Monday, 30 March 2009

Taste, Roald Dahl

It's worth knowing how all this ends - if you haven't read this short story, seek it out (you won't be disappointed).

The meal began with a plate of whitebait, fried very crisp in butter, and to go with it there was a Moselle... We finished our fish, and the maid came round removing the plates. When she came to Pratt, she saw that he had not yet touched his food, and Pratt noticed her. He waved her away, broke off his conversation, and quickly began to eat, popping the little crisp brown fish quickly into his mouth with rapid jabbing movements of his fork. Then, when he had finished, he reached for his glass, and in two short swallows he tipped the wine down this throat and turned immediately to resume his conversation with Louise Schofield... Soon the maid came forward with the second course. This was a large roast of beef. She placed it on the table in front of Mike who stood up and carved it, cutting the slices very thin, laying them gently on the plates for the maid to take around. When he had served everyone, including himself, he put down the carving knife and leaned forward with both hands on the edge of the table.
'Now,' he said, speaking to all of us but looking at Richard Pratt. 'Now for the claret. I must go and fetch the claret, if you'll excuse me.'

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Unseen, Mari Jungstedt

I've finally, ages later than everyone else, decided to read some Swedish crime fiction and the first book I picked up was this one. It's pretty enjoyable so far. The description of food are loving and plenty, but this one stood out - especially since I've never eaten Swedish food before, and this made me quite curious to try it. If anyone has any more crime fiction recommendations, by the way, please let me know!

The long table was set with blue-flowered Rörstand dishes, the napkins had been festively stuck in the glasses, and the silverware shone. Ceramic pitchers were filled with summer wildflowers: daisies, cranesbills, almond blossoms and fiery red poppies. The herring was arranged on a platter: herring in mustard sauce and in aquavit, pickled herring, and his own homemade herring in sherry, which burned sweetly on the tongue. The new potatoes that had just been set on the table were steaming in their deep bowls, white and tender, with green sprigs of dill that brought out the sweet taste of summer.
The bread basket was filled with crisp bread, rye crackers, and his mother's famous unleavened flat bread that could entice people to come to Gotland just for the sake of buying some of it. It was only sold at his parents' farm in Kappelshamn.
... A sense of unease came over him, but it vanished when his wife brought out the frosty bottles of ice-cold aquavit and set them on the table. He felt a rumbling in his stomach. He sliced off a piece of ripe Västerbotten cheese and quickly stuffed it into his mouth before ringing the old cowbell that they always used to announce that it was time to eat.
"Come and get it, everybody," he shouted.
After the guests had helped themselves from the platters, they all raised their glasses of aquavit, and Knutas welcomed everyone by making a toast to summer.

Friday, 20 March 2009

#43, from The Devil's Larder, Jim Crace

There was an eating contest after the bride had left with her new husband on their honeymoon and all the duller couples had gone upstairs to their expensive rooms to sleep off the excesses of the day. Just nine men remained amid the debris of the dancing and the meal... All bachelors, all dressed (approximately) in white. That was the wedding theme. All white... That meant a brand-new carpet in the hotel's dining room, redecorated walls and doors, pearl tablecloths (hand-stitched with hearts in matching thread), displays of the very palest roses, lilies and carnations, and of course, a wedding dinner 'cooked from white ingredients'...
It was the barman's fault. He said it was a pity that the waiters had to waste good drinking time clearing up the mess. It was a pity, too, that such eccentric food should go to waste. 'Let's eat the lot,' he said, 'I bet we can.'
'In less than twenty minutes,' said the under-manager, 'or else you lose the bet. I want you out by two.'
The nine of them, keyed up and challenged by the errant spirit of the wedding night, spread out around the tables and set to work on what remained of the feast. There were no rules or etiquette, no social niceties. So lung and lychees shared a fork; fish steaks and sallow andouillettes were sweetened by icing from the wedding cake; baby white aubergines and boiled potatoes were dipped into coconut sauce; prawn crackers scooped up basmati rice, yoghurt dip and cream. The men made sandwiches of white oat bread, buffalo cheese, blanched asparagus and sweetened albumen. Vanilla ice cream went with everything. Speed was the thing...
They filled their glasses with the last dregs from the bottles of white wine, mixed drunkenly with milk, and held them up to toast the bridegroom and the bride, by now a hundred miles away... Somewhere, driving through the night, the honeymooners were in each other's arms, his lips on hers, deep in the lambswool cushions of their white limousine, behind the stiff and blushing chauffeur in his pallid uniform.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Heidi, Johanna Spyri

