Food and fiction – Melissa van Maasdyk

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By Melissa van Maasdyk

I didn’t set out to write about food, but my my mother’s excellent cooking conspired with my fondness for foodie fiction to produce my debut novel Love Apples. ♥

Some of my strongest memories from novels are those involving food, perhaps because it engages the senses so fully. While the details of most childhood reads are now fuzzy, I can still almost taste the toffee shocks in Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree that swelled as you chewed until you couldn’t speak, and finally exploded in your mouth. Then came The Famous Five, and their picnics of boiled eggs, ham and ginger beer, which transported me to those craggy cliffs and coves where they hunted down villains, long before I ever visited Dorset.

I later studied French at university, where I discovered Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and experienced the magical moment when the protagonist dips a petite madeleine in his tea and is suffused with happy memories from his childhood. But my love affair with food in literature truly began with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, in which it plays a crucial role in the forbidden love affair between the central characters, Tita and Pedro, acting as a means for communicating their feelings. (“It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her whole being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas.”)

Revolving around recipes, Esquivel’s novel, in particular, probably resonated because my mother is a brilliant cook, and I absorbed a passion for food in her kitchen while growing up. I had, however, never dreamed of a career in the culinary realm – or in writing for that matter – and was working in corporate communications when Marie Claire South Africa advertised for a sub-editor with French, changing my plans.

Hired primarily for my French translation skills, I was soon also applying my passion for food to the page as the editor of the magazine’s food and travel column, which led to a subsequent role as the lifestyle editor of a magazine called Style. And thus I had become a magazine food writer, while still seeking out fictional meals in novels such as Chocolat by Joanne Harris, which explores the connection between food and personality, and The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, a deliciously sinister tale, in which food is a metaphor for death rather than love. (“Cheese is philosophically interesting as a food whose actions depend on bacteria – it is, as James Joyce remarked, ‘the corpse of milk’.”)

While enjoying these and other novels in the genre, however, I didn’t consider writing fiction myself until, following my marriage and move to London, I found myself working as a copyeditor for Marie Claire UK, and signed up for a fiction writing course at Central Saint Martins as a creative outlet. This involved writing short stories to different themes every week, one of which was inspired by a travel assignment in Mauritius, and turned out to be the beginning of my novel. A contemporary romance set in the world of glossy magazines, this didn’t have a strong focus on food until I workshopped a chapter in a class in New York (my next stop as a trailing spouse), which included a description of an island dish called prawn rougaille. The class swooned, insisting that a food focus was the way to go, and Creole Love Song became Love Apples, which is the name given to tomatoes in Mauritius due to their reputation as aphrodisiacs. So, having relished reading novels about food, I had come full circle to write one. I hope that it imparts just some of the delicious enjoyment I’ve derived from similar reads in the past.

My top 10 foodie novels:
August Frost by Monique Roffey
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
Delicious by Ruth Reichl
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle
The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard Morais
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew

Melissa van Maasdyk has worked as a writer, sub-editor and editor on various magazines, including Elle Decoration in the UK, Marie Claire in South Africa, and Time Out in Bahrain, where she also wrote a travel guide to the kingdom. Food writing has featured prominently in her career, nurturing her passion for cooking, and adding flavour to Love Apples, which is her first novel. Melissa currently lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband.

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