06/17/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

Accidental Food Writing: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Some books are obvious "food books." But some books -- and stories, for that matter -- are examples of accidental food writing. Essentially, you come for the story and stay for the food, which factors into the story in some surprising, significant, and stellar way.

I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was 13 years old after my mother recommended it. ATGIB is the story of the Nolans, a poor family living in Brooklyn slums in the early 1900s. The heroine, Francie Nolan, grows from a mere eleven year-old girl into a young woman of seventeen throughout the course of the book. And even though our lives were very different - she grew up in Brooklyn, I grew up in Georgia; she grew up dirt poor, while I was fortunate enough not to - Francie's story was the story I grew up to, her narrative providing a soundtrack to my life. I re-read the book every summer until I was in my early twenties, and I grew along with Francie, understanding her in new ways each time I read her story.

Like a new girl who makes cupcakes to lure in new friends, so the author, Betty Smith, lures readers in with descriptions of the foods Francie and her family buys and eats. In the first fifty pages, we follow Francie to three different butchers' shops and go with her to the bakery where she buys sugar buns, "carefully choosing those with the most sugar."

Francie's mother, Katie, is a wizard with stale bread, the staple ingredient to the family's daily meals:

She'd take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour, and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

We are wooed by talk of soup bones, bread pudding, hot coffee, and peppermint candies. We learn of Francie's affinity for pickle days, when after a long winter of stale bread and potatoes has deadened her taste buds, Francie shocks her system by purchasing a fat, sour dill pickle and snacking on it throughout the day.

But the book isn't merely a romp through turn-of-the century cuisine as experienced in the poor tenements of Brooklyn. Food means something, especially for Francie. In one of the most significant moments of the book, Francie tells one of her first orchestrated lies. Her teacher offers a five-cent pumpkin pie to the class, but since everyone is poor and proud, no one will take it. Before the teacher can throw it away, Francie claims it:

Francie couldn't stand it; that beautiful pie thrown away and she had never tasted pumpkin pie. To her it was the food of covered wagon people, of Indian fighters. She was dying to taste it. In a flash, she invented a lie and up went her hand.

Francie claims the pie is for a poor family, and then she eats it on her way home. When her teacher finds out, she doesn't punish Francie, but instead teaches her to tell the truth, and to write down the story instead of lying. Through pumpkin pie and the teacher's lesson, Francie decides to become a writer. I can't help but burst with love for her when I read that she was "dying to taste" the pie, so desperate that she'll lie about it.

Each time I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I find myself craving strange things -- one-pot meals that will last for days and that lend themselves to being reincarnated various different ways. I crave pickles. I crave egg noodles, salty deli meat on chewy rye bread. I crave good strong hot coffee. Francie was the heroine of my youth, the one I read over and over again, the one I grew up with. And the food she ate, the way any gathering focused on food, no matter how meager, stretches my imagination. It humbles me. It makes me thankful. It also makes me hungry.