10 Great Food Moments in Literature (Plus Dining Guide!)

Categories: Our 10 Best

Sarah DiGregorio
Trade plot twists for the pretzel kind.

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)

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The scene in Moonraker where James Bond and M dine at the Blades club begs to be included. Never have so many given so much for a marrow bone

The Gilgamesh Police
The Gilgamesh Police

'Love your 'great moments' but your description of Enkidu really does owe more to The Hangover than it does to the epic of Gilgamesh.

The 'hooker' has a name - Shamhat - and she is almost certainly a sacred prostitute from the temple of Ishtar in Uruk. In the epic she is the person primarily responsible for civilizing Enkidu. Introducing him to a human diet that includes beer is part of this process, but she also participates in a week long sex session, clothes him, and takes him to the city of Uruk to meet Gilgamesh. Enkidu certainly becomes drunk and sings, but there is nothing in the text to suggest he 'started yelling' at Shamhat or that she was 'trying to ply him with alcohol' - an expression that generally infers an underhand motive. The outcome is not that he becomes 'shit faced' but that he '[turns] into a human'!

The Epic of Gilgamesh, moreover, is not the 'oldest example of written literature', but your suggestion that food and beer has a value far beyond mere sustenance here is quite accurate. Another illustration of this theme is found in an Old Babylonian version of the epic in which Shiduri, the goddess who keeps a tavern (most Babylonian inn keepers were females) at the end of the world, offers Gilgamesh the following advice:

Gilgamesh, let you belly be fullEnjoy yourself day and nightEvery day make merry, dance and playLet your clothes be cleanLet your head be washedBathe yourself in waterGaze upon the little child that holds your handLet a wife enjoy your repeated embraceFor this is the lot of men

Here eating and drinking are among the simple pleasures of life that give it true meaning. These words are repeated almost verbatim over a thousand years later in the book of Ecclesiastes (9:7-9), just as the story of Enkidu and Shamhat shares key motifs and themes with the story of Adam and Eve.

Incidentally, I'm also a big Singer fan - The Magician of Lublin is an all time favourite.


Hemingway eating oysters and drinking champagne in A Moveable Feast? THE DEBT TO PLEASURE??? Now that you guys have tackled women's lit you should branch out with Top 10s by genre.


tablet 2: The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,he drank the beer-seven jugs!-- and became expansive and sang with joy!He was elated and his face glowed.He splashed his shaggy body with water,and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.He put on some clothing and became like a warrior(!).He took up his weapon and chased lions so that the shepherds could eatHe routed the wolves, and chased the lions.With Enkidu as their guard, the herders could lie down.A wakeful man, a singular youth, he was twice as tall (?) (as normal men

[The next 33 lines are missing in the Standard Version; lines 57-86 are taken from theOld Babylonian.]

Then he raised his eyes and saw a man.He said to the harlot:"Shamhat, have that man go away!Why has he come'? I will call out his name!"