The Starving Artist: A Thanksgiving Meditation on Food and Literary Fuel

by Anna Montgomery Patton

There is a strange ache that comes with hunger.  One must take inventory of one’s body, locate the source of the hunger. Stomach? Brain? In fact, the feeling of hunger is not a message delivered to the brain from the stomach. It turns out that Neuropeptide not only communicates a desire for food to the brain, it also reduces pain, stress, anxiety, and blood pressure. Sometimes when I feel hungry I automatically assume my body is telling me it wants food. Perhaps it is simply wanting some sort of nourishment. And what I, and many others, find satiating is reading. Words are delicious.

It is no surprise, then, that an incredible amount of restaurants all over the world share names with well-regarded literary magazines and journals. During a meeting of the Ecotone practicum last semester, we discovered Prairie Schooner. No, not the noted literary journal of the University of Nebraska, which has been in circulation since 1926. This was Prairie Schooner of Ogden, Utah, a Wild West–themed restaurant where one can “dine in a covered wagon next to an open prairie fire while enjoying our delicious hand cut steaks, fresh seafood, and signature desserts.” I have not had the opportunity to dine at Prairie Schooner, but my experience reading an issue of Prairie Schooner was similar to enjoying a satisfying meal. And should that not be the goal of successful writing? If nothing else, a writer strives to leave a reader full, if not a little uncomfortable.

The discovery of Prairie Schooner (the restaurant) led me down a rabbit hole of dining opportunities linked to the literary, some more “fine” than others. Ploughshare Brewing Company in Lincoln, Nebraska (“Share the Bounty! Get Behind the Plough!”) was named best new restaurant in 2014, and boasts original brews and brats among its vittles. Wellington, England, is home to Tin House, a Cantonese restaurant with an overpriced (in my humble opinion) chow mein takeaway. McSweeney’s serves up twenty-one pieces of shrimp for a reasonable $4.50 in Pittsburgh. They are better known for their $1.95 red hots: hot dogs in steamed buns with McSweeney’s meat sauce and onions. The website warns, “onions buried, may cause sauce to fall off hot dog due to bun crisis of 2002.” I am uncertain about what this means, but it seems of a piece with the quirkiness and “daily laffs” of McSweeney’s.

Threepenny Cafe in Charlottesville, Virginia, not only won the OpenTable 2015 Diner’s Choice Award, and serves a $33 three-course prix fixe menu that sounds delectable (think charred romaine salad, pan roasted rockfish with champagne sauce, pecan bread budding with bourbon creme anglaise), but they have a lovely outdoor patio and live music. Back in the United Kingdom, the Granta has a mouthwatering menu of modern spins on British pub classics. Every Sunday they have a home-cooked roast along with seasonal vegetables, and Yorkies, also home-cooked. The literary Granta is similarly classic and attuned to long-time traditions.

If you are craving something on the higher end, try Volt, in Maryland, which is owned by television Top Chef Brian Voltaggio, who believes in fresh local ingredients. And $95 tasting menus. A subscription to Volt, by comparison, will run you $15. Epoch Restaurant in New Hampshire is another 2015 OpenTable Diner’s Choice winner and has an incredibly varied menu: duck confit poutine, oysters on the half shell, thai style mussels, prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin. It appears the restaurant shines when it comes to seafood. Epoch is just as multidimensional in that it not only publishes the usual poetry and fiction but also screenplays, cartoons, and graphic fiction. Both have a decided appreciation for art.

Perhaps the best restaurant with a literary name is Boulevard in San Francisco, CA. I am not just saying this because it’s in my hometown. I had one of the best meals of my life at Boulevard. The menu is the creation of executive chef and owner Nancy Oakes, and it’s a fusion of French and Californian, made with local ingredients of the highest quality. But it is not simply the cuisine that makes Boulevard special. The place itself is a gem in the city. It feels as though you have stumbled into a cozy (but not claustrophobic) Parisian bistro, with views of the San Francisco water lapping the Bay Bridge wrapped in twinkling lights. It is a feeling of total luxury but also one of being at home. Throughout the evening you will make discoveries, you will go on epicurian adventures, you will experience a range of emotions. Your appetite will be appeased—not dissimilar to finishing a book, a poem, a literary journal.

If you want to go out for drinks and dancing after your delicious meal, of course you can check out Chicago’s Orion Nightclub. The website recommends that you “come for a drink and stay for the experience.” I am not positive this is quite in line with Orion’s mission statement, which includes morality.

And for the record, Ecotone’s alternate-universe compatriot is not a restaurant, but a natural resort getaway in a remote part of southern India. Sounds good to us.