Bait & Switch: 5 Books That Sound like They’re About Food but Totally Aren’t



*Originally published on The Airship

For the gourmand with a literary bent, joining the love of food and reading is an irresistible proposition. Last week we served up some tasty tomes starring food, but while the likes of Calvin Trillin, Michael Pollan and Ruth Reichl may have your inner gastronome salivating, you can’t always judge a book by its title. From vice and poverty to examinations of popular culture, we’ve rounded up five great reads that, in spite of their appetizing titles, are definitely not about food.


ham-21. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

If there’s a polar opposite of a foodie book, Ham on Rye is a clear contender. The fourth of Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski novels, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming of age story based largely on Bukowski’s early days in depression-era L.A. Told in that raw, slept-in-the-gutter voice readers have come to either love or hate, it ultimately reads more like a memoir. Bukowski’s life bleeds so thoroughly into Chinaski’s that it’s often hard to figure out where truth becomes fiction. Between tales of his abusive father and teen years marred by alienation and disfiguring acne, it’s an illuminating glimpse into the creation of the angry-drunk Chinaski previously seen in Post Office, Women and Factotum, but it also serves as an origin story for the Bard of Skid Row himself.

grape-book2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If anything, The Grapes of Wrath suffers from a heart-rending dearth of food, but the book that put a face to the plight of displaced farmers during the dust bowl is arguably “The” Great American Novel. Steinbeck takes us from the barren farms of Oklahoma to the de facto refugee camps in California, following Tom Joad, who returns from a prison stretch to find his family relinquishing their land to the bank. The Joads pack up what they can and head west for the promise of fruit-picking work, only to be met with disdain. Weaving elements of journalism into the narrative, Steinbeck shines a light on shady businessmen, classism and exploitation of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Even 75 years later, it’s as resounding as ever, notably inspiring “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” one of Bruce Springteen’s more chilling odes to the working man.

Milk-Wood3. Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas’ beautifully lyrical paean to a small fishing town on the Welsh ocean-side was the tragic poet’s final work. In it, readers (or listeners – Richard Burton famously led the “play for voices” on BBC radio) are dropped into a darkened town to witness the dreams of the sleeping townspeople – a sea captain haunted by drowned shipmates, a widow remembering departed loves, a schoolmaster fantasizing about poisoning his wife. The play itself is darkly humorous and unspeakably resonant. The concept for the radio play had been simmering in Thomas’ brain for 20 years before he completed Under Milk Wood, in the spring of 1953. Just months later, while in New York, he drank himself into a fatal coma.

naked-lunch4. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Whatever Naked Lunch is about, it certainly is not about lunch. Based somewhat on the drug-addled adventures of William S. Burroughs from Mexico to Tangier, the extremely scattered novel follows the drug-addled William Lee in search of his next fix, and the next great drug. The novel unfolds mainly through a series of vignettes that pass through the junky’s needle and come out twisted and menacing on the other side. While Naked Lunch is certainly not for everyone – the lack of a coherent plot can be alienating – no one writes about drugs quite like Burroughs.

cocoa-book5. Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

If Chuck Klosterman were in the X-Men, his mutant ability would be to draw deep insights from seemingly vapid corners of pop culture. While one of the essays in his “low culture manifesto” is technically about cereal, it’s really about coolness. More specifically, it’s about what cereal mascots teach kids about how to be cool. Klosterman will explain the social impact of The Real World and lament the effect of emo music and rom-coms on real life. In his intellectual deconstruction of the show, he appears to have spent more brain power on Saved by the Bell than probably anyone ever, including the show’s writers. Most of the topics may seem like the result of long reefer-fueled ruminations, and they very well could be, but ultimately Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs is smart writing on occasionally dumb subjects.

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