Employed as we all are in the food-media field, most of us at Serious Eats naturally have at least a few fairly strong opinions about food and...media. That is to say, food aside, we all deeply value a good story well told, no matter the form it takes. When we first started talking about publishing a collection of our favorite fictional foods from childhood, the addition of nostalgia to those two interests was like an adrenalin shot to our imaginations, and pretty soon a handful of us were jabbering away on Slack, our intra-office messaging app (and not getting much work done, to be frank). The roast fowl and venison feasts from The Chronicles of Narnia. The stockpiled gourds and braids of garlic in the Ingallses' attic, described in the Little House series. The more we talked, the more lovingly portrayed fictional foods we dredged up out of our individual pasts and collective consciousness, from books and movies alike. Most of these we first experienced in childhood, though some came slightly later in life. All of them left an indelible impression on at least one of us—and hopefully on some of our readers, too.
The Phantom Tollbooth
"Milo nibbled carefully at the letter and discovered that it was quite sweet and delicious—just the way you'd expect an A to taste. 'I knew you'd like it,' laughed the letter man, popping two G's and an R into his mouth and letting the juice drip down his chin."
Though The Phantom Tollbooth is perhaps best known for its satirical wordplay and convivially delivered morals, I remember it best for passages like these. Long before I could fully grasp the novel's humor, I was enraptured by its synesthetic moments, in which author Norton Juster so accurately captures the liveliness of words, imbuing them with the richness and texture we typically reserve for visceral, primal experiences. To this day, as I write—and particularly as I write about food—I often find myself savoring the character of a word or letter, at times spitting one out or snatching up another with the same conviction I would a rotten egg or an especially delicious spoonful of ice cream. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, managing editor
As a child, I had a mild obsession with cake. I was convinced that boxed mix was the stuff of fairies, and I insisted on singing "Happy Birthday" to myself every time I ate it. This scene was probably not meant to be appetizing, but watching Bruce Bogtrotter eat that cake like a boss, all while humiliating Miss Trunchbull, confirmed my suspicions: Cake is magic. And who doesn't like it when a fat kid gets to be the hero and eat his cake, too?
—Sohla El-Waylly, assistant culinary editor
In the Night Kitchen
Words alone can certainly paint a picture of deliciousness, but I'm going to take it all the way back to early childhood, when actual paint was used to that end. And no author/illustrator was more of a master of the painted word than Maurice Sendak. He was a favorite of mine, and his work undoubtedly contributed to my own early love for drawing. Of course, I was a fan of the crowd-pleasing Where the Wild Things Are—not ashamed to admit I still own stuffed versions of Max and a couple, er, "things." Food plays a key role in that story: Max's angry journey is sparked after he's sent to bed without supper, and, when he realizes his longing for his mother's love, it's not her he returns to but a lovingly prepared meal.
An earlier ode to food, Chicken Soup With Rice, takes us through 12 months of the stuff. In her book The Art of Maurice Sendak, Selma G. Lanes explains that Chicken Soup With Rice was inspired by Sendak's "second mother" and her belief in "the curative powers of loving care and good home cooking." She would have fit in perfectly at Serious Eats.
The chef d'oeuvre among Sendak's food tales, however, is In the Night Kitchen. The art is the cream of the crop, the fantasy really takes the cake, and the energy filling the pages is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The story centers on a young boy named Mickey, who falls into a food-filled dream world and helps three portly bakers finish their cake before morning. The bakers first incorporate Mickey into the cake batter, mistaking him for milk. Their energy is palpable as they dance around, singing, "Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing's the matter!" Who among us hasn't had a little karaoke session in the kitchen? After escaping and explaining that he is not, in fact, milk, Mickey dons a suit of batter and a measuring-cup helmet, builds a plane out of dough, and flies over a gorgeously detailed cityscape comprising all types of food containers and cooking instruments. Of note are the bread train, the pepper mill tower, and the various utensil domes and spires. Determined to find the missing ingredient "the Mickey way," he flies over the Milky Way and drops into a massive milk bottle, scooping out a portion for the bakers' batter down below and saving the day (or the night, as it were). One final Peter Pan–esque rooster crow, and Mickey drifts back into bed.
