Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter

The Magic Toyshop is one of my favourite books: to me, it belongs to that strange girlish place between early and late adolescence. The scene below still evokes a kind of childish delight from the description of the simple but delicious-sounding food that the characters eat, and the book is punctuated with many such moments, yet there's a kind of threat of sensuality throughout it that finally manifests in the love affair between Melanie and Finn (that Melanie, and maybe even the reader, is unprepared for, and frightened by). Also touching is the difference between what the 'children' eat, as prepared by their nanny or Aunt Margaret, and Melanie's half-anxious, half-excited fantasies of her future life as a single young woman in a bedsit - preparing Nescafe for herself over a burner, or buying a block of cheese for one.

They ate at a round mahogany table with a stiff white cloth in a dining-room containing much heavy furniture. There was hardly room to move for large chairs and cupboards. Damp stained the walls, which had, long ago, been papered brownly with a pattern of leaves. A distorting witch-ball the size of a football stood in a wooden fruit bowl on the sideboard, in the middle of a mute congregation of bottles of tomato ketchup, salad cream, H.P. sauce, Daddies Favourite sauce and Okay fruit sauce, all with dried dribbles running down their sides. Aunt Margaret carried in an oblong, golden pie from the kitchen, steaming and savoury. Francie spoke a strange grace.
'Flesh to flesh. Amen.'
Then they ate and the dog lay under the table. It put its wet nose on each of their knees in turn, for titbits. It was a white bull terrier with pink eyes.
'Has the dog a name?' asked Melanie.
'Sometimes,' said Finn, 'It is an old dog.'
It was as good as a ballet to watch Finn eat but Francie mopped gravy with bread and chewed bones from his fingers. He was also a noisy eater, as if providing an orchestral accompaniment for his brother. The food was abundant and delicious. There was both white and brown bread, yellow curls of the best butter, two kinds of jam (strawberry and apricot) on the table and a currant cake on the sideboard ready for when they had dealt with the pie.
Aunt Margaret poured fresh tea from a brown earthenware, Sunday-school treat pot that was so heavy she had to tilt it with both hands. They drank their tea very dark and put too much sugar into it. Aunt Margaret presided over the table with a placid contentment, urging them to eat with eloquent movements of the eyes and hands. The children ate hungrily, relaxing over the meal; she must, thought Melanie, be nice if she cooks so well.
When the pie finally changed places with the cake on the sideboard and they all had second cups of tea, the dog, judging it would get no more scraps, came from under the table, stood on three legs to scratch its left ear, shook itself and clawed the door, whining. Finn opened the door and the dog went out, wagging its tail.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

To my great shame, I only read this book properly (I half-read it once as a child) very recently. But, like so many before me, now that I have read it I think it's one of the best things ever. I'm told there are many more delicious moments in earlier Melville books, but this one is amazing and amusing in its own right.

Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said - "Clam or Cod?"

"What's that about Cods, ma'am?" said I, with much politeness.

"Clam or Cod?" she repeated.

"A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?" says I; "but that's a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain't it, Mrs. Hussey?"

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt, who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word "clam", Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out "clam for two," disappeared.

"Queequeg," said I, "do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?"

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word 'cod' with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savory steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.

We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What's that stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? "But look, Queequeg, ain't that a live eel in your bowl? Where's your harpoon?"

Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowders for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish veterbra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen's boats, I saw Hosea's brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod's decapitated head, looking very slip-shod, I assure ye.

Supper concluded, we received a lamp, and directions from Mrs. Hussey concerning the nearest way to bed; but, as Queequeg was about to precede me up the stairs, the lady reached forth her arm, and demanded his harpoon; she allowed no harpoon in her chambers. "Why not?" said I; "every true whaleman sleeps with his harpoon - but why not?"
"Because it's dangerous," says she, "Every since young Stiggs coming from that unfort'nt v'y'ge o his, when he was gone four years and a half, with only three barrels of ile, was found dead in my first floor back, with his harpoon in his side; ever since then I allow no boarders to take sich dangerous weapons in their rooms at night. So, Mr. Queequeg" (for she had learned his name), "I will just take this here iron, and keep it for you till morning. But the chowder; clam or cod to-morrow for breakfast, men?"
"Both," says I; 'and let's have a couple of smoked herring by way of variety."

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This is just one excerpt from The Leopard, which is one of my favourite books. More will certainly follow. All of the description in the book (not just that of food) is wonderful.

The central doors of the drawing room were flung open and the butler declaimed mysterious sounds announcing that dinner was ready: 'Prann' pronn'.' The heterogenous group moved towards the dining room.

The Prince was too experienced to offer Sicilian guests, in a town of the interior, a dinner beginning with soup, and he infringed the rules of haute cuisine all the more readily as he disliked it himself. But rumours of the barbaric foreign usage of serving an insipid liquid as first course had reached the notables of Donnafugata too insistently for them not to quiver with a slight residue of alarm at the start of a solemn dinner like this. So when three lackeys in gold, green and powder entered, each holding a great silver dish containing a towering macaroni pie, only four of the twenty at the table avoided showing pleased surprise: the Prince and Princess from foreknowledge, Angelica from affectation and Concetta from lack of appetite. All the others (including Tancredi, I regret to say) showed their relief in varying ways, from the fluty and ecstatic grunts of the notary to the sharp squeak of Francesco Paolo. But a threatening circular stare from the host soon stifled these improper demonstrations.

Good manners apart, though, the aspect of these monumental dishes of macaroni was worthy of the quivers of admiration they evoked. The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni, to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

The beginning of the meal, as happens in the provinces, was quiet. The arch-priest made the sign of the Cross and plunged in head first without a word. The organist absorbed the succulent dish with closed eyes; he was grateful to the Creator that his ability to shoot hare and woodcock could bring him ecstatic pleasures like this, and the thought came to him that he and Teresina could exist for a month on the cost of one of these dishes; Angelica, the lovely Angelica, forgot little Tuscan black puddings and part of her good manners and devoured her food with the appetite of her seventeen years and the vigour given by grasping her fork halfway up the handle. Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving his fantasy with the pudding; the Prince, although rapt in the contemplation of Angelica sitting opposite him, was the only one at the table to notice that the demi-glace was overfilled, and made a mental note to tell the cook so next day; the others ate without thinking of anything, and without realising that the food seemed so delicious because sensuality was circulating in the house.

Remembrance of Things Past (Vol. 1, Swann's Way), Marcel Proust

I have to, of course, include this famous 'food' moment in literature, although it's not as explicit as some others.

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing which I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, not, indeed be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I drank a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. Is it time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone cannot discover the truth.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Lashings and lashings of ginger beer


This is the first post.

This blog is going to contain a new and delicious description of food from a novel every day.

The inaugural posting is from 'Upper Fourth at Malory Towers', as this blog is named on honour of Enid Blyton's constant and wondrous pornographic descriptions of food.

Tongue sandwiches with lettuce, hard-boiled eggs to eat with bread-and-butter, great chunks of new-made cream cheese, potted meat, ripe tomatoes grown in Mrs. Lucy's brother's greenhouse, gingerbread cake fresh from the oven, shortbread, a great fruit cake with almonds crowding the top, biscuits of all kinds and six jam sandwiches!

Feel free to comment with suggestions for future posts!