To Eat With your Eyes
I discovered my favorite food writer at nine years old, around the same time I began reading in earnest. Roald Dahl’s absurd worlds were always described with the same strain of invented language, painting vivid pictures of meals that—though I never ate them—became fragments of a childhood nostalgia that would endure through adulthood. I doubt there’s ever been a young reader who hasn’t jealously followed along as Bruce Bogtrotter made his way through that huge chocolate fudge cake, who hasn’t envied the splendor of Fantastic Mr. Fox’s stolen feast, who hasn’t salivated over the thought of a giant summer-ripened peach. Unlike contemporary food writing, whose primary objective is rendering as realistic a portrait of texture and flavors as possible, Dahl’s whimsical writing privileges emotion and imagination. Without fail, each book consistently imparts a sense of wonder that both comforts and transports:
“What a marvelous smell!’ answered Grandpa Joe, taking a long deep sniff. All the most wonderful smells in the world seemed to be mixed up in the air around them — the smell of roasting coffee and burnt sugar and melting chocolate and mint and violets and crushed hazelnuts and apple blossom and caramel and lemon peel.”
– Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Roald Dahl begs the reader to momentarily suspend reality and imagine an alternative world where young protagonists drink fizzing frobscottle cocktails, and where snozzcumbers are integral to the diet of big, friendly giants. As in The BFG, the majority of Dahl's novels cheekily chronicle the lives of precocious children who are intelligent and selfless in equal measure. In each book, passages describing the meals eaten by willful child-heroes serve as points of resolution so emotionally charged that one can’t help but resonate with each book's protagonist. The stories become inseparable from that nostalgia produced in the reader, so full of pathos is the writing.
I’m not the only devotee. Paramount Picture's 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (also known as "the one with Gene Wilder”) is beloved for its timeless appeal and iconic soundtrack. 2005’s rendition with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter is similarly well-integrated into popular culture, though it represents a slightly more ominous and arresting interpretation of the original text—one which can only be expected of director Tim Burton. I am particularly drawn to the film version of Matilda (1996), directed by a pre-It’s Always Sunny Danny DeVito. The film’s casting is unparalleled: Rhea Perlman and DeVito perfectly embody the self-absorption and egotism displayed by Matilda’s parents in Dahl's book, and Mara Wilson’s Matilda perfectly balances the titular character's dual innocence and intelligent defiance. More importantly, though, Pam Ferris as Ms. Trunchbull is the reason I'm still scared of “The Chokey.”
Other adaptations of Dahl’s works—like Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach (1996), Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Stephen Speilberg’s The BFG (2016)—have similarly drawn all-star casts and positive reviews from critics. 2016 saw the release of a Roald Dahl Dictionary, with 288 pages of “gobblefunk,” a compendium of Dahl’s invented language that was collected and collated by the Oxford Dictionary. And, of course, there are several Roald Dahl cookbooks, all published post-humously: Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes (1997), Even More Revolting Recipes (2003) and Roald Dahl’s Cookbook (1996). And while I consider myself well-versed in the universe of Dahl-related spinoff paraphernalia, the nature of Dahl is that there will always be another to uncover.
Decades after Dahl’s death in 1990, we are still seeking ways to reinvent and prolong the bizarrely alluring worlds he imagined. And while that allure is nearly universal, the rationale is different for each person: the scrappy and unexpected heroes, the outrageously creative storylines, the gibberish words that (even though they aren’t actually words) are always perfectly chosen. For me, it will always be the those elaborately and intricately detailed meals punctuating each page. And if you ever find yourself in need of a good dose of escapism, I suggest returning to his books and the flavory-savory, lickswishy, absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious feasts inside them.