Sunday, 31 May 2009

A Certain Age, Tama Janowitz

I was planning to wait a bit longer before returning to Tama J., but as it happens I am recuperating from hand surgery, and this book was . . . within arm's reach of where I am stationed on the couch.

Florence Collins, a modern-day Lily Bart, is by most measures a beautiful and desirable woman, but this is late-twentieth-century New York, and there are millions of women more beautiful, more connected, richer, younger. She's unmarried and running out of options, and the prizes don't seem quite as nice as they used to. 

In this scene she juggles two potential suitors over a sumptuously disgusting dinner. Janowitz is, as usual, microscopically accurate in her attention to social detail.

"Here's a plate, Florence." Charlie reached around and handed her a plate from the top of the stack as they got to the head of the line.

"I helped make some of the food, last night!" Florence said. A waiter stood behind the table, carving a flank of tuna steak, dried and charred on the outside, bright pink and raw inside. After carving, he plonked each slice on top of a dollop of mashed potatoes and then drizzled some kind of pink sauce over it. For a moment Florence was mesmerizedthe whole thing was so hideous.

"May I help you to some of this pasta?" said Raffaello. The pasta was a huge bowl of mushy-looking curly noodles embedded with chunks of tomatoes and congealed lumps of spinach glistening with oil. He spooned some onto her plate, and as he did so he leaned into her, pressing against her from behind. Through his thin trousers she could feel his erection.

She stepped away and gave him a flattered look of disbelief. "Youyou're outrageous!"

"And you are just my type. Except for your provincialism—it is so American to pretend to be shocked. Tell me, which is the food you have prepared? I will take that, specially." He certainly had some kind of S and M routine worked out—it was like getting petted and slapped almost at the same time. "Some kind of Brazilian dish," she said. "I was chopping the onions."

"You must be very good at chopping onions."

She felt witless in the presence of such cynical smirkiness, "I think there's tripe in it."

"Not a popular dish, here in America!" he said. "However, for myself, I love what you call organ meat. I a very English, in that respect. You like tripe? Or kidneys? And the sweetbreads—that is my favorite."

"Are you friends of Natalie's? Or John?"

"Oh, of both," he said, helping himself to some dry slabs of turkey meat. "And you?" He made it clear that her question was banal. Next to the turkey was the dish that she had participated in preparing—a heaving mountain of black beans, from which gray things resembling human digits protruded at various angles.

There were a few other dishes on the table: some bright green peapods, all positioned in exactly the same direction; a salad of orange segments, onion slice and lettuce leaves; and something that might have been a rice pilaf—she was uncertain. There was something that might have been beef or lamb stew, and a platter of chicken legs in a yellow-and-cream-colored sauce. As usual with these buffet dinners, nothing seemed to go with anything else; it was almost as if you had to create food in stranger and more peculiar concoctions than had previously been thought of, so that a meal had become the food equivalent of "The Emperor's New Clothes," with people smacking their lips and commenting "How delicious!" over a plate full of garbage.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder

We have had many, many requests for this book. I'm starting off with an early excerpt, but do not fear, there will be more Farmer Boy.

The kitchen was full of hoopskirts, balancing and swirling. Eliza Jane and Alice were hurrying to dish up supper. The salty brown smell of frying ham made Almanzo's stomach gnaw inside him.

He stopped just a minute in the pantry door. Mother was straining the milk, at the far end of the long pantry; her back was toward him. The shelves on both sides were loaded with good things to eat. Big yellow cheeses were stacked there, and large brown cakes of maple sugar, and there were crusty loaves of fresh-baked bread, and four large cakes, and one whole shelf full of pies. One of the pies was cut, and a little piece of crust was temptingly broken off; it would never be missed.

Almanzo hadn't even moved yet. But Eliza Jane cried out: 'Almanzo, you stop that! Mother!'

Mother didn't turn around. She said: 'Leave that be, Almanzo. You'll spoil your supper.'

That was so senseless that it made Almanzo mad. One little bite couldn't spoil a supper. He was starving, and they wouldn't let him eat anything until they had put it on the table. There wasn't any sense in it. But of course he could not say this to mother, he had to obey her without a word.

He stuck out his tongue at Eliza Jane. She couldn't do anything, her hands were full. Then he went quickly into the dining-room.

The lamplight was dazzling. By the square heating stove set into the wall, Father was talking politics to Mr. Corse. Father's face was toward the supper table, and Almanzo dares not touch anything on it.

There were slabs of tempting cheese, there was a plate of quivering headcheese; there were glass dishes of jams and jellies and preserves, and a tall pitcher of milk, and a steaming pan of baked beans with a crisp bit of fat pork in the crumbling brown crust.

