Sunday, 16 May 2010

A Note

Dear Readers,

This blog has been quiet recently due to real life deadlines, work pressures, etc. As such we won't be able to update it much for the next month, but in that time, we would love suggestions on any books or excerpts that you think should be here. So far, we've had quite a few emails suggesting Redwall, so that will definitely be here, as well as On The Road.

What else do you want to see here? Feel free to comment, and check back next month.

Until then!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Here's something to keep our one or two faithful readers interested; Fatima and I are both on tough deadlines but hope to be back soon.

It is somewhat de rigueur to be contemptuous about The Secret History, the story of a small set of students of ancient Greek who find it necessary to murder one of their classmates, but I am quite fond of it--it has its faults but attention to detail is not one of them. Food does not figure very prominently; the main characters eat (as Laurie Colwin said about someone else) like dyspeptic middle-aged Brits and are rather more prone to drink. But there is one plot point that revolves very pointedly around something that might be eaten.

Julian, of course, had made the lunch himself, and we ate at the big round table in his office. After weeks of bad nerves, bad conversation, and bad food in the dining hall, the prospect of a meal with him was immensely cheering; he was a charming companion and his dinners, though deceptively simple, had a sort of Augustan wholesomeness and luxuriance which never failed to soothe.

There was roasted lamb, new potatoes, peas with leeks and fennel; a rich and almost maddeningly delicious Château Latour. I was eating with better appetite than I had in ages when I noticed that a fourth course had appeared, with unobtrusive magic, at my elbow: mushrooms. They were pale and slender-stemmed, of a type I had seen before, steaming in a red wine sauce that smelled of coriander and rue.

"Where did you get these?" I said.

"Ah. You're quite observant," he said, pleased. "Aren't they marvelous? Quite rare. Henry brought them to me."

I took a quick swallow of my wine to hide my consternation.

"He tells me--may I?" he said nodding at the bowl.

I passed it to him, and he spooned some of them onto his plate. "Thank you," he said. "What was I saying? Oh, yes. Henry tells me that this particular sort of mushroom was a great favorite of the emperor Claudius. Interesting, because you remember how Claudius died."

I did remember. Agrippina had slipped a poisoned one into his dish one night.

"They're quite good," said Julian, taking a bite. "Have you gone with Henry on any of his collecting expeditions?"

"Not yet. He hasn't asked me to."

"I must say, I never thought I cared very much for mushrooms, but everything he's brought me has been heavenly."

Suddenly I understood. This was a clever piece of groundwork on Henry's part. "He's brought them to you before?" I said.

"Yes. Of course I wouldn't trust just anyone with this sort of thing, but Henry seems to know an amazing lot about it."

"I believe he probably does," I said, thinking of the boxer dogs.

"It's remarkable how good he is at anything he tries. He can grow flowers, repair clocks like a jeweler, add tremendous sums in his head. Even if it's something as simple as bandaging a cut finger he manages to do a better job of it." He poured himself another glass of wine. "I gather that his parents are disappointed that he's decided to concentrate so exclusively on the classics. I disagree, of course, but in a certain sense it is rather a pity. He would have made a great doctor, or soldier, or scientist."

I laughed. "Or a great spy," I said.

Julian laughed too. "All you boys would be excellent spies," he said. "Slipping about in casinos, eavesdropping on heads of state. Really, won't you try some of these mushrooms? They're glorious."

I drank the rest of my wine. "Why not," I said, and reached for the bowl.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Song of Solomon

I just read this again, and though it's not really 'about' food, it's so lovely.

... Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.
How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!
Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.
A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,
Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
Complete text here.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Below, a long excerpt from The Bell Jar. Sylvia Plath's clean, measured, precise prose takes its time unfolding, and holds a great deal more than what's on the surface. Here, under cover of reminiscing about food, Esther Greenwood travels across social anxiety, greed, the fear of never being sated, the fear of never getting what's hers and whether she deserves it anyway--all part of the march toward her famous crackup.

