced meats from Middle Eastern street vendors. A friend make Yorkshire puddings for a dinner party a few weeks ago and I was so excited to try them after reading so many of James Herriot's vet novels as a teenager.
Cat told me on Twitter she just has to eat stew with chucks of bread and cheese whenever she reads fantasy adventure novels, which made me laugh and also made me think about all the oatcake-munching and jerky-chewing that goes on in those books. I remember once trying to make mead, which is a type of honey wine, after reading about it one of those pseudo-medieval fantasy books. I was about thirteen so it wasn't alcoholic. I think it had fruit and honey and cinnamon in it and it was rather delicious. Then earlier this winter I spotted Maxwell's Mead (see right) in a bottle shop and had to try it. It's so good by itself or with ginger beer.
Have you ever read a book that makes you want to eat or cook something either mentioned in it or from the same region?
**EDIT** Since posting this I have read a gut-wrenching post on Saundra Mitchell's blog detailing her reaction to Professor Scroggin's thoughtless attack on the Republic School reading list. Please visit her blog and offer your support, or use the #SpeakLoudly hashtag on Twitter to search for more information on this issue (if you haven't, you know, had your blog reader explode all over your face with posts about this in the last twelve hours).