For those of us who grew up reading Roald Dahl books, there’s a starry-eyed, sweet tooth-fueled fantasy that begins to bubble up at the mention of his name. Dreams of Dahl creations like lickable wallpaper (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), wormy spaghetti (from The Twits) and even the namesake peach from James and the Giant Peach are enough to remind us of our childhoods spent trying to grow a piece of fruit big enough to live in.
The whimsical scribe of our youth, though, was a much more complex author than one might imagine. In addition to a now-legendary collection of children’s’ works, Dahl—who would’ve been 100 this year—was quite a master of bone-chilling, adults-only short stories. Food, though, is never far from the forefront in either realm.
Dahl’s mature works—written with one foot planted in reality and the other in the wickedly absurd, and often without a clear resolution—have developed something of a cult-like following. What isn’t hard to pick up on, though, is Dahl’s appreciation for food not only as a means of illuminating the true character of a person, but as a way to illustrate the terrifying potential of the mundane. There’s Lamb to the Slaughter, in which a pregnant housewife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb. Another story follows a father who feeds his daughter royal jelly from a beehive until she begins to look a little, well, buzzy. In one particularly morbid tale, a young orphan boy lives with his vegetarian aunt who warns him to never eat meat. After her death, he downs some pot roast and things begin to quickly go awry.
A favorite one of mine, The Devious Bachelor, ends with a woman sending a deadly—but classy— culinary present to her cruel ex-lover, who is too self-absorbed to realize his gift has been tainted:
I can never under any circumstances resist good caviar. It is perhaps my greatest weakness. So, although I naturally had no appetite whatsoever for food at dinner-time this evening, I must confess I took a few spoonfuls of the stuff in an effort to console myself in my misery. It is very possible that I took a shade too much, because I haven’t been feeling any too chipper this last hour or so…You know now, I come to think of it, I really do feel rather ill all of a sudden...
Dahl is a master of bass treble anxiety—the kind that makes a reader’s heart quietly ka-thunk—and food is often his instrument of choice.
This is not to say that he wasn’t gushingly romantic about dining, too. As a younger man, Dahl’s appetite for extravagant meals was matched only by his interest in eccentric heiresses, and when the two ran hand-in-hand—like at the infamous dinner parties of Evalyn Walsh McLean, the last private owner of the Hope Diamond—it was a match made in heaven. Dining at McLean’s was like, “going to the circus and getting a free meal served into the bargain,” Dahl mused of the liquored-up, three-ring affairs.
Eventually, the author settled into the role of host himself, entertaining film stars, literati, and culinary giants alike at his estate, Gipsy House, in Buckinghamshire, England. This lifelong passion for dining is captured in 1991’s Memories with Food at Gipsy House, co-authored with his second wife, Liccy. A woefully underrated narrative cookbook and a testament to Dahl’s devout culinary knowledge, the work outlines with gusto Dahl’s most beloved dishes and Gipsy House’s colorful cast of characters.
“We simply regard meals, and supper in particular, as a wonderful relaxing culmination to a day of hard work,” Dahl writes. “Our suppers are times when work is forgotten and when food and wine are remembered.”
In addition to over 100 smartly-written recipes and delightfully rambling anecdotes, Dahl muses on everything from publisher Alfred Knopf’s love of fine wine, to the proper “Distinguished Dogs’ Diet,” to his gambling habit, and—on several occasions—how much he hates Christmas.
“No, I don’t like Christmas, and always rather feel as though I have come through a long and fearful battle when it is over. Let all of us adults try to make it fun for the children, but heaven preserve us from trying to whip up false jollity among ourselves.”
True to his word, Dahl’s Christmas traditions took on quite a different form than most, according to daughter Lucy:
Our Santa was different from the others, because he was an epicurean. “Let’s leave him a treat!” My father…would say as he placed a little tin of Beluga [caviar] and a glass of vodka on a bowl of ice. “He’ll like this.”
“But Daddy, Father Christmas likes cookies and milk,” I would protest on Santa’s behalf.
“Rubbish,” my father replied. “This is the stuff he likes.”
True to form, even within his bucolic cookbook, Dahl can’t help but delve a little into the dark and bizarre. Toward the end of the dense volume, an entire section focuses on the ideal death row meal for many of Dahl’s famous friends. Penned in their own handwriting, everyone from John le Carre to Francis Bacon rattle off what they’d take as their last bites (roasted lamb and potatoes for le Carre; “lightly boiled, very fresh” eggs for Bacon). The strangest response, though, comes from Dustin Hoffman, who says he’d like to “go out the way [he] came in” by drinking mother’s milk. (Plus, who knew those two palled around?)
Whether writing for tots or the jaded masses, Roald Dahl is able to surprise in the least likely places, encouraging us to be pulled this way and that as we read, and to reject any sort of preconceived notions we may have about ourselves—or our literary heroes. Instead, he asks us to eat up all the weird contradictions that life has to offer.