This scene has always made me hungry, even though I know they all get terrifically sick afterward, from ptomaine poisoning in the crabmeat.

Arrayed on the Ladies' Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar. I hadn't had time to eat any breakfast at the hotel cafeteria that morning, except for a cup of over-stewed coffee so bitter it made my nose curl, and I was starving.

Before I came to New York I'd never eaten out in a proper restaurant. I don't count Howard Johnson's, where I only had french fries and cheeseburgers and vanilla frappes with people like Buddy Willard. I'm not sure why it is, but I love food more than just about anything else. No matter how much I eat, I never put on weight. With one exception I've been the same weight for ten years.

My favorite dishes are full of butter and cheese and sour cream. In New York we had so many free luncheons with people on the magazine and various visiting celebrities I developed the habit of running my eye down those huge handwritten menus, where a tiny side dish of peas cost fifty or sixty cents, until I'd picked the richest, most expensive dishes and ordered a string of them.

We were always taken out on expense accounts, so I never felt guilty. I made a point of eating so fast I never kept the other people waiting who generally ordered only chef's salad and grapefruit juice because they were trying to reduce. Almost everybody I met in New York was trying to reduce.

"I want to welcome the prettiest, smartest bunch of young ladies our staff has yet had the good luck to meet," the plump, bald master-of-ceremonies wheezed into his lapel microphone. "This banquet is just a small sample of the hospitality our Food Testing Kitchens here on Ladies' Day would like to offer in appreciation for your visit."

A delicate, ladylike spatter of applause, and we all sat down at the enormous linen-draped table.

There were eleven of us girls from the magazine, together with most of our supervising editors, and the whole staff of the Ladies' Day Food Testing Kitchens in hygienic white smocks, neat hairnets and flawless makeup of a uniform peach-pie color.

There were only eleven of us, because Doreen was missing. They had set her place next to mine for some reason, and the chairs stayed empty. I saved her placecard for her--a pocket mirror with "Doreen" painted along the top of it in lacy script and a wreath of frosted daisies around the edge, framing the silver hole where her face would show.

Doreen was spending the day with Lenny Shepherd. She spent most of her free time with Lenny Shepherd now.

In the hour before our luncheon at Ladies' Day--the big women's magazine that features lush double-page spreads of Technicolor meals, with a different theme and locale each month--we had been shown around the endless glossy kitchens and seen how difficult it is to photograph apple pie a la mode under bright lights because the ice cream keeps melting and has to be propped up from behind with toothpicks and changed every time it starts looking too soppy.

The sight of all the food stacked in those kitchens made me dizzy. It's not that we hadn't enough to eat at home, it's just that my grandmother always cooked economy joints and economy meat loafs and had the habit of saying, the minute you lifted the first forkful to your mouth, "I hope you enjoy that, it cost forty-one cents a pound," which always made me feel I was somehow eating pennies instead of Sunday roast.

While we were standing up behind our chairs listening to the welcome speech, I had bowed my head and secretly eyed the position of the bowls of caviar. One bowl was set strategically between me and Doreen's empty chair.

I figured the girl across from e couldn't reach it because of the mountainous centerpiece of marzipan fruit, and Betsy, on my right, would be too nice to ask me to share it with her if I just kept it out of the way at my elbow by my bread-and-butter plate. Besides, another bowl of caviar sat a little way to the right of the girl next to Betsy, and she could eat that.

My grandfather and I had a standing joke. He was the head waiter at a country club near my home town, and every Sunday my grandmother drove in to bring him home for his Monday off. My brother and I alternated going with her, and my grandfather always served Sunday supper to my grandmother and whichever of us was along as if we were regular club guests. He loved introducing me to special tidbits, and by the age of nine I had developed a passionate taste for cold vichyssoise and caviar and anchovy paste.

The joke was that at my wedding my grandfather would see I had all the caviar I could eat. It was a joke because I never intended to get married, and even if I did, my grandfather couldn't have afforded enough caviar unless he robbed the country club kitchen and carried it off in a suitcase.

Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn't ooze off and ate them.

