The New York Times book review this weekend ran an enchanting set of illustrations depicting what great authors--and a few contemporary writers pursuing greatness--ate while composing their masterpieces. John Steinbeck ate cold toast, Walt Whitman ate oysters, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ate tinned meat (no doubt washed down with plenty of gin.)
What made the graphic so intriguing was the implicit suggestion that eating cold toast or drinking vinegar, a la Lord Byron, could enable literary genius. That prescription would seem to doom food writers, who are unlikely to shift to a daily diet of tinned meat.
Not that food writers eat especially well when they're working: Local blogger Kathleen Flinn polled her fellow food-writing buddies, and discovered they subsist on cereal, peanut-butter sandwiches, and cookies and milk (Dr. Freud would have a field day investigating why people who write about food for a living eat like 5-year olds.)
My at-keyboard eating habits are equally unimpressive: I keep the top drawer of my file cabinet filled with foil packs of tuna fish, ramen noodles, and microwaveable soup for quick lunches. I try to dodge irony, but I'm sure I've written about the evils of the industrialized food system while forking my way through a tub of Healthy Choice ziti and meat sauce.
Eating is what I do out in the world. Writing is what I do at the office. I can't imagine commingling the two and doing either passably well. And by eating well, I don't mean the mechanics of the activity: I probably could eat a taco at my desk without getting much messier than I do at a taqueria (which, to be fair, is pretty messy). Eating well entails thinking about texture and flavor. It requires focus, same as writing.
As an undergraduate student, I studied music history with Sylvan Suskin, a wild-haired Belgian whose reputation for toughness was probably underscored by his Germanic accent. Suskin railed against music in restaurants, believing the practice diminished, rather than compounded, civilized pleasures. (It was the arbitrary pairing of Mozart and linguine that irked Suskin, I think: Not sure what he would have thought of chefs developing meals to reflect what's on the stereo. Hearing Dylan? Try this aged beef and seaweed, leathery and raspy like the man himself.)
When I don't eat and write at the same time, I think of Suskin. But I'm not an absolutist. I will read and eat simultaneously. Perhaps it's unfair to treat food as a supporting player, but I have wonderful memories of reading David Wondrich's Punch, a book about seeking gustatory delights in public places, at Craft, where troops of modern-day gourmands were doing the same. And I don't remember exactly what I ate at a barbecue festival in Tryon, N.C., some years ago, but I distinctly recall reading Larry McMurtry's Moving On in close proximity to smoked meat.
The pairing of book and cuisine doesn't have to be precise. It's not necessary to seek out borscht before tacking Tolstoy, or to tote a Jhumpa Lahiri collection to a curry joint. Even when the setting and story don't overlap, there's still something special about feeding your imagination and your gut all at once.