I’ve been feeling unsettled for a while, in this transitional phase between paper and electronic books. I love my paper books but hate lugging them around, be it on a train or aeroplane. I’ll eventually buy an e-reader, but for now I’m using my iPad. I know it isn’t the best choice for reading books, but I always have it in my bag, so it makes sense to use it.
I’m reading the coffee-table e-book, Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals by Dinah Fried. It features fifty iconic meals from literature—cooked, styled and photographed by the author. Many of the author’s most vivid memories from books are of the meals the characters eat—this was her inspiration for the collection, and is something I can totally relate to. She’s captured some of my favourites: the first meal Heidi’s grandfather cooks for her, a piece of cheese toasted on a long fork over the open fire, with a big mug of the best milk she has ever drunk; the Finch family’s table loaded with food—chicken, salt pork, tomatoes, beans, grapes and a jar of pickled pigs’ knuckles—gifts to thank Atticus for defending Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird; and apple pie and ice cream from On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
I tend to have multiple books on the go and I also like to reread books. I’m currently rereading my paperback Penguin edition of On the Road. Every time I read it, the same things happen: I dream about ditching my job to travel the world, and I develop an intense craving for apple pie and ice cream. For narrator Sal, apple pie and ice cream is ‘practically all I ate all the way across the country’. He eats apple pie and ice cream at a roadside stand in Illinois before hitching a ride to Iowa where, he tells us, the apple pie was bigger and the ice cream richer. It’s so delicious to imagine.
I’m rereading On the Road not just for the apple pie and ice cream, but also as inspiration and research for my travels later this year. I’ll be visiting the United States for the first time, including a couple of key stops from the On the Road itinerary—San Francisco, California and Denver, Colorado. You can bet I’ll be eating in diners, and yes, there’s a high likelihood I’ll eat apple pie and ice cream.
I get a great deal of pleasure out of reading children’s books as much as from adult fiction. I’m rereading Billy-Bob Tales by Enid Blyton, a book I adored as a child. I recently bought a second hand paperback for my two nieces (aged five and six) and my nephew (aged three). It’s very similar to my personal copy—a nicely broken-in, slightly dog-eared Dragon Books edition from the 1970s with the original illustrations by May Smith. Even if this book became available in e-book format, I couldn’t see myself surrendering my beloved paperback in exchange for an electronic version. At best, I’d have both.
The book is a collection of short stories about a ‘merry little boy with twinkling blue eyes and curly red hair’ named Billy-Bob, his annoying little sister, Belinda, and their half-good, half-naughty dog, Wags.
When I first read Billy-Bob Tales, it was before my family immigrated to Australia. We were living in Malaysia, and I was probably seven or eight years old. I could only imagine the world described in the stories … and desired to experience it. We didn’t have a milkman who left a bottle of milk on our doorstep each morning, and we certainly didn’t have to contend with a devious little hedgehog knocking the bottle over to steal a drink of milk. Growing up in Perth from age ten, I still haven’t experienced life with milkmen or hedgehogs. The magic of Billy-Bob’s world remains.
I’ve always loved the sensory moments and descriptions of food in the stories: Billy-Bob and Belinda holding warm, freshly laid eggs; the children going for a picnic in Bluebell Wood and eating tomato sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs dipped in salt; having hot cocoa with brown bread and butter and honey for afternoon tea.
I don’t know if my nieces and nephews will like the stories, but I hope they’ll enjoy them, even if they don’t read them as greedily as I do.
And, like a typical Chinese-Malaysian, while I consume one meal, I’m already planning the next. I think after I finish these books, I’ll raid my library for food from America’s Deep South—deep-fried dill pickles, and dry ribs sprinkled with secret sauce, served with slaw and baked beans in John Grisham’s The Firm, another dog-eared paperback, which I’ve recently acquired on the iPad. I’d also like to dig into some good old-fashioned English boarding school stories—I’m in the mood for a decent midnight feast, and a round of jammy buns after another exciting lacrosse match.
Cynthia Chew lives in Perth. She has a PhD in English from Murdoch University and a full-time job she prefers not to talk about. In her spare time, she takes photographs and writes about food and travel at her blog The Food Pornographer.