'I think, however, that we could eat something first. What is your opinion about that?' asked the old man.
Heidi had been so much interested about her bed that she had forgotten everything else. Now she remembered, and felt suddenly very hungry. She had eaten nothing since breakfast, when she had a piece of bread and a little weak coffee, and had since made a long journey. Heidi replied heartily to her grandfather's question, 'Yes, I think so, indeed.'
...He went over to the fireplace... Next, he held a long iron fork over the fire, with a big piece of cheese on it, which he turned slowly round and round till it was of a golden yellow.
Heidi watched him with a keen interest; but suddenly a idea came into her head, and she sprang away.... When her grandfather came with the pot, and the roasted cheese on a fork, there lay already the round loaf, two plates, two knives, all neatly arranged; for Heidi had noticed everything in the press, and she knew what was needed for the table.
... Heidi seized her little mug, and drank and drank without once stopping; for all the thirst of her journey seemed to rise up at once. Then she drew a long breath - for in her eagerness to drink, she had not been able to stop to breathe - and set down her mug.
'Does the milk taste good?' asked her grandfather.
'I never drank such good milk,' said the child.
'Then you must have more,' said he, and filled the mug again quite to the top, and placed it before the child, who was eating her bread, spread thickly with the hot cheese, which was like butter from the heat, and tasted delicious. She now and then drank her milk, and looked meanwhile perfectly happy.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

1933 Was A Bad Year, John Fante

Dorothy was at the sideboard, breaking eggs and spilling them into a bowl. Just watching the oval things crack in her white fingers and spill forth with a golden plop created a series of small explosions inside me. My calves shuddered as she scrambled them with a fork and they turned yellow like her hair. She poured a bit of cream into the mixture and the silken smoothness of the descending cream had me reeling. I wanted to say, 'Dorothy Parrish, I love you', to take her in my arms, to lift the bowl of scrambled eggs above our heads and pour it over our bodies, to roll on the red tiles with her, smeared with the conquest of eggs, squirming and slithering in the yellow of love.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Boule de Suif, Guy de Maupassant

As you may know from the story, Boule de Suif is a larger lady - and a prostitute. Her middle-class and hypocritical traveling companions, disgusted by her, at first are insulted that she should be sharing a carriage with them, but after going without food (having neglected to pack any) open up to her once she begins to share her lunch with them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they end up using and humiliating her terribly. Most of the translations I've seen call her 'Butterball', which I think is far better, but the one I had to hand (no translator named) stuck with the direct translation of Boule de Suif - 'Ball-of-Fat' - which doesn't sound as good, not to mention that suif means 'tallow' (at least it does according to the internet/my high school knowledge of French), which unfortunately brings about less of an image of a big, warm, soft, plump woman than Butterball does, I think. In any case, I've stuck with the translation that I had.