Almanzo looked at them all, and something twisted in his middle. He swallowed, and went away slowly. The dining room was pretty.

[...] But to Almanzo the most beautiful sight was his mother, bringing in the big willow-ware platter full of sizzling ham[... ]The smell of the ham was almost more than Almanzo could bear.

Mother set the platter on the table.[...] It seemed a long time before they were all in their places. Father sat at the head of the table, Mother at the foot. Then they must all bow their heads while Father asked God to bless the food. After that, there was a little pause before Father unfolded his napkin and tucked it in the neckband of his frock.

He began to fill the plates. First he filled Mr. Corse's plate. Then Mother's. Then Royal's and Eliza Jane's and Alice's. Then, at last, he filled Almanzo's plate.

[...] Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate the mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.


Tuesday, 26 May 2009

All In The Blue Unclouded Weather, Robin Klein

One of the things I wanted to do in this blog was to share excerpts from the great wealth of Australian children's literature. I grew up in Australia, and one of the really lucky things about that country is how imaginative, varied and rich its writing for children is. Much of it is also uniquely Australian, inspired by the terribly beautiful landscape and wildlife, and the youthful and lively culture that is so different from anywhere else. Australian books always resonated with me especially - while I loved reading about Ramona Quimby and Charlie Bucket, for example, in the works of Robin Klein, Maureen McCarthy, John Marsden, Gillian Rubinstein and Isobel Carmody, amongst many others, I truly recognised the people and the world around me in all its intimate details, and that meant a lot.

Robin Klein is probably one of the most beloved - and prolific - Australian children's and young adult writer. No matter what grade I was in, there was always a Robin Klein book with characters who were at the same stage as me, growing up alongside of me. Her books about the Melling girls, however, were a little different, because unusually for her, they were historical fiction. A very conscious Australian nod to the March sisters, there are four Mellings - Grace (sophisticated, urbane); Heather (adolescent and unsure); Cathy (reckless and brave) and Vivienne (sweet and thoughtful). They live in a small Australian country town, are working class and just scraping by, and suffer/delight under their scatterbrained mother, war-traumatised father and quite awful cousin Isobel, who longs to be a movie star. Even the sweetest Melling makes the most rebellious March look tame in comparison: like the country they live in, the girls are brash, fierce, vibrant and wild, tearing through life in a series of very funny but quite ordinary adventures.

This was one of my favourite scenes, probably because it features staples of the Australian child's diet - jam, hundreds and thousands (sprinkles), jelly (no doubt Aeroplane brand), Milo and chips. And 'gutsy', of course, is one of those mythical Australian qualities, one that at least the characters in this book embody quite well.

'My mum writes newspaper poems for when people die,' Vivienne explained, going into the kitchen. 'She's working on one for Mr Humphreys; he got squashed to death under a big frozen carcass at the Meat Works. Cathy says they should carve "He Bravely Went To Meat Death" on his tombstone. Sit down and I'll make us some afternoon tea.' She levered a scrounging cat from a chair and put down a piece of newspaper 'To keep your dress clean,' she said politely and Nancy Tuckett sat down, hoping for nice little biscuits and perhaps a glass of raspberry cordial. But Vivienne poked up the fire, slung a pat of dripping into a big iron pan and began to slice some potatoes.

'I can make the best chips at our house,' she said, 'Sometimes if I can't drop off to sleep I get up in the middle of the night and fry up some chips. Mum doesn't mind. I can make Gutsy Drinks, too. Oh, you probably won't know that they are, Isobel invented them. I'll make you a Gutsy Drink while the chips are cooking.'

She wiped a glass casually on her skirt. Then she put in a lavish shake of malt powder, a tablespoon each of red jelly crystals, plum jam, hundreds and thousands, Milo and icing sugar, then she added milk from a jug in the ice-chest and stirred it vigorously with a screwdriver because she couldn't find a spoon. She tipped the chips into enamel bowls and gave one to Nancy Tuckett. Over her own serving she poured a lake of Worcestershire sauce. Nancy Tuckett picked up a chip and nibbled it. It was very black on one side and raw in the middle, but the other side was delicious. So was the Gutsy Drink, and she burped genteely behind her Snow White hanky.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster

Any other fans out there of The Phantom Tollbooth? I can't count how many expressions and puns I learned from this book, which both revels in and cautions against the absurdity of literal-mindedness. I reread this book recently and was surprised by how conceptual it is: the author seems to know that children understand more than they are generally given credit for.