I love the way Sendak injects energy and laughter into the task of baking. Supposedly, he was inspired by the real-life bakers who worked before dawn to bring treats to the rest of the world. But the real treat, for me, rises from the way he bakes in elements of his own childhood—elements we can all relate to, and that lend a dash of whimsy and warm feeling to our own cooking experience. —Tim Aikens, front-end developer
James and the Giant Peach
My love of peaches has become a meme among my friends and family at this point—on most gift-giving holidays, I receive an onslaught of items bedecked and bedazzled in peach print, plus peach-scented soaps, peach schnapps, you name it. In my mind, there's nothing more divine than biting into a juicy peach, whether fresh, in a pie, or canned in syrup the way my grandma used to make. And I can trace it all back to Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. The thought of reaching my hand into the wall of a giant, sun-ripened peach, taking a handful of golden flesh, and promptly shoving it into my face was my childhood conception of absolute bliss. —Kristina Bornholtz, social media editor
Each book in the Redwall series follows a pretty straightforward formula. An evil rat/stoat/weasel attacks peaceful Redwall Abbey. A small group of heroes, led by a mouse/hare/mole, goes out on an epic quest, while the rest stay behind to defend the Dibbuns (that's baby animals in Redwallspeak) and solve some ancient rhyming riddle. At some point, a badger rolls into battle "like a juggernaut," and the whole adventure is punctuated by at least three grand feasts, described in lavish detail. Three feasts per book, multiplied by the approximately 18,000 books Brian Jacques wrote for the series (not even his publishers kept track toward the end), equals... a lot of feasts, and they're easily the best parts of the book.
What child of the '80s didn't imagine themselves gorging on chopped chesknutters an'unneyed damsens? Who didn't want to wash down a bowl of skilly 'n' duff (that's a fruit dumpling in syrup) with a glass of buttercup 'n' honey cordial (or, if you were feeling bolder, some seaweed grog)?
What I loved most about Redwall feasts was that they were part party, part potluck, and part cultural exchange. You could count on the hares of the woods to bring their veggie-packed pawspring soup (to improve their paw-springing power, of course); the skipper of the otters to not hold back on the hotroot in their shrimp 'n' hotroot soup; and the shrews to bake up a batch of shrewbread (for those who favored sustenance over pleasure). Redwall was also my introduction to the concept of seasonal eating: Mushrooms and leeks appeared in spring feasts, the Great Hall Gooseberry Fool was prepared in the summer, and oatcakes and nutbreads were on the table in the fall.
It didn't occur to me until much later that, with the exception of the occasional shrimp in the otters' fare, these feasts were entirely vegetarian. Imagine a spread described so ecstatically that it gets a 10-year-old kid craving vegetables!
Some hardcore Serious Eaters may remember a while back when we held a cookies-and-pie live event in Brooklyn. My contribution was miniature pot pies filled with turnips, potatoes, beets, and beans. They may not have been deeper 'n' ever (and, probably to the dismay of moles everywhere, I did not serve them with tomato chutney), but those turnip 'n' tater 'n' beetroot pies were a straight-up homage to Redwall. —J. Kenji López-Alt, chief culinary advisor
While the 1974 classic film Young Frankenstein is a comedy, that doesn't mean it isn't full of life lessons. The dining room scene, about halfway through the movie, always stood out to me, and I've used it since to navigate countless social situations.
In front of a vast fireplace are the movie's three stars, sitting down to an elegant dinner. Gene Wilder and Teri Garr are dressed like they're going to the Oscars, while Marty Feldman as Igor is doing the best he can—you know, with the hump and all. Dessert is served: a Schwarzwälder kirschtorte (black forest cherry cake). There, in the castle, just above an inanimate monster hidden in the basement, the characters introduce the term "yummy sound" into our lexicon.
That's what steals the scene, but for me, it always took a backseat to the teachable moment when Frankenstein says, "I'm not partial to desserts myself, but this is excellent." Of course it's excellent. It's a German dessert in which cream, chocolate cake, and cherries come together in a sort of dark-magic way. But this was one of the first times I'd heard an adult allude to tepid feelings about desserts as a category. It gave me pause—still does, whenever I meet people who aren't into sweets.
