Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Trumpet of the Swan, E. B. White

As I was hunting through my bookshelves (utterly disordered thanks to my two-foot-tall roommate, who likes to take books out and toss them around) for The Wind in the Willows, my hand briefly rested on E. B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan. And some automatic little voice immediately piped up--"watercress sandwiches," it said.

I could fill this blog with excerpts from children's books--I wonder why that is? Are books for children necessarily more vivid about food than books for adults? Or does it have something to do with the way we remember them?

At any rate, here is Louis the swan, making himself comfortable at the Ritz, in Boston, in E. B. White's simple, decorous, crystalline prose:

On the wall of the bedroom, he found a button that said WAITER. Louis put his beak against the button and pressed hard. In a few minutes, there was a knock at the door and a waiter entered. He was nicely dressed and tried not to show surprise at finding a swan in the room.

"May I get you something?" he asked.

Louis picked up his chalk pencil. "Twelve watercress sandwiches, please," he wrote on the slate.

The waiter thought for a moment. "Are you expecting guests?" he asked.

Louis shook his head.

"And you want twelve watercress sandwiches?"

Louis nodded.

"Very good, sir," said the waiter. "Do you wish them with mayonnaise?"

Louis didn't know what mayonnaise tasted like, but he thought fast. He cleaned his slate and wrote: "One with. Eleven without."

The waiter bowed and left the room. Half an hour later he was back. He rolled a table into the room, placed a huge platter of watercress sandwiches on it, along with a plate, a knife, a fork, a spoon, salt and pepper, a glass of water, and a linen napkin, nicely folded. There was also a butter dish, with several pieces of butter covered with cracked ice. The waiter arranged everything carefully, then handed Louis a bill to sign. The bill said:

12 w/c sandwiches: $18.00

"Goodness!" thought Louis. "This is an expensive place. I hope the Boatman won't be mad when he sees this supper charge on the bill tomorrow morning."

He borrowed a pencil from the waiter and signed the bill: "Louis the Swan."

The waiter took the bill and stood there, waiting.

"I guess he wants a tip," thought Louis. So he opened his moneybag again, drew out two dollars, and handed it to the waiter, who thanked him, bowed again, and went away.

Because a swan has such a long neck, the table was just the right height for Louis. He didn't need a chair; he ate his supper standing up. He tried the sandwich that had mayonnaise on it and decided he didn't like mayonnaise. Then he carefully pulled each sandwich apart. All he really wanted was the watercress. He piled the slices of bread in two neat piles, scooped the watercress onto his plate, and had a nice supper. He did not touch the butter. When he was thirsty, instead of drinking from the glass of water, he walked into the bathroom, drew a basinful of cold water and drank that. Then he took his napkin, wiped his beak, and pushed the table out of the way. He felt much better.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

I first read The Wind in the Willows when I was eight, and this scene seems to me as brilliant now as it did then. I remember being amazed that a paragraph in a book could make me so hungry.

The bumptious Toad is in jail, but he is not without friends. Another restorative tale of bread and tea:

When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one's ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats and the twitter of sleepy canaries. Toad sat up on end once more, dried his eyes, sipped his tea and munched his toast, and soon began talking freely about himself, and the house he lived in, and his doings there, and how important he was, and what a lot his friends thought of him.

The gaoler's daughter saw that the topic was doing him as much good as the tea, as indeed it was, and encouraged him to go on.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud

Hello there.

You probably already know that this blog was born in the comments thread to a post at Jezebel--a thread I read with such a thrill of recognition, the feeling of finding something you knew and didn't know you knew until you knew it. If you see what I mean. So what a further thrill to find myself contributing to it.

I had planned to start with something from my usual comfort reading (British fiction from between the wars, or else a little later), but this scene from Bernard Malamud's exquisite story "The Magic Barrel" always tugs at me--I think it's the vivid, controlled language, the real hunger conveyed along with the food itself. I rarely slice a tomato without thinking, "A sliced tomato you have maybe?"

"Please Mr. Salzman, no more"

"But first must come back my strength," Salzman said weakly. He fumbled with the portfolio straps and took out of the leather case an oily paper bag, from which he extracted a hard, seeded roll and a small smoked whitefish. With a quick motion of his hand he stripped the fish out of its skin and began ravenously to chew. "All day in a rush," he muttered.