The following scene takes place in Dictionopolis, a kingdom devoted to words, where our hero, Milo, along with his traveling companions, the Humbug and Tock, have paused in their quest: to return the princesses Rhyme and Reason to the land. Enjoy!

"Are you ready with the menu?" reminded the Humbug.

"Well," said Milo, remembering that his mother had always told him to eat lightly when he was a guest, "why don't we have a light meal?"

"A light meal it shall be," roared the bug, waving his arms.

The waiters rushed in carrying large serving platters and set them on the table in front of the king. When he lifted the covers, shafts of brilliant-colored light leaped from the plates and bounced around the ceiling, the walls, across the floor, and out the windows.

"Not a very substantial meal," said the Humbug, rubbing his eyes, "but quite an attractive one. Perhaps you can suggest something a little more filling."

The king clapped his hands, the platters were removed, and, without thinking, Milo quickly suggested, "Well, in that case, I think we ought to have a square meal of--"

"A square meal it is," shouted the Humbug again. The king clapped his hands once more and the waiters reappeared carrying plates heaped high with steaming squares of all sizes and colors.

"Ugh," said the Spelling Bee, tasting one, "these are awful."

No one else seemed to like them very much either, and the Humbug got one caught in his throat and almost choked.

"Time for the speeches," announced the king as the plates were again removed and everyone looked glum. "You first," he commanded, pointing to Milo.

"Your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen," started Milo timidly. "I would like to take this opportunity to say that in all the--"

"That's quite enough," snapped the king. "Mustn't talk all day."

"But I'd just begun," objected Milo.

"NEXT!" bellowed the king.

"Roast turkey, mashed potatoes, vanilla ice cream," recited the Humbug, bouncing up and down quickly.

"What a strange speech," thought Milo, for he'd heard many in the past and knew that they were supposed to be long and dull.

"Hamburgers, corn on the cob, chocolate pudding--p-u-d-d-i-n-g," said the Spelling Bee in his turn.

"Frankfurters, sour pickles, strawberry jam," shouted Officer Shrift from his chair. Since he was taller sitting than standing, he didn't bother to get up.

And so down the line it went, with each guest rising briefly, making a short speech, and then resuming his place. When everyone had finished, the king rose.

"Pâté de foie gras, soupe à l'oignon, faisan sous cloche, salade endive, fromages et fruits et demi-tasse," he said carefully and clapped his hands again.

The waiters reappeared immediately, carrying heavy, hot trays, which they set on the table. Each one contained the exact words spoken by the various guests, and they all began eating immediately with great gusto.

"Dig in," said the king, poking Milo with his elbow and looking disapprovingly at his plate. "I can't say that I think much of your choice."

"I didn't know that I was going to have to eat my words," objected Milo.

"Of course, of course, everyone here does," the king grunted. "You should have made a tastier speech."

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The O'Sullivan Twins, Enid Blyton

I hope you all enjoyed Melville Week! Unfortunately, like all good things, it must come to an end. We want to have more themed weeks, however, so if anyone has any suggestions please let me know. Today though I have an excerpt in honour of the name of this blog. It is far away from the world of breadfruit and whales and sailors, and I also expect that it will attract some disappointed foot fetishists.

The two girls were in a great state of excitement. Tessie had had two birthday cakes sent to her, which pleased her very much. She had been able to put the bigger one of the two on the tea-table for all her form to share - and had kept the other for the midnight party.
There were biscuits, sweets, chocolate, a big fruit cake, and four tins of peaches, with a tin of Nestle's milk for cream! There were also the strings of little sausages to fry. It was going to be great fun!
'We haven't anything to drink!' whispered Winnie to Tessie, in arithmetic at the end of that morning.
'Yes, we have. I've got some ginger-beer,' whispered back Tessie. Miss Jenks caught the word 'ginger-beer'.
'Tessie, how does ginger-beer come into our arithmetic lesson?' she enquired, coldly.
'Well - it doesn't,' say Tessie, at a loss what to say. 'Sorry, Miss Jenks'.
... Everything was hidden in the music-room, ready for that night. The eight girls were in a great state of excitement... Soon the three of them were creeping out of the room, down a few stairs, round a corner past the second-form dormitory, and into the music-room.
The door opened and shut quietly and the three girls blinked at the bright electric light. The blinds had been drawn and the oil-stove had made the little room warm as toast. The other five girls were busy opening tins and setting out cake and biscuits.
... The girls set to work to eat all the good things, giggling at nothing. It was so exciting to be cooped up in the little music-room, gobbling all sorts of goodies when everyone else was fast asleep.
'Oh, Susan - you've spilt peach juice all over my toes', giggled Janet.
'Lick it off then,' said Susan, 'I bet you can't.'
Janet was very supple. She at once tried to reach her foot up to her mouth to lick off the juice from her bare pink toes. She overbalanced and fell off her music-stool.
'Janet! You've sat on the sausages!' hissed Tessie in dismay, 'Get up, you idiot. Oh, the poor sausages - all squashed as flat as pan-cakes!'
The girls began to giggle helplessly. Tessie tried to press the little sausages back into their ordinary shape again.
'When are we going to fry them?' asked Isabel, who loved sausages.
'Last thing,' said Tessie,' That is, if there's anything left of them when Janet has finished with them!'
.. So the sausages were fried, and sizzled deliciously in the pan on the top of the oil-stove. Tessie turned them over and over with a fork, trying not to squeal when the hot fat jumped out and burned her.
... Mam'zelle slid back her chair and went to the door, puzzled. She threw it open, but there was no one there. She stood there for a moment, wondering if she could possibly be mistaken - and then she heard, from somewhere not very far off, a subdued giggle. And down the passage crept the unmistakable smell of - frying sausages!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Melville Week: Redburn