I'd discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.

I learned this trick the day Jay Cee took me to lunch with a famous poet. He wore a horrible, lumpy, speckled brown tweed jacket and gray pants and a red-and-blow checked open-throated jersey in a very formal restaurant full of fountains and chandeliers, where all the other men were dressed in dark suits and immaculate white shirts.

This poet ate his salad with his fingers, leaf by leaf, while talking to me about the antithesis of nature and art. I couldn't take my eyes off the pale, stubby white fingers traveling back and forth from the poet's salad bowl to the poet's mouth with one dripping lettuce leaf after another. Nobody giggled or whispered rude remarks. The poet made eating salad with your fingers seem to be the only natural and sensible thing to do.

None of our magazine editors or the Ladies' Day staff members sat anywhere near me, and Betsy seemed sweet and friendly, she didn't even seem to like caviar, so I grew more and more confident. When I finished my first plate of cold chicken and caviar, I laid out another. Then I tackled the avocado and crabmeat salad.

Avocados are my favorite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and french dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison.

"How was the fur show?" I asked Betsy, when I was no longer worried about competition over my caviar. I scraped the last few salty black eggs from the dish with my soup spoon and licked it clean.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

This is a little bit of a cheat--or a great deal of a cheat, depending on how you feel about such things--because this excerpt is from a book I haven't finished. I made it a good way through, and then something intervened (I can't remember what) and I never picked it up again. And where discussing a passage from a book you don't know at all offers an obvious challenge, I've been surprised by how hard it is to narrow down my thoughts about books I know--it seems--too well.

Here is breakfast at the Sanatorium Berghof. It is observed with the same care and formality with which the Sanatorium's inhabitants note their every symptom. This takes place very early in the book, as Hans Castorp--for now just a visitor at the Sanatorium, not a patient--gathers impressions and begins to reckon with the shadow that falls over even the nicest things or (to move the metaphor from outward to in) the ever-present rotting core.

The translation is by John E. Woods:

There were plates of marmalade and honey, bowls of oatmeal and creamed rice, plates of scrambled eggs and cold meats; they had been generous with the butter. Someone lifted the glass bell from a soft Swiss cheese and cut off a piece; what was more, a bowl of fruit, both fresh and dried, stood in the middle of the table. A dining attendant in black and white asked Hans Castorp what he wanted to drink--cocoa, coffee, or tea? She was as small as a child, with an old, long face--a dwarf, he realized with a shock. He looked at his cousin, who merely shrugged and lifted an eyebrow as if to say, "Right, what else is new?" and so Hans Castorp simply accepted the fact and, since it was a dwarf, asked for his tea with special courtesy. He began with some creamed rice topped with sugar and cinnamon, meanwhile letting his eyes wander over the other items he intended to sample and across the seven tables of assembled guests--Joachim's colleagues, his companions in misfortune, all with the same illness deep inside, all chatting and breakfasting.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Little House On The Prairie (2), Laura Ingalls Wilder

Happy Holidays, everyone!

When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. (“But you crossed it,” Laura said. “Yes,” Mr. Edwards replied, “but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn’t make it, where a long, lean razor-back like me could do so.”) And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn’t cross the creek, likely he would come no farther south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie, only to be turned back? Of course he wouldn’t do that!

So, Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence. (“In the rain?” Mary asked. Mr. Edwards said he wore his rubber coat.) And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. (“In the daytime?” Laura asked. She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.)

Well, the first thing Santa Claus said was, “Hello, Edwards!” (“Did he know you?” Mary asked, and Laura asked, “How did you know he was really Santa Claus?” Mr. Edwards said that Santa Claus knew everybody. And he had recognized Santa at once by his whiskers. Santa had the longest, thickest, whitest set of whiskers west of the Mississippi.)

So Santa Claus said, “Hello, Edwards! Last time I saw you you were sleeping on a cornshuck bed in Tennessee.” And Mr. Edwards well remembered the little pair of red-yarn mittens that Santa Claus had left for him that time.

