Never read Charles Dickens without a well-stocked larder. His novels can make a reader very hungry.
There is Mrs Cratchit's pudding - as large as a cannonball and blazing with brandy - in A Christmas Carol; Miss Pinch's peppered beefsteak pie in Martin Chuzzlewit; a seaside dinner of boiled dabs, melted butter and potatoes in David Copperfield.
But the most mouth-watering and memorable of Dickens's feasts is the trip to an oyster-shop taken by the Nubbles family in The Old Curiosity Shop. Kit Nubbles, who has arranged the treat, boldly orders three dozen of the shop's largest oysters, butter, fresh bread and a pot of beer.
"The greatest miracle of the night," Dickens writes, was Kit's little brother Jacob, "who ate oysters as if he had been born and bred to the business - sprinkled the pepper and the vinegar with a discretion beyond his years - and afterwards built a grotto on the table with the shells."
Little Jacob and his grotto of shells came back to me last summer, when, on holiday in France with friends, I was presented with a dozen Brittany oysters on ice. At the sight of them, my stomach lurched. It would, though, have been impossibly rude to refuse such a generous meal. So, thinking of Kit, I sprinkled a little vinegar and braved my first oyster.
If you had told me 12 years ago that I would calmly sit in front of a dozen oysters, I would not have believed you. Then, aged 15, I was as thin as any of Dickens's street urchins and as hungry as Oliver Twist asking for seconds of workhouse gruel. I was wretchedly ill with anorexia, which gripped my mind and body throughout my teens.
I had struggled with the move from a cheerful, mixed, primary school to an academic, unsisterly, all-girls senior school. Already small and shy, I became obsessed with being thin enough to go unnoticed - perhaps to disappear altogether.
At my unhappiest, I weighed 38kg . I developed osteopenia - the beginnings of brittle-bone disease - in my spine and there was downy hair on my back, stomach and arms, which is a common side effect of the illness and part of the body's desperate attempt to keep warm.
I ate peas, grapes, Ryvita crackers and tofu.
I don't often like to think - still less write - about those very desperate days. Others have done so in moving and unflinching memoirs. Eating Myself, by Candida Crewe, left me shaken. The extracts from
21-year-old Nancy Tucker's account of her teenage anorexia, The Time in Between, published this month, have been too painful to read.
While it remains distressing to remember those worst years, I do often think about one quirk of my recovery. When I was at my thinnest, I found solace and escape in reading; when I began to get better, books showed me that food could be a pleasure.
Doctors, therapists and my patient and devoted parents helped me to eat again. By the time I went to university at 19, I could feed myself. Small portions, admittedly, and only a very narrow range of foods, but I was no longer starving.
I had always been more of a bookworm than I ever was a foodie. Even when I was too weak to leave my bed, I read with an appetite I was missing in all other ways. And it was in reading that I began to see food as a pleasure, not a punishment.
Here, for example, is the war poet Siegfried Sassoon writing about breakfasts on cold mornings before a hunt in his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.
"We got up at four o'clock, fortified ourselves with boiled eggs and cocoa, and set off on bicycles to a cubbing meet about eight miles away." Later, stopping in a copse, he has sandwiches. And on the way home Sassoon keeps himself warm with thoughts of poached eggs on toast, tea and more cocoa. All those eggs! All that bread! Two cups of hot chocolate in a day!
Sassoon's exhilaration in the hunt, the warming effect of the eggs and cocoa at dawn, planted a thought: that hearty, warming food might be the key to a richer life than one confined to a sick room.
There were other writers who wrote about food with infectious hunger. Think of Laurie Lee crossing Spain in When I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, breakfasting on caraway buns and coffee, goat's cheese, dried figs and wild grapes.
Reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, persuaded me to drink cow's milk, not watery soya. I was seduced by the description of the "milchers" at the dairy farm in Blackmoor Vale: "Those of them that were spotted with white reflected the sunshine in dazzling brilliancy, and the polished brass knobs on their horns glittered with something of military display."
Sometimes it was the slightest, most incidental snack that left the greatest impression. In The Fortnight in September, a gem of a novel by the playwright RC Sherriff, the Stevens family shelter in the shade of their rented beach hut at Bognor Regis with a bag of macaroons.
"It was very fine to sit there," they muse, "crunching macaroons - watching other, less fortunate people sweltering in the sun."
It wasn't so much the macaroons themselves that appealed, as the idea of food as something companionable, to be shared with family or friends on a fine day.
It was the great American food writer and Francophile MFK Fisher who achieved the impossible: she got me eating cheese and potatoes. "A potato is good when it is cooked correctly. Baked slowly, with its skin rubbed first in a buttery hand, or boiled in its jacket and then 'shook,' it is delicious... Alone, or with a fat jug of rich cool milk or a chunk of fresh gruyere, it fills the stomach with a satisfaction not too easy to attain."
From Elizabeth David I learnt that there is really no point in eating a stew unless it is "rich and vulgarly hearty". My most recent triumph has been custard. I told myself that this was the great pudding cream that had given its name to the alma mater of that noblest of literary heroes, Nigel Molesworth, curse of St Custard's school.
And thanks to Mrs Cratchit, I had a bowl of Christmas pudding last Boxing Day. Only last week, I had my first madeleine, piping hot from the oven. If they are good enough for Marcel Proust...
I still do not get along with spicey foods. But, then, I am in good company. The scheming Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair rarely loses her composure, but she does so in spectacular fashion when eating a cayenne curry and a raw green pepper. "Water, for Heaven's sake, water!" she cries.
I cannot pretend to have become a trencherman. I could not keep up with Mr Pickwick scoffing and boozing his way around the inns of England. I remain a careful eater, but I am curious, even adventurous about new foods, and I take pleasure - I would not have thought it possible - in cooking.
There remains, however, one food that defeats me. I cannot drink a cup of Siegfried Sassoon's cocoa, or eat chocolate eclairs as they do in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, or savour Joanne Harris's chocolate truffles, as described in Chocolat. There wasn't an Easter egg for breakfast over the weekend, though I am partial to proper soft-boiled ones. I fear that if I were to eat even one Smartie, I would go on eating and eating until, like poor Bruce Bogtrotter in Roald Dahl's Matilda, I was smothered in melted chocolate. Not even Dahl's description of Charlie Bucket outside Willy Wonka's factory has convinced me: "He would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him. Oh, how he loved that smell!"
Indeed, I would give one of Mr Wonka's Golden Tickets to any person who could recommend the book to cure this last and most stubborn of my old fears.