How childhood reading is a gastronomic delight that will leave you asking for more

I am a bit weird. I read when I eat. I have to. I’ve disciplined myself enough to not read at meal-times when I have company or am eating in public places but otherwise I like to have a book beside my plate. I picked up the habit when I was about seven, when, with the Famous Five, I ate potted ham and tongue while chewing my vegetarian meal of rice and lentils.

World Children’s Book Day falls on April 2 and this is a tribute to the combined activity of reading and eating while growing up. I also harbour the secret hope that more people who have this habit will comment below and we’ll all form a great big book club.

Settling down to a meal with a new book gives me great satisfaction. I remember, as a child, sniffing at the fresh scent of paper and ink and gazing at the cover for a while before reverently opening the page and carefully holding it at an angle to avoid getting food on it. I would then fall into a “reading silence” (Francis Spufford, 2002) accompanied by a steady munching.

Reading books, as a child, was an absorbing sensory experience for me. The colours in children’s books and films, the description of picnics and the crackling of the envelope that brought a new children’s magazine are pleasant and tangible memories.

Jane Brocket, author of Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, writes in The Guardian that, “there is a very close connection between eating and reading, consuming both food and the written word, that makes the marriage of the two activities quite heavenly... there is nothing better than escaping from the world and holing up in a favourite reading-place with food and books to nourish the body and soul.” Perhaps this is why I also enjoyed reading about eating.

Enid Blyton’s books formed a large portion of my staple reading diet when I was a child. Although her books have invited brickbats on the grounds of race and class stereotyping, Blyton has provided millions of children their first experiences with the joys of narrative and language. All her books have delicious meals in them.

Carolyn Daniel (2006), in her work Voracious Children – who eats whom in children’s literature, says that Blyton’s food fantasies were intensified because the reader knew that their own meals were not as much a delicious spread that she wrote of in her books. She says that the reader’s enjoyment is vicarious and while food fantasies may not satisfy hunger they can increase appetite. I quite agree because I’ve often ate more than my normal quota when reading a Blyton novel. Take Five Fall into Adventure for instance:

“Cold ham and tongue – cold baked beans – beetroot – crisp lettuce straight from the garden – heaps of tomatoes – cucumber – hard boiled egg!” recited Anne in glee… “Wobbly blancmange, fresh fruit salad and jelly. I’m glad I’m hungry.”

I had not the faintest clue what ham or tongue tasted like nor did I know what blancmange was but I was quite thrilled to read about them. I would even go about showing off that I knew a word that combined scrumplicious (scrumptious and delicious) and delumptious (delicious and scrumptious) that I picked up from the Secret Seven’s vocabulary.

What wondrous raptures I could get into when reading about the midnight feasts in the Malory Towers books! My cousins and I would have pretend midnight feasts just like Darrell Rivers and her friends. Imagining the jammy buns they ate for high tea could give me such a high that I would make my own spreading pineapple jam in buns bought from the neighbourhood bakery.

However, reading about food by itself did not give me emotional satisfaction or represent security and safety, a theory put forth by some literary critics. Books and stories as a whole did give me satisfaction but I don’t think I ever thought of these food scenes as giving me emotional comfort. Children's literature critic Carolyn Daniel says that the food text appeals more to a child reader deprived of emotional comfort and/or sweet food. As I come from a large family that had a sweet tooth, I didn’t lack for either.

In an oblique fashion, I think books themselves are a kind of food. This held true, especially when I was a child, when my lived experience was so small that I was hungry to know what could be happening to other children, fictional though they may be.

I think it still holds true for me. As John Ruskin says, "Bread of flour is good; but there is bread, sweet as honey, if we would eat it, in a good book."

P.S. I finally found out what blancmange meant on wikipedia. It is a dessert made of milk or cream and sugar.

(Kannal Achuthan often ponders on philosophical conundra, and writes down some of it. You may contact her at kannal.achuthan@thehindu.co.in)