I have always been enchanted by Virginia Woolf and—being an avid cook and food writer myself—by gastronomic references in literature, both fiction and nonfiction. So when I learned about a book about the eating habits of the Bloomsbury set, of which Woolf was a member, I took notice. The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love, and Art is a compendium of recipes, food-related paintings, and biographical anecdotes that sheds new light on the members of that coterie of British artists, writers, and thinkers. The book sparked in me a new interest in Woolf’s novels. In this book and in Woolf’s work, she comes across as a food lover. Yet, like her novels, Woolf’s relationship to food is nuanced and complex.
Food, in Woolf’s hands, rises to a level above physical meaning—it becomes more than a delicious meal. In her early writings, it seems that meals were little more than an excuse for intellectual people to gather. Woolf was curious about food and understood its importance, yet she felt that in her time, too much attention to such seemingly mundane topics would be looked down upon.
Torn between what she knew to be significant and what she knew to be literary propriety, she deplored this restraint in her celebrated essay, A Room of One’s Own:
“It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance.”
In this essay, she famously says, “A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”