08/13/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

Accidental Food Writing: Cormac McCarthy's The Road

First appeared on Food Riot, by Dana Staves

Often, when we think of food writing, we imagine romps through Europe where a hero or heroine follows his/her appetite and finds love/fulfillment/a future. Or perhaps we think of the stories where something tragic happens in the first two chapters, irrevocably changing the protagonist's life, and they must pick up the pieces by cooking in a pie competition or opening up a cooking school or getting swept up in a ragtag group of old women who must save their town by baking cookies.

We don't often think of dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels. The first book to come to mind likely won't be Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But I read this book recently for a book club I'm in, and I discovered that food functions in an interesting and surprising way.

The story of this novel is that the world has, for all intents, ended. There aren't many survivors, but the few there are can be separated into good guys (just trying to survive) and bad guys (also just trying to survive, but doing it through depraved acts of cannibalism and human enslavement). The main characters, a father and son, are walking down a road to the coast, attempting to find a place that's a bit warmer.

Essentially, that's the book. People trying to survive. The basic necessities -- food, water, shelter, fire -- are all that matters. Indulgences, whimsy, and hope have been stripped away.

Sounds a bit grim, I know. Stay with me.

When life's adornments have been stripped away, it's like losing one of your senses: the other remaining senses become keener, stronger. Likewise, without the extras in life -- soft beds, spoons, shoes that fit -- what remains, the need for only the most basic necessities, becomes stronger. When food is found, it's an event. When a fire is built without detection from the road, it's cause for mild celebration. When someone steals food from you, it's cause for death.

Essentially, the father and son are forever on a search for food. Often, there are starving times where they eat ash just to put something in their stomachs. This deprivation, this ongoing search, casts the food they find in a more prominent light in the novel. They may be walking to the coast, but they are walking to food as well. Food buys a few more weeks. Food buys hope for survival.

The father has the benefit (or at times, the burden) of remembering life before the disaster that brought them to this point. Early in the book, they find a grocery store, long ago looted, and an overturned Coca-Cola vending machine. He pulls out a Coke and opens the can: "He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy."

A Coke in a can is a long-ago comfort from a world that no longer exists, an artifact that he can share with his son. The man instinctually knows to lean in, to enjoy that lively bubbly pinging inside the can.

One of the most welcomed reprieves in the book is when they find a bomb shelter, a bunker underground, fully stocked with canned foods, a toilet, a stove. Like an oasis, I didn't at first believe it was real, but they go in. They eat. They are saved, at least for the time being. And what's more, they have access to luxuries: "There were knives and plastic utensils and silverware and kitchen tools in a plastic box. A can opener."

Good food writing is generally acknowledged to be the kind of food-related writing that tells a story, that paints a vivid picture. When teaching students about food writing, the hardest thing to do is to get them to describe, in sensory detail, the things they eat. They rely on words like "good" and "delicious" or "nasty," but need pushing and prodding to arrive at descriptions of texture, taste, smell.

But I think, perhaps, what is so effective about the food writing in The Road is the lack: lack of description, lack of availability. Because food is a precious commodity, hard to find, and yet so essential for survival, any mention of it is so welcomed, such a relief, that it becomes vivid and important. This book isn't a frolic thru post-apocalyptic America; it's not a run-down of dystopian food porn. It's a book about a father and son looking for food, and because it is so difficult to find, and so dangerous, and yet, a non-negotiable necessity, the food takes on a role of its own.

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