Although a vegetarian, as Fatima noted earlier, I must admit that this meal sounds rather more appetizing than the dubious dunderfunk of yesterday's post. Redburn is a nautical bildungsroman, which recounts Wellingborough Redburn's often harrowing first voyage aboard a merchant ship bound from New York to Liverpool. Upon arriving at their destination, the crew head over to a boarding-house called the Baltimore Clipper, where they treat themselves to a comparatively sumptuous meal. It sounds better than salt beef, at any rate--though I'd pass on the "swipes."

From these reveries I was soon roused, by a servant girl hurrying from room to room, in shrill tones exclaiming, "Supper, supper ready."

Mounting a rickety staircase, we entered a room on the second floor. Three tall brass candlesticks shed a smoky light upon smoky walls, of what had once been sea-blue, covered with sailor-scrawls of foul anchors, lovers' sonnets, and ocean ditties. On one side, nailed against the wainscot in a row, were the four knaves of cards, each Jack putting his best foot foremost as usual. What these signified I never heard.

But such ample cheer! Such a groaning table! Such a superabundance of solids and substantial! Was it possible that sailors fared thus?--the sailors, who at sea live upon salt beef and biscuit?

First and foremost, was a mighty pewter dish, big as Achilles' shield, sustaining a pyramid of smoking sausages. This stood at one end; midway was a similar dish, heavily laden with farmers' slices of head-cheese; and at the opposite end, a congregation of beef-steaks, piled tier over tier. Scattered at intervals between, were side dishes of boiled potatoes, eggs by the score, bread, and pickles; and on a stand adjoining, was an ample reserve of every thing on the supper table.

We fell to with all our hearts; wrapt ourselves in hot jackets of beef-steaks; curtailed the sausages with great celerity; and sitting down before the head-cheese, soon razed it to its foundations.

Toward the close of the entertainment, I suggested to Peggy, one of the girls who had waited upon us, that a cup of tea would be a nice thing to take; and I would thank her for one. She replied that it was too late for tea; but she would get me a cup of "swipes" if I wanted it.

Not knowing what "swipes" might be, I thought I would run the risk and try it; but it proved a miserable beverage, with a musty, sour flavor, as if it had been a decoction of spoiled pickles. I never patronized swipes again; but gave it a wide berth; though, at dinner afterward, it was furnished to an unlimited extent, and drunk by most of my shipmates, who pronounced it good.

But Bob Still would not have pronounced it so; for this swipes, as I learned, was a sort of cheap substitute for beer; or a bastard kind of beer; or the washings and rinsings of old beer-barrels. But I do not remember now what they said it was, precisely. I only know, that swipes was my abomination. As for the taste of it, I can only describe it as answering to the name itself; which is certainly significant of something vile. But it is drunk in large quantities by the poor people about Liverpool, which, perhaps, in some degree, accounts for their poverty.

Melville Week: White-Jacket

Herman Meville's White-Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War offers an almost sociological account of life aboard a US naval frigate (Erving Goffman would later refer extensively to the novel in laying out his theory of the "total institution"). Any such account would of course be incomplete without a description of the ship's culinary culture. The following scene, in which some poor bastard has a rather obscure delicacy stolen from him, is among the highlights:

One clear, cold morning, while we were yet running away from the Cape, a raw boned, crack-pated Down Easter, belonging to the Waist, made his appearance at the mast, dolefully exhibiting a blackened tin pan, bearing a few crusty traces of some sort of a sea-pie, which had been cooked in it.