Finally, at three o'clock, when they found themselves in the midst of an interminable plain, without a single village in sight, Ball-of-Fat bending down quickly drew from under the seat a large basket covered with a white napkin.
At first she brought out a little china plate and a silver cup; then a large dish in which there were two whole chickens, cut up and imbedded in their own jelly. And one could still see in the basket other good things, some pâtés, fruits, and sweetmeats, provisions for three days if they should not see the kitchen of an inn. Four necks of bottles were seen among the packages of food. She took a wing of a chicken and began to eat it delicately, with one of those little biscuits called 'Regence' in Normandy.
All looks were turned in her direction. Then the odour spread, enlarging the nostrils and making the mouth water, besides causing a painful contraction of the jaw behind the ears. The scorn of the women for this girl became ferocious, as if they had a desire to kill her and throw her out of the carriage into the snow, her, her silver cup, her basket, provisions and all.
But Loiseau with his eyes devoured the dish of chicken. He said: "Fortunately Madame had more precaution than we. There are some people who know how to think ahead always."
She turned toward him, saying: 'If you would like some of it, sir? It is hard to go without breakfast so long."
He saluted her and replied: "Faith, I frankly cannot refuse; I can stand it no longer. Everything goes in time of war, does it not, Madame?" And then casting a comprehensive glance around, he added: "In moments like this, one can but be pleased to find people who are obliging."
He had a newspaper which he spread out on his knees, that no spot might come to his pantaloons, and upon the point of a knife that he always carried in his pocket, he took up a leg all glistening with jelly between his teeth and masticated it with a satisfaction so evident that there ran through the carriage a great sigh of distress.
Then Ball-of-Fat, in a sweet and humble voice, proposed that the two sisters partake of her collation. They both accepted instantly and, without raising their eyes, began to eat very quickly, after stammering thanks. Cornudet no longer refused the offers of his neighbour, and they formed with the sisters a sort of table, by spreading out some newspaper upon their knees.
... It is the first step that counts. The Rubicon passed, one lends himself to the occasion squarely. The basked was stripped. It still contained a pâté de foie gras, a pâté of larks, a piece of smoked tongue, some preserved pears, a loaf of hard bread, some wafers, and full cup of pickled gherkins and onions, of which condiments Ball-of-Fat, like all women, was extremely fond.
They could not eat this girl's provisions without speaking to her. And so, they chatted, with reserve at first; then, as she carried herself well, with more abandon.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Dearly Devoted Dexter, Jeff Lindsay

I love Dexter the tv show, and since I haven't yet seen season 3 and am waiting for it on dvd (no spoilers please!), I've been reading the Dexter books in the meanwhile. The first two were a really fun read, and I'm about to start the third. Dexter really is a monster that loves food (I think donuts are mentioned more in the books than death), and he particularly loves medianoches (see here for details, plus a mouthwatering picture) and batidas (Cuban milkshakes made with fruit). Here is a typical description of the former, from the second book.

It was indeed a long wait, well over two hours. I sat in the car and listened to the radio and tried to picture, bite by bite, what it was like to eat a medianoche sandwich: the crackle of the bread crust, so crisp and toasty it scratches the inside of your mouth as you bite down. Then the first taste of mustard, followed by the soothing cheese and the salt of the meat. Next bite - a piece of pickle. Chew it all up; let the flavors mingle. Swallow. Take a big sip of Iron Beer (pronounced Ee-roan Bay-er, and it's a soda). Sigh. Sheer bliss. I would rather eat than do anything else except play with the Dark Passenger. It's a true miracle of genetics that I am not fat.
I was on my third imaginary sandwich when Deborah finally came back to the car. She slid into the driver's seat, closed the door, and just sat there, staring at the rain-splattered windshield. And I knew it wasn't the best thing I could have said, but I couldn't help myself. 'You look beat, Deb. How about lunch?'

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Garden Party, Katherine Mansfield

Today's excerpt comes courtesy of Emily, and reminds me of a moment from my own past involving my sister, myself, and a box of eclairs. Although this excerpt doesn't involve theft, tears, lies, and sibling-on-sibling violence. Good times...

