Book review: Hungry Heart

By Stefan Chomka

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Book review: Clare Finney's Hungry Heart

Related tags Book review Food

Clare Finney’s personal account of her memories through food is Nigel Slater’s Toast for a new generation.

More than 20 years ago Nigel Slater published Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger,​ the front cover of which shows a young Slater, in shirt, suit and tie sitting awkwardly and expectantly at a dining table in what looks like a function room. With Hungry Heart​, writer Clare Finney has kept herself off the cover, with a drawing of various foods fronting the newly published paperback edition (the hardback version has the title written in Alphabetti spaghetti), but as you read her very personal account of food and her life it feels like Toast​ for a new generation.

Hungry Heart​’s subtitle is ‘how the food we love shapes our lives’ and the enjoyment of the book is that Finney first describes how it has shaped her life so far before gently putting it into a wider context. Hungry Heart is an honest discussion of Finney’s sometimes troubled relationship with food but also of how it is an intrinsic part of her relationships with friends and family.

On a personal level, Finney has divided her book into chapters that focus on a key part of her life, but which are almost inexorably linked to food - whether that be a specific dish or something broader. Dishes such as her dad’s microwave scrambled eggs ‘everything scrambled eggs shouldn’t be: pale, dry and quivering’ speak of divorce and single parents, while a 90’s packed lunch of mint Viscounts, Peperami, Dairylea Lunchables, and Frubes is more about forging friendships through food than what actually came inside a Star Wars or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles-branded plastic box. Often, the dishes she uses as signifiers of important milestones are those of her friends and subsequently mean different things to different people.

Where Hungry Heart really excels - and is very likely why it was named The Times​ Food Book of the Year - is in its gentle illumination of how food is much more than just calories and energy. The parental guilt of not feeding your children five-a-day meals and the psychology behind pre-made food becoming part of ‘performative parenting’ is touched upon, as is the importance of sharing food on an anthropological level - ‘by splitting a packet of crisps, taking a few and gesturing to the rest of the table, we acknowledge our own humanness and that of everyone else,’ Finney writes. On almost every page there is a sense of familiarity with what Finney has to say, but also an element of discovery.

Then there’s her honest and very personal description of her struggles with an eating disorder, which pervades the whole book without being suffocating. How someone so passionate about food, so aware of its importance and the personal connections it makes can choose to reject it is a question she deftly explores by drawing on her own experiences. In her description of how people who love her react to her relationship with food and attempt to ‘solve’ it by being a ‘feeder’ the complexities - and even the paradox of a food lover not eating food - are gently exposed. Finney shows that the enjoyment of food can be complex and multi-layered; it will no doubt strike a chord with similar sufferers and those looking to help them.

Yet to end on this last point would be to do the book a disservice. Despite dealing with loss and death, divorce, and eating problems, Hungry Heart​ is an uplifting and often educational read, one that celebrates all kinds of food, not just that which is considered by gourmands to be the best or most pure. That two of her friends regularly take food solace in a Papa John’s Hawaiian pizza because years ago it was what they both craved after a bout of food poisoning is something to celebrate not to sniff at because, after all, we all have our Hawaiian pizza equivalent. This book will undoubtedly remind you of yours.

Hungry Heart - how the food we love shapes our lives
Clare Finney
Number of pages: 256
Publisher and price: Aurum, £9.99
Publication date (paperback) 13 June

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