"Well, sir, what now?" said the Lieutenant of the Deck, advancing.

"They stole it, sir; all my nice dunderfunk, sir; they did, sir," whined the Down Easter, ruefully holding up his pan.

"Stole your dundlefunk! what's that?"

"Dunderfunk, sir, dunderfunk; a cruel nice dish as ever man put into him."

"Speak out, sir; what's the matter?"

"My dunderfunk, sir--as elegant a dish of dunderfunk as you ever see, sir--they stole it, sir!"

"Go forward, you rascal!" cried the Lieutenant, in a towering rage, "or else stop your whining. Tell me, what's the matter?"

"Why, sir, them 'ere two fellows, Dobs and Hodnose, stole my dunderfunk."

"Once more, sir, I ask what that dundledunk is? Speak!"

"As cruel a nice------"

"Be off, sir! sheer!" and muttering something about non compos mentis, the Lieutenant stalked away; while the Down Easter beat a melancholy retreat, holding up his pan like a tambourine, and making dolorous music on it as he went.

"Where are you going with that tear in your eye, like a traveling rat?" cried a top-man.

"Oh! he's going home to Down East," said another; "so far eastward, you know, shippy, that they have to pry up the sun with a handspike."

To make this anecdote plainer, be it said that, at sea, the monotonous round of salt beef and pork at the messes of the sailors--where but very few of the varieties of the season are to be found--induces them to adopt many contrivances in order to diversify their meals. Hence the various sea-rolls, made dishes, and Mediterranean pies, well known by men-of-war's men--Scouse, Lob-scouse, Soft-Tack, Soft-Tommy, Skillagalee, Burgoo, Dough-boys, Lob-Dominion, Dog's-Body, and lastly, and least known, Dunderfunk; all of which come under the general denomination of Manavalins.

Dunderfunk is made of hard biscuit, hashed and pounded, mixed with beef fat, molasses, and water, and baked brown in a pan. And to those who are beyond all reach of shore delicacies, this dunderfunk, in the feeling language of the Down Easter, is certainly "a cruel nice dish."

Now the only way that a sailor, after preparing his dunderfunk, could get it cooked on board the Neversink, was by slily going to Old Coffee, the ship's cook, and bribing him to put it into his oven. And as some such dishes or other are well known to be all the time in the oven, a set of unprincipled gourmands are constantly on the look-out for the chance of stealing them. Generally, two or three league together, and while one engages Old Coffee in some interesting conversation touching his wife and family at home, another snatches the first thing he can lay hands on in the oven, and rapidly passes it to the third man, who at his earliest leisure disappears with it.

In this manner had the Down Easter lost his precious pie, and afterward found the empty pan knocking about the forecastle.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Melville Week: Moby-Dick

I couldn't pass this up, even though a nod to the great book has already been made.

Stubb, the second mate, has killed the journey's first whale and is fond of whale steak ("Stubb was a high liver; he was somewhat intemperately fond of the whale as a flavorish thing to his palate"). He orders the harpooneer Daggoo to cut him a steak ("A steak, a steak, ere I sleep! You, Daggoo! overboard you go, and cut me one from his small!") and the cook to cook it, and all the while sharks have gathered around the boat to feast on the dead whale's flesh, noisily tearing into it and slapping their tails against the hull. Stubb, finding his steak overcooked, roundly abuses the cook, and forces him to tell the sharks to behave themselves, and pipe down.

What is unfortunate here is that the speech of the cook, a black man, is rendered in terrible, Song-of-the-South style; moreover he is none too bright. I thought and thought of how much to include, or if it was dishonest just to leave it aside altogether. But in the end it had nothing to do with the bit of the chapter that is most to the point, as far as this blog is concerned: the food.

Stubb's advice to the cook echoes a recipe I once heard for the perfect amount of vermouth in the martini: you show the vermouth bottle to the glass, and that is all.

Well, then, cook, you see this whale-steak of yours was so very bad, that I have put it out of sight as soon as possible; you see that, don't you? Well, for the future, when you cook another whale-steak for my private table here, the capstan, I'll tell you what to do so as not to spoil it by overdoing. Hold the steak in one hand, and show a live coal to it with the other; that done, dish it; d'ye hear? And now to-morrow, cook, when we are cutting in the fish, be sure you stand by to get the tips of his fins; have them put in pickle. As for the ends of the flukes, have them soused, cook. There, now ye may go.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Melville Week: Omoo

Moving along chronologically, Omoo, Melville’s second novel, stands as a loose sequel to Typee. Having been rescued by the Julia, another whaler, the narrator ends up cruising among the Society Islands.