Of course, Frankenstein was also a madman. I'm not saying you're in the same league if you pass on a piece of pie during dinner, but you're probably Abby Someone...maybe Abby Normal. —Sal Vaglica, equipment editor
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
"Harry's mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs. The Dursleys had never exactly starved Harry, but he'd never been allowed to eat as much as he liked. Dudley had always taken anything that Harry really wanted, even if it made him sick. Harry piled his plate with a bit of everything except the peppermints and began to eat. It was all delicious."
I am an unapologetically diehard Harry Potter fan. I've read the books more times than I can count and seen the movies over and over. I'm not discriminating; literally anything that's Harry Potter–related, I love. When I read the very first book, in third grade, J. K. Rowlings's description of Harry's first feast at Hogwarts made me wish that I could somehow experience it for myself, a meal at which endless food magically appears—like Thanksgiving every day, except I don't have to do the dishes. Now, as a grown-up, I'd also like to let Harry know that those peppermints are there for good reason—to help with digestion, which would likely be necessary after a feast of such magnitude.
Also, shout-out to Sohla for her Bruce Bogtrotter reference. All I want to do every time I watch Matilda is stick my face in that cake. —Ariel Kanter, marketing director
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
"It's the most amazing, fabulous, sensational gum in the whole world," says Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, introducing his three-course dinner chewing gum to his child visitors, with memorable results. It's no surprise that Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the book on which it was based) would be someone's choice in this list. I remember being in elementary school, reading this tale of the most outlandish factory tour in the world, and wishing more than anything that Willy Wonka's creations were real. The tomato soup/roast beef/blueberry chewing gum, which of course turned one unlucky guest into a literal blueberry, was the most intriguing of them all. That might have been because I hated how long it took to have dinner when I was a kid, and wanted to get it over with so I could go back to playtime. How easy it would've been to just chew a piece of gum and be full! —Vivian Kong, designer
Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm
I don't think I've ever wanted to eat anything described in a book as much as the mutton chops in Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm. The lowly chop is a symbol of lower-class Australian masculinity, and White seems to put one in every character's hand at some point in the novel. Most of them aren't lower-class Australian men, either—a French princess; a pair of poor, lesbian drunks; a knighted has-been actor looking to inherit a tidy sum from his dying mother. White also makes sure to describe every chop in the novel in an unappealing way: They are all over- or undercooked, invariably surrounded by bits of burnt fat—one is so gristly that the actor, when asked whether the chop he's gnawing is inedible, quips, "You must give me time to get my teeth round it."
And yet, I wanted to eat one. I suppose that was partly due to repetition (a lot of chops are eaten in the novel), but it also had to do with the way White writes, since I felt a similar desire to eat a meat pie after reading the passage below. It's almost as if, in describing a state of emotion or a taste, White manages to convey its opposite, too: hate and love, revulsion and attraction, the chops in the text and a well-charred, medium-rare hunk of mutton on my plate.
Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.
'Oh, Basil—you're not going to eat them!' She spoke with the languor of an older girl.
'What else?' The light through a sycamore illuminated his sheepish words.
He handed her the second pie. 'Oh, really!' She couldn't refuse it, and at the same time it was too hot, too greasy: she didn't know what to do with the thing.
Basil was already stuffing his mouth. She doubted whether his boyhood could be recaptured so easily. As a trickle of pale gravy meandered down toward the cleft in his chin, she was reminded, rather, of a boyish, slightly sweaty commercial traveler in a train. Only the dustcoat was missing.
Dorothy sighed. 'Oh, dear!' She bit into her horrid pie.
Flooded with the flavour of hot soggy cardboard and floury gravy, her unwillingness and contempt turned to loathing; worse on discovering something loathsome in herself: she was filled with a guilty voluptuousness as though biting into her own flesh.
'By God, it's good!' Basil sprayed the windscreen with several fragments of gristle.
'Naus-e-ating!' She sucked back anything else that was trying to escape.