"Godber's has come," announced Sadie, issuing out of the pantry. She had seen the man pass the window.
That meant the cream puffs had come. Godber's were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.
"Bring them in and put them on the table, my girl," ordered cook.
Sadie brought them in and went back to the door. Of course Laura and Jose were far too grown-up to really care about such things. All the same, they couldn't help agreeing that the puffs looked very attractive. Very. Cook began arranging them, shaking off the extra icing sugar.
"Don't they carry one back to all one's parties?" said Laura.
"I suppose they do," said practical Jose, who never liked to be carried back. "They look beautifully light and feathery, I must say."
"Have one each, my dears," said cook in her comfortable voice. "Yer ma won't know."
Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Claudine in Paris, Colette

Here is an excerpt involving one of my favourite heroines in literature, Colette's Claudine. I can't help but compare her to Melanie from The Magic Toyshop, who readers will remember from this post: both are adolescent girls, and both are slowly discovering a world (particularly a sexual one) beyond their individual childish fantasies of adulthood. But where Melanie is tentative, relucant, and deeply introspective - the half-afraid and half-fascinated subject of Finn's taunting and seduction - Claudine is confident, aware already of her sexuality and its power (particularly over the meek Luce), and frustrated that her passage into adulthood won't go any faster. The difference is also reflected in their accounts of other pleasures - particularly eating - Melanie approaches food practically, concerned over whether there will be enough of it, delighting in its abundance and comfort, imagining adult food to be rationed and sparse. Claudine, on the other hand, delights in taste and texture, and seems to be aware of food only as an indulgence, as in this passage with the chocolate, and its sensual qualities are emphasised, as in her conversation with Marcel.

She was getting married; she was seventeen. And I?... Oh, if only I could be given back Montigny, and last year, and the year before that, and my turbulent, indiscreet prying into other people's affairs! If I could only have back my disappointed love for Madamoiselle's little Aimée and my sensual bullying of Luce - for I've no one here and don't even want to behave badly!
Whoever would have believed that she was revolving such tearful thoughts, this Claudine, sitting cross-legged in a dressing gown before the marble chimneypiece and apparently completely absorbed in roasting one side of a bar of chocolate kept upright between a pair of tongs? When the surface exposed to the fire softened, blackened, crackled, and blistered, I lifted it off in thin layers with my little knife... Exquisite taste, a mixture of grilled almonds and grated vanilla! The melancholy sweetness of savouring the toasted chocolate and, at the same time, staining one's toenails pink with a little rag soaked in Papa's red ink!
The returning sun showed me the absurdity of my desolation of last night. All the more so because Marcel arrived at half past five, lively and beautiful as... as only Marcel can be...
With his woman's grace, a compound of ease and of extraordinary precision of movement, he caught me round the waist and gently breathed on my half-closed eyes. He kept the game up and finally declared, 'You smell of.... cinnamon, Claudine.'
'Why cinnamon?' I asked languidly, leaning against his arm and half tranced by his light breath.
'I don't know. A warm smell, a smell like some exotic sweetmeat.'
'So that's it! An oriental bazaar, in fact?'
'No. A bit like Viennese pastry - a smell good to eat. And what do I smell of?' he demanded, putting his velvety cheek very close to my mouth.
'New-mown hay,' I said, sniffing it. And, as his cheek did not withdraw, I kissed it gently, without pressing. But I would have kissed a bunch of flowers or a ripe peach in just the same way. There are some scents one can only take in properly with one's mouth.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Strawberries, Edwin Morgan

Another poem today. But quite different from the last.
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon

sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air

in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Oatmeal, Gary Kinnell

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal--porridge, as he called it--with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unsual willingness to disintigrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something from it.
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the "Ode to a Nightingale."
He had a heck of a time finishing it--those were his words--
"Oi 'ad a 'eck of a toime," he said, more or less, speaking through his porridge.
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his pocket,
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas, and he and a friend
spread the papers on a table, and they made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day if they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas, and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay \ itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal alone.
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started on it, and two of the lines, "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours," came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering furrows, muttering.
Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneaously gummy and crumbly, and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.