The Julia, however, is a troubled ship: the provisions are poor, the Captain seemingly incompetent, and the First Mate an always drunk and frequently brutal tyrant who refuses to grant the men a shore leave. A mutiny breaks out, and much of the crew is condemned to a fairly cushy imprisonment on Tahiti while they await the judgment of a punctilious colonial administrator. The narrator and his traveling companion, Doctor Long Ghost, soon escape, and begin roving from island to island. The following scene described a dinner to which the wanderers are treated on Imeeo (better known as Moorea):

Upon the ferns before us were laid several layers of broad, thick "pooroo" leaves; lapping over, one upon the other. And upon these were placed, side by side, newly-plucked banana leaves, at least two yards in length, and very wide; the stalks were withdrawn so as to make them lie flat. This green cloth was set out and garnished in the manner following:--

First, a number of "pooroo" leaves, by way of plates, were ranged along on one side; and by each was a rustic nut-bowl, half-filled with sea-water, and a Tahitian roll, or small bread-fruit, roasted brown. An immense flat calabash, placed in the centre, was heaped up with numberless small packages of moist, steaming leaves: in each was a small fish, baked in the earth, and done to a turn. This pyramid of a dish was flanked on either side by an ornamental calabash. One was brimming with the golden-hued "poee," or pudding, made from the red plantain of the mountains: the other was stacked up with cakes of the Indian turnip, previously macerated in a mortar, kneaded with the milk of the cocoa-nut, and then baked. In the spaces between the three dishes were piled young cocoa-nuts, stripped of their husks. Their eyes had been opened and enlarged; so that each was a ready-charged goblet.

There was a sort of side-cloth in one corner, upon which, in bright, buff jackets, lay the fattest of bananas; "avees," red-ripe: guavas with the shadows of their crimson pulp flushing through a transparent skin, and almost coming and going there like blushes; oranges, tinged, here and there, berry-brown; and great, jolly melons, which rolled about in very portliness. Such a heap! All ruddy, ripe, and round--bursting with the good cheer of the tropical soil from which they sprang!

"A land of orchards!" cried the doctor, in a rapture; and he snatched a morsel from a sort of fruit of which gentlemen of the sanguine temperament are remarkably fond; namely, the ripe cherry lips of Misa Day-Born, who stood looking on.

Marharvai allotted seats to his guests; and the meal began. Thinking that his hospitality needed some acknowledgment, I rose, and pledged him in the vegetable wine of the cocoa-nut; merely repeating the ordinary salutation, "Yar onor boyoee." Sensible that some compliment, after the fashion of white men, was paid him, with a smile, and a courteous flourish of the hand, he bade me be seated. No people, however refined, are more easy and graceful in their manners than the Imeeose.

The doctor, sitting next our host, now came under his special protection. Laying before his guest one of the packages of fish, Marharvai opened it; and commended its contents to his particular regards. But my comrade was one of those who, on convivial occasions, can always take care of themselves. He ate an indefinite number of "Pee-hee Lee Lees" (small fish), his own and next neighbour's bread-fruit; and helped himself, to right and left, with all the ease of an accomplished diner-out.

"Paul," said he, at last, "you don't seem to be getting along; why don't you try the pepper sauce?" and, by way of example, he steeped a morsel of food into his nutful of sea-water. On following suit, I found it quite piquant, though rather bitter; but, on the whole, a capital substitute for salt. The Imeeose invariably use sea-water in this way, deeming it quite a treat; and considering that their country is surrounded by an ocean of catsup, the luxury cannot be deemed an expensive one.

The fish were delicious; the manner of cooking them in the ground preserving all the juices, and rendering them exceedingly sweet and tender. The plantain pudding was almost cloying; the cakes of Indian turnip, quite palatable; and the roasted bread-fruit, crisp as toast.

During the meal, a native lad walked round and round the party, carrying a long staff of bamboo. This he occasionally tapped upon the cloth, before each guest; when a white clotted substance dropped forth, with a savour not unlike that of a curd. This proved to be "Lownee," an excellent relish, prepared from the grated meat of ripe cocoa-nuts, moistened with cocoa-nut milk and salt water, and kept perfectly tight until a little past the saccharine stage of fermentation.

Melville Week: Typee II

The second entry in Melville Week also comes from Typee.

