9 Unsettling Meals In Literature

Thank God Valentine's Day is over once again. Now we can all stop talking about hearts and chocolate and literary scenes in which lovers gaze throbbingly at each other over splayed quail. I'd much rather talk about those haunting literary food scenes that dwell somewhere much more complicated, mournful, heartbreaking, and barbed.

1. "Define This Word" by M.F.K. Fisher
When Fisher, walking in hot dusty Burgundy, encounters a famous chef's outpost and his lone, wild-eyed waitress/acolyte, it's hard to tell if she's being rescued or taken hostage. The waitress insists on serving hors d'oeuvres, pate, truite au bleu, apple tart, all the while offering a blow by blow account of Monsieur Paul's faultless technique, from the freshness of his pastry to the silky speed of the swipe that guts the trout. The scene feels both appetizing and eerie: sure, there's great food, but there's also that image of the waitress and chef, standing at attention in the silent rooms, awaiting the creak of the door.

2. Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin
Colwin was unparalleled at creating the wonderfully awful character, those people we watch with fascination and disbelief. In her novel Family Happiness, Polly Solo-Miller's family meets weekly for the same brunch. The salmon and capers sound divine, but this tradition is all about the family's dizzying self-involvement. Polly, their only palatable member, endures a self-inflicted martyrdom of her family's personal quirks, pettishness, and food theories, every seven days.

3. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
"In Paris we eat brains every night." Moore's novel begins by making you forget you ever wanted to go to Paris in the first place. Berie and her terrible husband, in their terrible marriage, press the "vaporous, fishy mousse" of the offal against their palates as if they could mash a pleasant memory back into their own grey matter. Even the Parisian pastries are named divorce, religieuse, gland, like some judgmental, churchy blend of the worst of the body and soul (but with chocolate!). But the upstate New York dishes that resonate through Berie's memory are bland, childish, yet kind: the weirdly satisfying mix of crunch and fat in the girls' favorite snack of raw potato slices with oleo and salt, and the cottage cheese sandwiches her teenage friend Sils would leave for her on the counter after school.

4. "Labor Day Dinner" by Alice Munro
The story starts off with a melting raspberry bombe, packed in ice cubes, wrapped in towels, and cradled in the lap of Roberta, who is nearly crippled by self-consciousness as her boyfriend finds flaw in everything she does. The characters' fears, mistrust and wounds crackle through the dinner conversation, but, then again, "here they sit, all healthy, relatively sane, with a lovely dinner and lovely wine inside them, in the beautiful, undestroyed countryside." Does beauty cancel out disaster or simply allow us, briefly, to forget? The entire story is a masterwork of psychology and character, but we never return to poor Roberta's raspberry bombe. After all her work, dessert rates only a passing mention.

5. The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Eden follows two young newlyweds in the south of France who invite another young woman into their marriage when the psychosexual drama has ratcheted up a bit faster than they expected. The book's meals are full of sun-bleached beauty--icy wine, eggs and hot coffee, marinated mackerel and cold beer--but the scene I always recall is of the three of them with a great dish of caviar, gazing at each other in the mirror above a zinc bar like strangers. Listen, if caviar can't bring a marriage together, you're doomed.

6. "Fat" by Raymond Carver
For a writer who's remembered more for his attention to whisky and smoking, Carver was not unaware of food. "Fat" is an account by a waitress to her friend of serving an obese, genteel, and slightly odd customer who orders an enormous meal and refers to himself as "we." The rest of the staff, including the narrator's boyfriend Rudy, mock the man with pure high school glee, but his manner and tremendous size move the waitress. His great bulk seems to evoke in her a sense of tenderness and power, so that at the end of the story, as she is having unwilling sex with her boyfriend, she has come to feel as if she is "terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all."

7. "Weekend" by Ann Beattie
Beattie's characters know a thing or two about compromise. Lenore of "Weekend" may take it the farthest, staying in a country cabin with her lover George, a former professor who invites his lovers to visit every weekend. Lenore insists she gets what she wants out of this: compliments on her veal stew, a haven for bread-making. And yet she lands her jabs as well, and when the beautiful undergrads have fled, confused and hurt, the connection between George and Lenore is revealed to be more complicated than it seemed, a wounded thing that lives between them.

8. "A Temporary Matter" by Jhumpa Lahiri
If you're looking for the saddest possible metaphor for a dying marriage, try a couple who has lost a baby and is now working their way through the last stores of the wife's once-prodigious cooking. Shoba and Shukumar sit down each night during a city-imposed blackout and make a game of telling secrets. The artificiality may echo the state of their marriage but it also walks them, step by step, towards revealing the deep wells of anger and hurt that have replaced a once vital love.

9. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
If you ask me, Heartburn manages to have it all: grief over a marital betrayal but also great jokes and great recipes. I'm not saying it's no big thing for the marriage that Rachel Samstat's husband cheats on her with flat-footed Thelma Rice, but what really guts a reader is the betrayal of a great foursome. Together with their best friends, Rachel and Mark had spent years pursuing all things delicious, from bread pudding to a sublime hot pasta served with cold tomatoes, olive oil, and basil (a dish I felt compelled to make at least once a week after school for my entire senior year). The lesson? Be faithful to your culinary soul-mates, all three of them.

Michelle Wildgen's most recent novel, Bread and Butter, [Doubleday, $25.95] was published this month. She is the executive editor of Tin House Magazine.