Leo watched him eat.

"A sliced tomato you have maybe?" Salzman hesitantly inquired.


The marriage broker shut his eyes and ate. When he had finished he carefully cleaned up the crumbs and rolled up the remains of the fish, in the paper bag. His spectacled eyes roamed the room until he discovered, amid some piles of books, a one-burner gas stove. Lifting his hat he humbly asked, "A glass tea you got, rabbi?"

Conscience-stricken, Leo rose and brewed the tea. He served it with a chunk of lemon and two cubes of lump sugar, delighting Salzman.

After he had drunk his tea, Salzman's strength and good spirits were restored.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

New Contributor

As the few loyal readers of this blog may have noticed, it hasn't been updated for a while. That's because I've been totally overwhelmed with my PhD work. I would like to therefore ask if anyone else would be interested in contributing to this blog with me - it seems a shame to leave it without a new post for so long, and between the two of us we may have a better chance of keeping it updated. If you'd like to, email me at llgb at me dot com, introducing yourself!

Update: Please welcome Emily, the kind soul behind this excerpt, who will now be blogging alongside me. If anyone else would like to contribute too, please email me.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Witch Week, Diana Wynne Jones

You'll have to bear with me and my long introduction today. As a child, this was one of the books I adored most and read over and over again. Last week, finding a copy in Oxfam for 15p, I picked it up again. I'm always afraid to read the books that I love as a child as an adult - inevitably, in many cases the connection is not there and you now notice clumsy aspects of the writing that you were blissfully unaware of before. But I was pleased to find that I fell in love with Witch Week all over again. It's a children's book that isn't patronising or dumbed down in any sense, and the themes of being different and not belonging still resonate. The book is political but not overhanded - the persecution that witches face by the government is believable and frightening, and the reader is left to draw their own comparisons with contemporary society. The setting is a boarding school for witch orphans in an England that resembles the one we know in every single detail, except that witchcraft is omnipresent and illegal - suspected witches are tortured and burned at the stake.
The action begins when a teacher receives a troubling anonymous note that someone in class 2Y is a witch. The two main characters in the book (although all the characters are drawn vividly and are quite interesting, and the writing is sympathetic even to the nasty ones) are Charles and Nan. Charles is a bespectacled, slightly hostile, intelligent boy who is not popular but given a wide berth due to his confidence and nasty glare. Nan, on the other hand, is plump and bullied, but wildly creative and with a strong independent streak. As a child the scene that stuck with me the most was Nan in P.E, closing her eyes and trying valiantly to climb a rope and feeling elated as she succeeds, only to hear the laughter around her grow louder and louder until she opens her eyes and finds that she's still at the bottom and has only been making climbing movements. The scene is so acutely embarrassing that it stings - but as a child that didn't fit in (and knew the trauma of gym class well), it was one of the most notable times when reading that I felt an instant kinship with a character, and the author is aware of this response in the reader, I think, and treats it delicately.
The book is often compared to Harry Potter, but I think it's far better. The characters in the HP books to me always seemed bland and shallow (particularly Harry, considering the trauma he's been through), and the reader always seems beaten over the head with the whole theme of an evil, intolerant force aiming to take over a society. The one way that the HP may beat out WW, though, is in their delicious descriptions of food - WW instead contains a rather disgusting one. I couldn't help but post it here. The scene begins with Nan, Charles and another student, Nirupam, are invited to the headmistress's table at lunch - all are terrified of this development generally, and the tension is highlighted by the fact that it was just recently that the note was discovered, and the accusations of witchcraft are beginning to fly, so Nan's behaviour is particularly unfortunate.