Then Santa Claus said: “I understand you’re living now down along the Verdigris River. Have you ever met up, down yonder, with two little young girls named Mary and Laura?”

“I surely am acquainted with them,” Mr. Edwards replied.

“It rests heavy on my mind,” said Santa Claus. “They are both of them sweet, pretty, good little young things, and I know they are expecting me. I surely do hate to disappoint two good little girls like them. Yet with the water up the way it is, I can’t ever make it across that creek. I can figure no way whatsoever to get to their cabin this year. Edwards,” Santa Claus said, “Would you do me the favor to fetch them their gifts this one time?”

“I’ll do that, and with pleasure,” Mr. Edwards told him.

Then Santa Claus and Mr. Edwards stepped across the street to the hitching-posts where the pack mule was tied. (“Didn’t he have his reindeer?” Laura asked. “You know he couldn’t,” Mary said. “There isn’t any snow.” Exactly, said Mr. Edwards. Santa Claus traveled with a pack mule in the southwest.”)

And Santa Claus uncinched the pack and looked through it, and he took out the presents for Mary and Laura.

“Oh, what are they?” Laura cried; but Mary asked, “Then what did he do?”

Then he shook hands with Mr. Edwards, and he swung up on his fine bay horse. Santa Claus rode well for a man of his weight and build. And he tucked his long, white whiskers under his bandana. “So long, Edwards,” he said, and he rode away on the Fort Dodge trail, leading his pack-mule and whistling.

Laura and Mary were silent an instant, thinking of that.

Then Ma said, “You may look now, girls.”

Something was shining bright in the top of Laura’s stocking. She squealed and jumped out of bed. So did Mary, but Laura beat her to the fireplace. And the shining thing was a glittering new tin cup.

Mary had one exactly like it.

These new tin cups were their very own. Now they each had a cup to drink out of. Laura jumped up and down and shouted and laughed, but Mary stood still and looked with shining eyes at her own tin cup.

Then they plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at the beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.

Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.

The cakes were too pretty to eat. Mary and Laura just looked at them. But at last Laura turned hers over, and she nibbled a tiny nibble from underneath, where it wouldn’t show. And the inside of the cake was white!

It had been made of pure white flour, and sweetened with white sugar.

Laura and Mary never would have looked in their stockings again. The cups and the cakes and the candy were almost too much. They were too happy to speak. But Ma asked if they were sure their stockings were empty.

Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure.

And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny!

They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.

There never had been such a Christmas.

...She looked up again when Ma gasped. And Mr. Edwards was taking sweet potatoes out of his pockets. He said they had helped to balance the package on his head when he swam across the creek. He thought Pa and Ma might like them, with the Christmas turkey.

There were nine sweet potatoes. Mr. Edwards had brought them all the way from town, too. It was just too much. Pa said so. “It’s too much, Edwards,” he said. They never could thank him enough.

Mary and Laura were too excited to eat breakfast. They drank the milk from their shining new cups, but they could not swallow the rabbit stew and the cornmeal mush.

“Don’t make them, Charles,” Ma said. “It will soon be dinner-time.”

For Christmas dinner there was tender, juicy, roasted turkey. There were the sweet potatoes, baked in the ashes and carefully wiped to that you could eat the good skins, too. There was a loaf of salt-rising bread made from the last of the white flour.

And after all that there were stewed dried blackberries and little cakes. But these little cakes were made with brown sugar and they did not have white sugar sprinkled over their tops.

Then Pa and Ma and Mr. Edwards sat by the fire and talked about Christmas times back in Tennessee and up north in the Big Woods. But Mary and Laura looked at their beautiful cakes and played with their pennies and drank their water out of their new cups. And little by little they licked and sucked their sticks of candy, till each stick was sharp-pointed on one end.

That was a happy Christmas.

