If you can stop thinking about food while reading this book, the fact that it's a coming of age tale becomes pretty clear. After all, Hassan goes from a kid following his nose to a man following his heart (albeit still in the kitchen), and one of his main struggles is figuring out how to make his own way through the world, both in and out of kitchens. Even the title references how much this book is about his personal growth—one hundred feet isn't physically far to go, but it references a life-changing shift in our main man's life.
Coming of age novels often stop once the main character reaches adulthood, which isn't the case with this one. In a twist on the genre, instead we get to see Hassan continue to grapple with coming into his own long after he technically becomes a grown-up. And the thing about this, of course, is that this is pretty much true in life in general. Age is just a number, and figuring out who we are and how we want our lives to be is usually an on-going process.
At the end of Chapter 11, when Papa agrees to let Hassan go to work for Mallory across the street at Le Saule Pleureur, Hassan says:
It was such a small journey, in feet, but it felt as if I were striding from one end of the universe to the other, the light of the Alps illuminating my way. (11.155)
The Hundred-Foot Journey, then, refers to this turning point in Hassan's life. While technically about as short a trip as they come, it represents the moment that Hassan steps out of an Indian kitchen and into a French one and, in doing so, begins to truly become a chef. Though there are plenty of times when Hassan take bigger journeys on a literal level—moving from Mumbai to London, for instance—it is this walk across the street that his life pivots around. The title is a shout-out to this transformative moment.
The book ends kind of quickly. And by quickly, we mean that while reading it we kind of thought that there would be another page or two. Hassan's just had his big success (hey there, third star), everyone's calling to congratulate him, Margaret's back in town, and they're planning a party…
And then we're done.
But let's take a look at why it ends this way, because more likely than not, our author didn't just give up at the end and call it a day.
Hassan goes into his office the night that he's won his third Michelin star and sees that Margaret has placed the newspaper documenting his big win on his desk. He cuts out the news clip, slides it in a frame, and places it on what's described as a "hungry" empty wall, "Of generations ago" (20.80). Naturally, we're going to end with one last food reference.
The fact that he describes this space where this marker of his success (a.k.a. the news clip) is displayed indicates that there's always been a hungry spot in Hassan's life when it comes to success. He's been driven for so long and worked so hard to make it as a chef, and finally, in the last six words of the story, this hunger is satisfied.
Now let's zoom in even closer, though, and take a closer look at the last three words: "Of generations ago." The hunger that is finally satisfied doesn't just belong to Hassan—it started before him—and in recognizing this, Hassan identifies finally himself comfortably with the Haji family legacy. This is a subtle reference to his grandfather's "great hunger" (1.3) from way back in the day, and lets us know that Hassan has figured out how to hold both his Indian heritage and identity along with his culinary curiosity. Yay.
So we've got four different locations here, and each of them matches certain things that happen in the story. Except for the beginning of the book, where Hassan tells us about his grandfather during World War II, the story is set in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Now that we've got the timing down, let's check out the geographical terrain Hassan covers.
Welcome to the loud, crowded, dirty city Mumbai, the place that Hassan calls home and the first setting for our book. It's a super important location because it's where Hassan's cultural roots are, the same place where his grandfather and father were raised as well. You can take the boy out of India but you can't take the India out of the boy, and all his life Hassan has strong memories of his childhood that stay with him.
Mumbai is sensational, brimming with bustling markets, crowded streets, and the smell of different foods. It's all larger than life and helter-skelter, just like the Hassan's family. Mumbai sets the stage for some major contrasts as the Hajis venture away from the place they've called home for generations.
When the Hajis leave Mumbai, they head to London. And unfortunately, London isn't exactly the most appealing place. It's kind of a slap in the face as they transition between Eastern and Western culture. Don't believe us? The first thing that Hassan compares London to is a soggy slice of white bread (2.105). And no matter how much you like yourself some toast, there's just no way this is favorable.
The Hajis also aren't staying in Buckingham Palace. They're living with their relatives in the "unofficial headquarters of Britain's Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community, a flatland in the armpit of Heathrow Airport" (3.9). Here they find a jumbled up mix of the culture that they know, tucked inside a setting that's totally new. Understandably, they find it totally depressing.
Lumière is French for light, which is a totally fitting name for the place where the Hajis find their new home, escaping the dreary streets of London. Lumière is a darling little town in the middle of the Alps, that's small, contained, and kind of untouched by the rest of the world. When Hassan looks out his hospital room window he notes that "It all looked so beautiful, pristine and pure" (10.11). If London is a soggy piece of white bread, then Lumière is like a freshly baked baguette, with a crunchy and crumbling crust and some fresh jam to smear upon it.
