Food Writing

A Foodie’s Review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

ocean_lane_gaimanI’m leaving the actual bookish reviews of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to the fine folks over at Book Riot. Instead, I’m looking at the food, a rather surprising supporting character in this delightful little book, but one that, yes, enhances and adds a layer of depth to the whole story that would have been missing if it was not there.

(For the record though, OMG, Neil Gaiman is still so brilliant. He’s like those great bowls of nachos that you get. It’s just nachos but as you venture down into the layers of nachos, you realize there’s so much MORE going on there. Crisp chips against melty cheese soggy chips. Beans tucked into pockets with jalapenos. Childhood loss and disillusionment alongside the trickeries of magic. Wait. Not that last bit, at least not in the nachos. Anyways…)

First off. There is a lot of food.

In the book, Gaiman manages to zoom in on one small section of the world, just two families, and show how one changes in the space of a few days. Like I said earlier, it’s a small book and so each description has to scratch past that first layer. He does this the best with food. The two families–the narrator’s family and the Hempstocks–become real by seeing what they serve on their tables and how they interact around those tables.

With the narrator’s family, a prim, straight-laced family where the drama happens below the surface, we see the same food gracing the table that graces the table of any prim, straight-laced family. Brown bread burned into toast. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Lovely, fine food, though nondescript and unattached to the land or time.

When the narrator meets the Hempstock’s, a family of women who are unattached to time themselves, we get some of the best food writing of the book. What the women represent–magic, a time before innocence, the “old world”–comes out in the food. Take this for example, perhaps the best description of milk I’ve ever read.

“The old lady gave me a cup of creamy milk from Bessie the cow, the fresh milk before it had gone through the cooler. Nothing I had drunk had ever tasted like that before: rich and warm and perfectly happy in my mouth. I remembered the milk after I had forgotten everything else.” 

Perfectly happy in my mouth… *Stands and applauds Mr. Gaiman.*

Or what about this beautiful moment of cooking?

“Lettie cooked us pancakes on a big metal griddle, on the kitchen stove. They were paper-thin, and as each pancake was done Lettie would squeeze lemon onto it, and plop a blob of plum jam into the center, and roll it tightly, like a cigar.” 

The food, while old-fashioned, is new for the narrator and, honestly, new for the modern audience reading it. My stomach rumbled more than once reading about the clotted cream, or roasted carrots, or porridge that spoke of older times. With this food, so close to the source of its creation, there is a certain magic tied to it. A magic perhaps lost with our food now. A magic the narrator was able to find with the Hempstock family. A magic we can find as we read it.

Have you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane or any other of Gaiman’s works? Am I missing any more drool-worthy descriptions from the book? 

About Nikki Steele

Nikki Steele is a freelance writer who runs BookPairing, a blog about pairing wine and beer with books, and is a contributor over at Insatiable Booksluts. When she's not writing or cooking, she's probably roughing it outside with her two mutts. Connect with Nikki on Twitter: @BookPairing.

  • Mike Herbst

    I don’t have my copy here for reference, but the passage that stuck out to me (particularly as the father of a discerning 4-year-old foodie with carrot issues) was the passage about how the Roasted Carrots were a revelation to the narrator, who’d only had boiled carrots to that point. That one meal changed his relationship to carrots forever.

    • Nikki Steele

      !! The description of the carrots were phenomenal. I almost included them in this post as well. How did he make carrots sound so amazing? It was astounding. If you can find those carrots, maybe they’ll turn the tide with your 4 year old :D

  • JR

    There were times I said out loud that the book was making me hungry. It made you just want to go live with the Hempstocks.

    • Nikki Steele

      I know, right? All that fresh milk and good stick to your ribs food? It all sounded so great.

  • LadyAntonym

    Actually, Gaiman gave the recipe for the pancakes in an interview with Joe Hill:

    Haven’t had a chance to make them yet, but I plan to!

    • Nikki Steele

      Oh that’s amazing! I’ll have to bookmark it. I just loved the description of those paper-thin pancakes. Sounds like such a fancy way to eat pancakes.

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  • Mari K

    I loved the part about the warm porridge with the dollop of blackberry jam, when the narrator first goes to the Hempstocks. I also think that the early portrayl of the goofy, forgetful and well-meaning father, who finds pleasure in the homemade bread and cheerfully eats the burned toast so as not to waste it, makes him even more terrifying later.

    • Nikki Steele

      My goodness, yes. The father is done so well in the book.

  • Quill207

    I LOVE Neil’s writing so much! He can describe things without being boring.

    i like how he described their food at home, even though he didn’t like their food there.

    • Nikki Steele

      It’s so so very good. Yeah, I liked seeing the different ways he described food at both of the homes.

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