I couldn't figure out what was crusted on the cover of my East of Eden paperback until halfway through a re-read, when I was hit with a sudden and intense urge for fried chicken. The characters are forever eating fried chicken or talking about it, and my sudden lust brought back a memory I'd suppressed. Four years ago, when I first read the novel, I'd been so overcome by a fried chicken craving that I'd speed-walked to the KFC down the block from my L.A. apartment and inhaled a three-piece, extra-crispy dinner like an animal, telling myself that I wasn't as sad as the motley crew of solo regulars because I was reading Steinbeck while sitting at the hard plastic table. Hence the pale green coleslaw residue that remains as a mark of my shame so many years later.
Certain books make me hungry. Culinary memoirs and novels, obviously, but those don't really count because it's by design -- I'm talking about novels that don't have food as their central focus but nonetheless inspire deep culinary longings. The earliest I can remember is my wild desire to try Turkish Delight after the White Witch tempts Edmund with it in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardobe. That one was easy (a shop in my hometown sold it); I've still never scratched my itch for whole, juicy wild boar inspired by the Asterix comics of my childhood (if anyone ever has a boar roast, please do let me know).
As I got older, it extended to drinks. I can't read The Great Gatsby without jonesing for a mint julep, and there weren't enough Bellinis in the world to satisfy my thirst for them while I was reading Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. And of course red wine, preferably from a wine skin, is necessary for The Sun Also Rises. (Hemingway's particularly good for inspiring specific cravings: A Moveable Feast always makes me want oysters; the Nick Adams stories make me want freshly caught trout; "Hills Like White Elephants" makes me want licorice-flavored liquor, and so on.)
I'm not sure what it is about these books that inspire such specific hunger -- Dickens, Waugh, Woolf, and countless others have great descriptions of feasts, but don't send me spinning on an obsessive quest to eat the foods mentioned. And it does become an obsession. Once I get the craving, things in my world aren't quite right until it's satisfied.
This time around I took myself and East of Eden to Wayfare Tavern for a crack at its famous fried chicken. The jazzy soundtrack, moneyed patrons, and heirloom tomato martini I ordered made it clear that this was several degrees removed from KFC. The fried chicken arrived quickly: A plate piled with five pieces of tender poultry topped with fried thyme and rosemary. I wished the skin were crispier (I always wish skin was crispier), but enjoyed the woodsy flavor the herbs imparted in the meat, and moreover, I imagined this kind of soft, patchy crust was more like the version Lee is always frying up for Adam Trask and Sam Hamilton. It wasn't the best fried chicken I've ever had, but in that moment, I wanted it so much it might as well have been.
What books make you hungry and why? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter (@sfoodie), and perhaps you'll see your name in the paper next week.