They stood there, while Miss Cadwallader was saying grace, looking out over the heads of the rest of the school, not very far below, but far enough to make a lot of difference. Perhaps I'm going to faint, Nan thought hopefully. She still knew she was going to behave badly, but she felt very odd as well - and fainting was a fairly respectable way of behaving badly.
She was still conscious at the end of grace. She sat down with the rest, between the glowering Charles and Nirupam. Nirupam had gone pale yellow with dread. To their relief, Miss Cadwallader at once turned to the important lord and began making gracious conversation with him. The ladies from the kitchen brought round a little tray of bowls and handed everybody one.
What was this? It was certainly not a usual part of school dinner. They looked suspiciously at the bowls. They were full of yellow stuff, not quite covering little pink things.
'I believe it may be prawns,' Nirupam said dubiously, 'For a starter.'
Here Miss Cadwallader reached forth a gracious hand. Their heads at once craned round to see what implement she was going to eat out of the bowl with. Her hand picked up a fork. They picked up forks too. Nan poked hers cautiously into her bowl. Instantly she began to behave badly. She could not stop herself. 'I think it's custard,' she said loudly, 'Do prawns mix with custard?' She put one of the pink things into her mouth. It felt rubbery. 'Chewing gum?' she asked. 'No, I think they're jointed worms. Worms in custard.'
'Shut up!' Nirupam hissed.
'But it's not custard,' Nan continued. She could hear her voice saying it, but there seemed no way to stop it. 'The tongue-test proves that the yellow stuff has a strong taste of sour armpits, combined with - yes- just a touch of old drains. It comes from the bottom of a dustbin.'
Charles glared at her. He felt sick. If he had dared, he would have stopped eating at once.
... 'A clean yellow dustbin,' Nan announced, 'The kind they keep the dead fish for Biology in.'
'Prawns are eating curried in India,' Nirupam said loudly.
... What came before them in platefuls next was one of the school's most peculiar dishes. They produced it once a month and its official name was hot-pot. With it came tinned peas and tinned tomatoes. Charles's head and Nirupam's head craned towards Miss Cadwallader again to see what they were supposed to eat this with. Mrs Cadwallader picked up a fork. They picked up forks too, then craned a second time, to make sure that Miss Cadwallader was not going to pick up a knife as well and so make it easier for everyone. She was not. Her fork drove gracefully under a pile of tinned peas. They sighed, and found both their heads turning towards Nan then in a sort of horrified expectation.
They were not disappointed. As Nan levered loose the first greasy ring of potato, the urge to describe came upon her again. It was as if she was possessed.
'Now the aim of this dish,' she said, 'is to use up leftovers. You take old potatoes and soak them in washing-up water that has been used at least twice. The water must be thoroughly scummy.' It's like a gift of tongues! she thought. Only in my case it's a gift of foul-mouth. 'Then you take a dirty old tin and rub it round with socks that have been worn for a fortnight. You fill this tin with alternate layers of scummy potatoes and cat-food, mixed with anything else you may happen to have. Old doughnuts and dead flies have been used in this case... Now these things,' Nan continued, stabbing her for into a tinned tomato, 'are small creatures that have been killed and cleverly skinned. Notice, when you taste them, the slight, sweet savour of their blood-'
Nirupam uttered a small moan and went yellower than ever.
The sound made Nan look up. Hitherto, she had been staring at the table where her plate was, in a daze of terror. Now she saw Mr Wentworth sitting opposite her across the table. He could hear her perfectly. She could tell from the expression on his face. Why doesn't he stop me? she thought. Why do they let me go on? Why doesn't somebody do something?.. And, all the time, she could hear herself talking. 'These did in fact start life as peas. But they have undergone a long and deadly process. They lie for six months in a sewer, absorbing fluids and rich tastes, which is why they are called processed peas. Then-'
.. As Miss Cadwallader talked, and Charles was forced to answer while trying to eat tinned tomatoes - no, they were not skinned mice! - using just a fork, Charles began to feel that he was undergoing a particularly refined form of torture.
... They took the hot-pot away. Charles had not eaten much. Miss Cadwallader continued to talk to him about stately homes in the country, until the pudding arrived.
... 'Rice pudding!' he exclaimed.
'It is agreeable,' Miss Cadwallader said, smiling. 'And so nourishing.' Then, incredibly, she reached to the top of her plate and picked up a fork. Charles stared. He waited. Surely Miss Cadwallader was not going to eat runny rice pudding with just a fork? But she was. She dipped the fork in and brought it up, raining weak white milk.
... Nirupam looked wretchedly down at his brimming plate. 'There is a story in the Arabian Nights,' he said, 'about a woman who ate rice with a pin, grain by grain.' Charles shot a terrified look at Miss Cadwallader, but she was talking to the lord again. 'She turned out to be a ghoul,' Nirupam said, 'She ate her fill of corpses every night.'
Charles's terrified look shot to Nan instead.