In early 1841, Melville set sail aboard the whaler Acushnet, which he and a shipmate, Richard Tobias Greene, deserted in July 1842. Melville remained on Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas, for approximately three weeks, while Greene left at some time before him. Upon its initial publication, Typee was marketed as a straightforward travel narrative; and although it stretched the credulity of many readers, Greene later resurfaced and published his own account in the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser along with an open letter to Melville, both of which largely corroborated the events related in the book (at least those for which "Toby" was present). Despite this, Typee demonstrates a clear pattern of exaggeration (Melville's three weeks become the narrator's four months) and is generally considered a work of fiction.

Despite his periodic bouts of homesickness, the narrator regards Typee society as a sort of pre-capitalist idyll and laments the inevitably destructive impact of the impending French colonization. Some of the most lovingly described aspects of Typee life revolve around food, and the following describes what the narrator refers to as "The Feast of Calabashes":

So soon as I mounted to the pi-pi I saw at a glance that the revels were fairly under way.

What lavish plenty reigned around?—Warwick feasting his retainers with beef and ale, was a niggard to the noble Mehevi!—All along the piazza of the Ti were arranged elaborately carved canoe-shaped vessels, some twenty feet in length, tied with newly made poee-poee, and sheltered from the sun by the broad leaves of the banana. At intervals were heaps of green bread-fruit, raised in pyramidical stacks, resembling the regular piles of heavy shot to be seen in the yard of an arsenal. Inserted into the interstices of the huge stones which formed the pi-pi were large boughs of trees; hanging from the branches of which, and screened from the sun by their foliage, were innumerable little packages with leafy coverings, containing the meat of the numerous hogs which had been slain, done up in this manner to make it more accessible to the crowd. Leaning against the railing on the piazza were an immense number of long, heavy bamboos, plugged at the lower end, and with their projecting muzzles stuffed with a wad of leaves. These were filled with water from the stream, and each of them might hold from four to five gallons.

The banquet being thus spread, naught remained but for everyone to help himself at his pleasure. Accordingly not a moment passed but the transplanted boughs I have mentioned were rifled by the throng of the fruit they certainly had never borne before. Calabashes of poee-poee were continually being replenished from the extensive receptacle in which that article was stored, and multitudes of little fires were kindled about the Ti for the purpose of roasting the bread-fruit.

Within the building itself was presented a most extraordinary scene. The immense lounge of mats lying between the parallel rows of the trunks of cocoanut trees, and extending the entire length of the house, at least two hundred feet, was covered by the reclining forms of a host of chiefs and warriors who were eating at a great rate, or soothing the cares of Polynesian life in the sedative fumes of tobacco. The smoke was inhaled from large pipes, the bowls of which, made out of small cocoanut shells, were curiously carved in strange heathenish devices. These were passed from mouth to mouth by the recumbent smokers, each of whom, taking two or three prodigious whiffs, handed the pipe to his neighbour; sometimes for that purpose stretching indolently across the body of some dozing individual whose exertions at the dinner-table had already induced sleep. ...

There were many in the Ti for whom the tobacco did not furnish a sufficient stimulus, and who accordingly had recourse to 'arva', as a more powerful agent in producing the desired effect.

'Arva' is a root very generally dispersed over the South Seas, and from it is extracted a juice, the effects of which upon the system are at first stimulating in a moderate degree; but it soon relaxes the muscles, and exerting a narcotic influence produces a luxurious sleep. In the valley this beverage was universally prepared in the following way:—Some half-dozen young boys seated themselves in a circle around an empty wooden vessel, each one of them being supplied with a certain quantity of the roots of the 'arva', broken into small bits and laid by his side. A cocoanut goblet of water was passed around the juvenile company, who rinsing their mouths with its contents, proceeded to the business before them. This merely consisted in thoroughly masticating the 'arva', and throwing it mouthful after mouthful into the receptacle provided. When a sufficient quantity had been thus obtained water was poured upon the mass, and being stirred about with the forefinger of the right hand, the preparation was soon in readiness for use. The 'arva' has medicinal qualities.

Upon the Sandwich Islands it has been employed with no small success in the treatment of scrofulous affections, and in combating the ravages of a disease for whose frightful inroads the ill-starred inhabitants of that group are indebted to their foreign benefactors. But the tenants of the Typee valley, as yet exempt from these inflictions, generally employ the 'arva' as a minister to social enjoyment, and a calabash of the liquid circulates among them as the bottle with us.

Mehevi, who was greatly delighted with the change in my costume, gave me a cordial welcome. He had reserved for me a most delectable mess of 'cokoo', well knowing my partiality for that dish; and had likewise selected three or four young cocoanuts, several roasted bread-fruit, and a magnificent bunch of bananas, for my especial comfort and gratification. These various matters were at once placed before me; but Kory-Kory deemed the banquet entirely insufficient for my wants until he had supplied me with one of the leafy packages of pork, which, notwithstanding the somewhat hasty manner in which it had been prepared, possessed a most excellent flavour, and was surprisingly sweet and tender.

