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‘Hunger’ by Roxane Gay Demands Your Attention

Plus reviews of ‘The Potlikker Papers,’ ‘The Magic Mountain,’ and more

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Welcome to Eater’s Book Club, a column where we share the books — old or new — that we’ve read this month. (Yes, there’s a focus on food, eating, and dining out.)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
by Roxane Gay

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Hunger, in large part because I’m still processing an episode of This American Life from last year called “Tell Me I’m Fat” that featured an interview with Roxane Gay as its third act.

Hunger is a memoir of Gay’s body. It’s an uncompromising look at what it’s like to navigate the world with what Gay calls her “unruly” body that doctors cruelly label “super morbidly obese.” The injuries, violence, care, and comfort her body sustains or provides are the organizing thread of the memoir.

Fatness (along with its twin pillar, dieting) is a part of my life, and has been since puberty — I’m what Gay calls “Lane Bryant fat.” Working in food media, for me, is bizarre on that front. The food we celebrate in print, on websites, on Instagram, and on television is (usually) at odds with the body our culture tells me I should have (or at least, should want to have).

But in food media (as in... literally everywhere?), there’s true currency in not looking like you give in to your hungers. There’s a world of slim food-world women. We see them in photo spreads, on videos that play on our television and Facebook feeds. (Ina Garten, as Gay points out, is a rare exception; a woman who looks like she loves to eat, talking about food with gusto and without a whiff of shame.)

I read Hunger in one day, bringing it from my couch to an appointment and back to my couch again. I have been carrying the weight of it with me in the days since. Like that episode of This American Life Gay appeared on, Hunger forced me to confront my deepest beliefs about (my) fatness, beliefs I’ve constructed mental fortresses to avoid admitting. I’m still reckoning with the feelings kicked up by the book.

If you love food and restaurants, it’s worth interrogating the attitudes you have about bodies — both your own and others’. Hunger isn’t an easy way way to do that. The traumas chronicled in the book include sexual assault, racism, and eating disorders. But that’s the point of writing the real story of a human body. This book demands your attention. — Hillary Dixler

The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann
Vintage Books USA

The tuberculosis sanatorium in The Magic Mountain is in some ways a metaphor — for Europe, for the nature of time, for modernity — but it’s also very real, populated by specific European types who eat endless meals (along with glasses of wine) as they take their “rest cure.” In the communal dining room, they order “a bottle of Gruaud Larose,” drink mocha in “little earthen-brown jugs” and unnamed sweet spirits, and mix Champagne and Burgundy. Asparagus soup; pots of marmalade; and bowls of fruit, “both fresh and dried,” fuel their walks through the mountains.

The Magic Mountain is about sickness, but the rich and “excellent” meals at the sanatorium are distinctly unlike our bland hospital food. Food is essential to the novel’s understanding of illness as a state of being with a certain intensity all its own. — Emma Alpern

Potlikker Papers

The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South
by John T. Edge
Penguin Press

My least favorite Facebook hater is the commenter who feels it is necessary to tell us that they are unfollowing Eater because, “I came here for food, not politics. This is inappropriate.” Like it or not, food is political, and John T. Edge’s new book The Potlikker Papers proves that.

While cataloging the history of cuisine in the modern South, Edge also tells stories of how civil rights movements and social changes were nourished around tables in restaurants and homes. He explains the complicated manner in which Southern cuisine spread across America, and why dishes like shrimp and grits have become synonymous with Southern culture and dining throughout the country. The Potlikker Papers is a thorough investigation into the South’s past and present, and why it’s so important to know both.

Since I live in Charleston, I skipped right to the Restaurant Renaissance chapter extolling the works of South Carolina chefs like Martha Lou Gadsden and Sean Brock. While most visitors know to drink bourbon at Husk and order fried chicken at Martha Lou’s, they probably don’t keep thoughts of slavery, saved seeds, poverty, and gentrification in mind while touring the city. Edge presents a timeline with the good and the bad. I hope to see this discussion continue outside of the pages of the book — at dinner tables, across the bar, and in city planning meetings. — Erin Perkins

Cooking With Fernet Branca
by James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa Editions

This wonderful novel follows the fortunes of a hack writer of “as told to” celebrity biographies as he buys a house on a Tuscan hillside and fixes it up, singing off-key opera as he works. Next door lives a composer from a fictitious Eastern European country, and from there the plot is set in motion. Yes, the book constitutes a parody of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun, but it also makes merciless and unstinting fun of Fernet Branca and the ongoing fad for its consumption, partly via recurring drunken bouts featuring the stuff, partly through recipes like Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream. Don’t try them at home! — Robert Sietsema

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