Friday, 11 December 2009

George Orwell's Christmas Pudding and Plum Cake Recipes

Thanks to the Guardian, here is George Orwell's Christmas pudding and plum cake recipes, typed in his own fair hand:

I wonder if that stain is indeed a pudding stain.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Study of Two Pears, Wallace Stevens

This is perhaps somewhat different than most of our posts: there's no meal involved, just a couple of pears observed with ambiguous precision. Even if the pears can't be seen as the observer wills, perhaps they can be eaten as the reader wishes.

Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

I didn't know which excerpt to post from this book - the sickening account of the filthiness of the expensive Parisian hotel kitchen (cockroaches in the bread bin, 'the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy - the nasty, greasy fingers which he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair, the toast retrieved from the dirty floor); the wolfing down of two loaves of bread and a bottle of wine after starving for three days; the lament of the kitchen dishwasher who bobs helplessly on waves of the cook's 'ceaseless, nagging... orders'; or the religious workers who tempt the homeless with fruit buns? But perhaps including any of these excerpts from a book which is all about not having food (or very much else) is not telling enough - the passages that struck me most were those where food and hunger are obsessions, when the narrator finds himself in a world in which food, the one thing that can revive him or inspire any motivation in him, is obscenely abundant, and yet horribly out of reach. Personally, it also disturbs me whenever I read it because, while aware, intellectually, that there are billions of people for whom constantly battling hunger is a reality, it is so easy to be totally oblivious on a daily basis of that fact, and to have not even a chance of understanding what it must be like when you live in a world where your most difficult choices about food are whether to have dessert or not or whether to go to a Japanese restaurant or eat an organic, grass-fed burger instead - so Orwell provides a good jolt in that respect. It is, at least, an interesting counterpart to the many excerpts we have here which are all about feasting - in these, the feast is nothing more than an impossible, painful fantasy.

And then there are your meals - meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. [...]
You go to the baker's to buy a pound of bread, and you wait while the girl cuts a pound for another customer. She is clumsy, and cuts more than a pound. 'Pardon, monsieur,' she says, 'I don't suppose you mind paying two sous extra?' Bread is a franc a pound, and you have exactly a franc. When you think you might be asked to pay two sous extra, and would have to confess that you could not, you bolt in panic. It is hours before you dare venture into a baker's shop again. [...]
You discover what it is to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you, and you refrain, from pure funk.
You discover the boredom which is inescapable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do, and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed, feeling like the jeune squelette in Baudelaire's poem. Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.


Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently... We were too hungry to think of anything but food. I remember the dinner Boris finally selected for himself. It was: a dozen oysters, borscht soup (the red, sweet, beetroot soup with cream on top), crayfishes, a young chicken en casserole, beef with stewed plums, new potatoes, a salad, suet pudding and Roquefort cheese, with a litre of Burgundy and some old brandy. Boris had international tastes in food. Later on, when we were prosperous, I occasionally saw him eat meals almost as large without difficulty.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Eggs à la Nabocoque, Vladimir Nabokov

Maxime de la Falaise had a varied career as a fashion model, cookbook author, and Andy Warhol collaborator (she was featured in Blood for Dracula, and designed a menu for Warhol's version of the automat--the Andymat). She wrote a food column for Vogue, and in 1973 published Seven Centuries on English Cooking.

Found among Vladimir Nabokov's archives is the following recipe, dated November 18, 1972, and addressed to Maxime, who presumably requested it for inclusion in her cookbook. Nabokov noted on the top of the page "Maxime de la Falaise McKendry for a cooking book"; a later note reads, "Never acknowledge by Maxime." Perhaps it wasn't quite what she was looking for.

At any rate, here's the recipe that Nabokov sent Maxime:

Eggs à la Nabocoque

Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!). Take two eggs (for one person) out of the refrigerator. Hold them under the hot tap water to make them ready for what awaits them.

"Place each in a pan, one after the other, and let them slip soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan.

If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an oldfashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away. Take another and be more careful.

After 200 seconds have passed, or, say, 240 (taking interruptions into account), start scooping the eggs out. Place them, round end up, in two egg cups. With a small spoon tap-tap in a circle and hen pry open the lid of the shell. Have some salt and buttered bread (white) ready. Eat.