Lumière is kind of the Promised Land of our four settings. It's the happy place where the Hajis re-establish themselves and where Hassan is given the opportunity to become a great artist. It's the place where everyone finds harmony, even Madame Mallory. Insofar as it plays such an important role in launching Hassan into the rest of his life, we can understand it as a sort of second home (after Mumbai), and a pretty good one at that.
Paris is the big bad city of Hassan's adult life. Unlike Mumbai, however, where we experience the smells and sounds which Hassan links with being a kid and growing up, we see a more adult side of Paris. And thanks to Mallory's background help, we never really see an ugly side of Paris—it's just not part of the path she's trying to help Hassan follow. This is the Paris of fancy restaurants and minor celebrities, where Hassan opens a ritzy restaurant in an upscale neighborhood and attends (and organizes) a high society dinner event.
The grandness of Paris might lack some of the warmth and intimacy that makes Lumière seem like such a good home for Hassan, but it is in this very elegance that we can recognize that Hassan—like the Paris he inhabits—is at the top of his game. And when he pares back his cooking style, we know that he is truly running the show. After all, he is going against the grain in one of the culinary capitals of the world… and it works.
This book is pretty straightforward. The plot is presented from beginning to end without any jumping around, plus the writing style is descriptive, so we're given all the information we need without having to make any crazy assumptions.
That said, the book is speckled with French words and phrases. The important ones are always translated for us—for instance, we learn straightaway that le chien méchant is a crazy dog—but the appearance of a second language throughout the book definitely bumps it up a wee bit in difficulty. This book is also quite comfortable in a restaurant kitchen, so if you're not, it might take a little it to get your bearings. None of this poses major hurdles, though, and as always, we're here to help.
There are many important moments of revelation in The Hundred-Foot Journey, and a bird appears in or is somehow a part of pretty much every single one. And while the first thing that might come to mind for you when you think of birds is the sky or flight, in this book they are usually connected with moments that ground characters. Here are a few examples to help you see what we mean.
Hassan is visiting the market with Bappu in Chapter 2 and sees ravens circling overhead, scattering droppings on the food in the stalls. He says:
[…] to this day, whenever I attempt something ludicrously "artistic" in my Paris kitchen, this raucous cry of Crawford ravens warning me to stay close to the earth. (2.11)
The moral of the story for Hassan, it seems, is to stick with what you know—otherwise, there's no telling what the truth is of the food he's working with. This fits in neatly with the general symbolism that ravens are connected to in Hinduism, which has to do with memory and information. Though Hassan himself isn't Hindu, it is the dominant religion in India, so it's safe to say that Hinduism is part of the culture he's grown up with.
In Chapter 11, Mallory is questioning her actions toward others and general attitude about life when she visits a foie gras farm. The owner who is feeding the ducks lets one go because, by raising other ducklings as her own, the animal has shown "'more kindness than a human being'" (11.41). The person we're supposed to think of who struggles with kindness is, of course, none other than Mallory herself, and in the releasing of the kind goose, it is subtly stated that kindness is a sort of liberation from misery in its own right.
The Icelandic delicacy that Hassan is preparing in Chapter 16 brings about his decision to start over again using only fresh and simple ingredients. Originally the recipe was supposed to be super complicated, but he gets overwhelmed and realizes that he needs something to change. So again, we see a bird bringing a character back to the basics.
Hassan has a dream about the assembly line inside a chicken slaughterhouse. Instead of being thoroughly disgusted, though, the image of dead chickens being sent to be chopped up and packaged brings peace to Hassan's mind, reminding him that "there are many points in life when we cannot see what awaits us around the corner, and it is precisely at such times [that we must bravely keep our nerve]" (17.48). Instead of panicking or getting ahead of himself, then, this dream reminds Hassan to take life as it comes.
In short, thoughnone of the bird images are particularly uplifting or beautiful in this book—heck, the birds are often facing death—they all lead to improvements in characters' lives. And importantly, these improvements consistently manifest as a sort of getting back to basics, whether Mallory is considering the value of kindness of Hassan is remembering the value of basic ingredients. And in this way, birds show up in moments when our characters start to soar.
The boar makes a couple of appearances in Part 3 of our book, but we think it packs the biggest symbolic punch when Hassan and Mallory are hunting in the Alps. There are two rules for the hunting trip: No killing babies, and whatever is caught will be shared by everyone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mallory breaks the first rule and kills a young boar. When she does, we can understand the boar as a symbol for both Mallory's disregard for the desires of others (which she shows by eschewing the rules) and her icy heart. After all, killing a baby animal isn't exactly the work of a softy.
