We’ve all gotten to that point in a book in which — as lovely as the description of a scene may be — our imagination falls short. The colors, tastes, and smells may be vividly depicted but we cant seem to piece it all together. Perhaps language can never fully render sensory detail, or perhaps our limited imaginations fail us.
For those who understand this conundrum: Dinah Fried is there.
Her new book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals picks up where our imaginations drop the ball. The meals from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Moby Dick, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (just to name a few) are all served up in well lit and painstakingly constructed scenes. Fried paid scrupulous attention to the little things — down to the placement of the utensils in certain cases.
We sat down with her to discuss why exactly she undertook the project and what her inspiration for the book was:
How did you narrow down the list meals?
The dishes in Fictitious Dishes are a mix between iconic ones — like the tea party from Alice in Wonderland and the gruel from Oliver Twist — and less familiar but memorable (to me!) meals which help convey a sense of ambiance, time, and place.
I began choosing the titles based on my own reading memories, but was quickly bombarded with requests and suggestions from family, friends, and even strangers — so the book has a mix of those. From there I tried to keep the books and meals somewhat balanced, though if you pay close attention, you can see my affinity for specific genres and and specific meals.
Were there any books/meals you had to omit?
There were a bunch of meals that didn’t make it into the book for a variety of reasons — too complicated, too obscure, too repetitive, too difficult to prepare. There’s a wonderful scene in Anna Karenina about the family’s annual jam-making process,
[Dolly] carefully passed the spoon over the frothing sugar, and from time to time shook off the clinging jam from the spoon by knocking it on a plate that was covered with yellow-red scum and blood-coloured syrup. ‘How they’ll enjoy this at tea-time!’ she thought of her children, remembering how she herself as a child had wondered how it was the grown-up people did not eat what was best of all — the scum of the jam.
But I had already included Meg’s failed attempt at currant jelly from Little Women, so it felt like too much jam. I also omitted the scene from The Wind in the Willows that describes “a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb,” because there were just too many toast and sandwich dishes in the book. It would have been a nice one though!
Which were your favorites to put together?
My favorites to style were generally from books that I loved reading in childhood — among them the roasted potatoes and eggs from The Secret Garden, the melted cheese on bread from Heidi, and Meg’s failed attempt at making current jelly from Little Women. Those meals/ memories all tap into that special place in your imagination that is particularly active during childhood, and that made the process of recreating them particularly special for me as a reader.
There was also a joy (and relief) in some of the easy-to-style photographs, like the strawberry picking party from Emma. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and the bountiful, deep red California strawberries and sunlight made the whole process a piece of cake. There happened to be wild strawberry flowers growing in my back garden, so I picked some to tie on to the basket. The whole experience was full of serendipitous moments like that.
Least favorite to put together?
Some of these meals felt almost impossible to make, especially those with ornate and detailed descriptions of huge feasts; in that regard, The Great Gatsby, Rebecca, and Madame Bovary. Madame Bovary was probably the most difficult:
…then on the second stage was a dungeon of Savoy cake, surrounded by many fortifications in candied angelica, almonds, raisins, and quarters of oranges; and finally, on the upper platform a green field with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats, and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate swing whose two uprights ended in real roses for balls at the top.
This one took a lot of planning and careful engineering—super stressful!
Did you go on location or was this in studio?
I shot most of the photographs in my house — on the kitchen or living room floor, and a few outside on the deck and in the garden. There were exceptions though: Robinson Crusoe was shot on the beach in Santa Cruz, “Big Two-Hearted River” was shot in Big Sur, and Blueberries for Sal was set up on a small patch of greenery on a sidewalk in San Francisco.
Who do you envision the audience being?
When I began the project, I didn’t envision the audience being much larger than my class at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Once I put the photos online and the audience began to grow, I imagined the photos would appeal to a handful of other readers, but was thrilled to know how many people the photographs resonated with — readers, eaters, and beyond.
What’s next for you?
I run my own design studio called Small Stuff, with my partner Joe Marianek, and we’re working on many projects for clients and ourselves. And I’ve got some other fictitious things in the works as well…
How are your culinary skills after putting this together?
I grew up in a household that spent much of the day discussing what we would have for dinner (and then some time cooking it), so I felt comfortable in the kitchen from the start of the process. That said, there’s no question that working on Fictitious Dishes stretched my skills in the kitchen in many unexpected directions. I tried cooking lots of things I probably wouldn’t have attempted otherwise, from the Spanakopita in Middlesex to the burnt pork kidney in Ulysses.