—Sho Spaeth, associate editor
A Time to Keep
So—many—possibilities. For someone who wouldn't call herself obsessed with real-life food as an adult, looking back on it, I sure seem to have been crazy about fictional food as a child, especially if it was unfamiliar to me. The comfits and the Eat Me cake, "beautifully marked in currants," that Alice ate in Wonderland come to mind, as do Anne's raspberry tarts in Anne of Green Gables. Later, as I read Christina Rossetti's long poem Goblin Market, any of its more, er, adult themes were totally lost on me as I fantasized about "bloom-down-cheek'd peaches."
But one book that really stands out for its nonstop parade of deliciousness is the 1977 nostalgia trip A Time to Keep, written and illustrated by Tasha Tudor. It was one of the children's books my grandparents just happened to have around their house, which meant I read it, and soaked in the transportingly light-infused, soft-edged art on each page, over and over. The plot isn't much, really—a grandmother recounting to a little girl how seasons and holidays were marked back in the day in rural New England. Though the young ones entertained themselves with puppet shows and sled races, all I really noticed was that they ate food, and lots of it. For New Year's, the family capped off a bonfire in the snow with a meal of "roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and apple pie and ice cream and cheese." Heck yeah! thought young me, wondering what Yorkshire pudding was. Agog, I followed along as the apple-cheeked Yankees enjoyed maple candies after a sugaring-off party, fresh watermelon for July 4th, and a candlelit cake in August (my birthday month!) that they literally sent floating down the river at night. Because you had to make your own fun back then, so why not present a birthday dessert in the coolest way imaginable? —Miranda Kaplan, editor
Saturday Night Fever
I've always wanted to eat two slices of pizza with one hand, the way John Travolta did in the opening sequence in Saturday Night Fever, but I've never quite mastered it. Every time I try, I end up with pizza all over my shirt. I think I get the fold right, but for whatever reason, the whole operation falls apart when I take away the other hand. To me, that was the best dance move Travolta had in the movie, and he wasn't even wearing a white leisure suit at the time. What I need to pull this stunt off, I'm pretty sure, is two smallish slices of plain pizza, light on the cheese and sauce, and I've got just the place: the original Patsy's on First Avenue in East Harlem. The slices there are minimalist coal-oven masterpieces—exactly the right size for folding and eating with one hand. —Ed Levine, founder
The first time I picked up All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, I was mesmerized. A portrait of a close-knit immigrant family living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, the novel delicately weaves nostalgic stories of five sisters and their everyday adventures, punctuated by celebrations of Jewish holidays and traditions, with food playing a central role.
Everything having to do with food is done with intent, clearly demonstrated in all aspects of how it was procured, prepared, and savored. Shopping for the Sabbath along Rivington Street is broken up by stops to spend penny allowances on snacks like a juicy sour pickle, eaten "greedily, with noise and gusto"; "plump sweet potatoes in their gray jackets," fished from a street oven and split in half so that "their rich golden color gave promise of great sweetness"; sticks of candied tangerine slices and grapes, plucked from neat rows on white trays; and piping-hot salt-and-pepper-spiced chickpeas spooned into paper cones. On a trip by streetcar to Coney Island, the family picnics by the seaside with a basket full of "bread-and-butter sandwiches, Mama's kind, a slice of sour rye bread placed against a slice of pumpernickel; hard-boiled eggs and whole tomatoes sprinkled liberally with salt....[And] store-bought cakes! Not just plain cakes like the ones Mama baked at home for the Sabbath, but fancy ones with icing—chocolate and vanilla!" Neighborhood groceries and candy stores provided dry goods and treats like chewy chocolate mellocreme candies and barrels of broken assorted soda crackers. If the girls were lucky, scraps of lox would be handed over so they could devour every richly salty, smoky, fatty bit. Imagination was their greatest source of entertainment, and food, homey and simple as it seemed, definitely fueled it—which isn't totally dissimilar from how I operated as a kid myself, and still do today. —Marissa Chen, office manager
I'm reasonably certain the scene where the fairy godmothers make a cake changed the course of my life. —Stella Parks, pastry wizard
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