Initially, Mallory doesn't seem remotely repentant—she even goes so far as to say the baby boar flesh is "'so tasty to eat'" (8.146)—but later, when Mallory is stuck in the chapel, she envisions a boar's head on the table at the Last Supper. This head stares at her, and as it does, we understand that she is considering her life and the decisions she's made differently than she has before. Mallory is changing, and the reappearance of the boar let's us know that her callous disregard for the lives of others is on its way out. In the boar's face she sees:
[…] the balance sheet of her life, an endless list of credits and debits, of accomplishments and failures, small acts of kindness and real acts of cruelty. (10.52)
The boar looks into her soul and its eyes reflect all the terrible things she's done. All she can do is look back without arguing and just deal with it. It is a rebirth of sorts for Mallory, which is fitting since in Hinduism, the boar is closely associated with creation stories. The boar is a symbol for Mallory's own re-creation.
So if you've read more than half a sentence in this book, chances are decent you're not surprised to see food as a symbol. After all, pretty much every memory that Hassan has—along with every person he meets and place he goes—has a food association. So on a broad level, we can see that food is a symbol for Hassan himself.
Have you ever been driving in the car when a song comes on the radio and all of a sudden it's like you're right in the middle of a vivid memory? Maybe it's a song you danced to with a crush, or one you made a silly version of at summer camp—no matter when or where the song's from, when you hear it again it transports you back. For Hassan, food does this very same thing; he can basically trace his life through the sight, smell, touch, and taste of food.
And this means that we can trace food through Hassan's life, too, using his relationship to food to gauge where he is in not only his career, but in his relationship to himself. A great example of this is when he's preparing the ptarmigan. It's a pivotal moment in Hassan's cooking career, one in which he realizes he doesn't have to aspire to be like other chefs but instead can commandeer his own path. More than the stars or recognition he receives, we can often best understand Hassan through the dishes he's cooking and the ways in which he's thinking about food.
Along these lines, hunger comes up repeatedly in this book, from Bapaji's "great hunger" (1.3) that sets the whole restaurant-business ball in motion to Hassan's "feeling afterward a ravenous hunger" (2.86) after Mama dies. There are several other examples, but each time hunger comes up, the important detail to note is that it drives characters forward. Hassan and his cohorts aren't the type to leave their appetites untended to—nope, they go out and fill their metaphoric bellies. We've only included a few examples here. Can you think of more?
There's so much food in this book that we can't include it all here, but be sure to check out what we have to say about birds as symbols while you're visiting this section.
While visiting the Musée d'Orsay with Paul Verdun, Hassan is struck by Paul Gauguin's The Meal. The subject matter is really simple: Three people at a table with some simple food (we're talking banana-caliber simple) on top of it. As Hassan looks at the painting, he has his epiphany that the simple way is the best way. There's nothing overdone or imposed on the subject matter of the painting—it is totally minimal—so the painting is a symbol that true artistry is being able to master an object as it is, without all the bells and whistles.
The people in this painting aren't in a top-tier restaurant getting ready to start their third course, and the food in front of them hasn't been cooked up to the point of the ingredients no longer being recognizable. The food is simple and clear, and each fundamental ingredient takes the spotlight in its own right without being dolled up. And since this scene is hanging in a museum, it's validated as good.
In short, the painting is symbolic of the major culinary turn Hassan takes—he goes back to basics in a big way—and, in reminding us of this, also reminds us that his biggest success comes when he follows his own path. Not too shabby for a bunch of bananas.
Hassan's the man at the microphone in this book, telling us his own life story through his own eyes and experiences. That Hassan is running the show is clear from the very first sentence. Check it out:
I, Hassan Haji, was born, the second of six children, above my grandfather's restaurant on the Napean Sea Road […]. (1.1)
You see that I that kicks the whole thing off? Hassan is talking about himself in this one, start to finish. It's a pretty formal opening—it's got a testimonial-ish vibe—which sets us up to take Hassan's story seriously as he shares it. This is fitting since, though not driven by ego, Hassan definitely takes himself seriously. Otherwise he wouldn't wind up so darn successful.
A key component to first person narration is that it gives Hassan—as both the main character and the person recounting the tale—the ability to customize how his story is told. So while someone who isn't Hassan might stick to the facts, Hassan busts out food references left and right, and in doing so, we get a better sense of who he is and how he goes through the world. A different narrator might not notice all of the food and connections to food that Hassan has, but he doesn't seem to miss a morsel.
Reliability is always a risk when you have a first person narrator, but Hassan is pretty darn observant and detail-oriented, in addition to being readily interested in other people (more on this over in the "Characters" section). This means that not only does he call things like he sees 'em, but he spends time sharing the spotlight with different characters. This helps us get a better sense of the people Hassan comes in contact with than if, say, he opted to always stay in center stage himself… even if what he tells us isn't always a proper firsthand account. As he clarifies:
The story I tell is God's truth, even if I did not witness every event firsthand; the fact is that many of the details of my own story were revealed to me only years after the fact, when Mallory and the others at long last told me their version of events. (5.1)
What an honest guy.