Pork is not a staple article of food among the people of the Marquesas; consequently they pay little attention to the BREEDING of the swine. The hogs are permitted to roam at large on the groves, where they obtain no small part of their nourishment from the cocoanuts which continually fall from the trees. But it is only after infinite labour and difficulty, that the hungry animal can pierce the husk and shell so as to get at the meat. I have frequently been amused at seeing one of them, after crunching the obstinate nut with his teeth for a long time unsuccessfully, get into a violent passion with it. He would then root furiously under the cocoanut, and, with a fling of his snout, toss it before him on the ground. Following it up, he would crunch at it again savagely for a moment, and then next knock it on one side, pausing immediately after, as if wondering how it could so suddenly have disappeared. In this way the persecuted cocoanuts were often chased half across the valley.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Melville Week: Typee

[Welcome to Melville Week, our first ever themed set of excerpts here on Lashings & Lashings of Ginger Beer. This week we're (obviously) posting excerpts from Herman Melville's work. We've done so before with the well-known 'Clam or Cod?' passage from Moby Dick, but hopefully we'll be able to post some of Melville's lesser-known (though their deliciousness varies) descriptions of food. Below is the first, from James. - Fatima]

While Herman Melville is now widely renowned as the author of Moby-Dick, the fearsome White Whale didn't just sink the Pequod, it struck a blow to Melville's career from which he never recovered. Following that novel's almost complete critical and commercial failure, Melville published a further three novels, which were largely ignored, before giving up on fiction at the tender age of 38. Although he wrote Billy Budd sometime towards the end of his life, it was not found until 1924, and he instead devoted his creative energies to writing poetry, nearly all of which was either reviled or ignored. By the time he died in 1891, he was a recently retired City of New York customs inspector, none of whose forgotten novels had been in print for over 15 years.

Before this, however, Melville wrote a series of acclaimed and widely popular novels that were loosely based on the maritime adventures of his early twenties. His first novel, Typee, from which today's entry is drawn, is a curiously hybrid novel, blending as it does conventional travel and adventure narrative, detailed anthropological and ethnographic observations, natural history, vigorous anti-colonial polemics, and many long descriptions of the preparation and consumption of various South Seas cuisines.

The bread-fruit, however, is never used, and is indeed altogether unfit to be eaten, until submitted in one form or other to the action of fire.

The most simple manner in which this operation is performed, and I think, the best, consists in placing any number of the freshly plucked fruit, when in a particular state of greenness, among the embers of a fire, in the same way that you would roast a potato. After the lapse of ten or fifteen minutes, the green rind embrowns and cracks, showing through the fissures in its sides the milk-white interior. As soon as it cools the rind drops off, and you then have the soft round pulp in its purest and most delicious state. Thus eaten, it has a mild and pleasing flavour.

Sometimes after having been roasted in the fire, the natives snatch it briskly from the embers, and permitting it to slip out of the yielding rind into a vessel of cold water, stir up the mixture, which they call 'bo-a-sho'. I never could endure this compound, and indeed the preparation is not greatly in vogue among the more polite Typees.

There is one form, however, in which the fruit is occasionally served, that renders it a dish fit for a king. As soon as it is taken from the fire the exterior is removed, the core extracted, and the remaining part is placed in a sort of shallow stone mortar, and briskly worked with a pestle of the same substance. While one person is performing this operation, another takes a ripe cocoanut, and breaking it in halves, which they also do very cleverly, proceeds to grate the juicy meat into fine particles. This is done by means of a piece of mother-of-pearl shell, lashed firmly to the extreme end of a heavy stick, with its straight side accurately notched like a saw. The stick is sometimes a grotesquely-formed limb of a tree, with three or four branches twisting from its body like so many shapeless legs, and sustaining it two or three feet from the ground.

The native, first placing a calabash beneath the nose, as it were, of his curious-looking log-steed, for the purpose of receiving the grated fragments as they fall, mounts astride of it as if it were a hobby-horse, and twirling the inside of his hemispheres of cocoanut around the sharp teeth of the mother-of-pearl shell, the pure white meat falls in snowy showers into the receptacle provided. Having obtained a quantity sufficient for his purpose, he places it in a bag made of the net-like fibrous substance attached to all cocoanut trees, and compressing it over the bread-fruit, which being now sufficiently pounded, is put into a wooden bowl—extracts a thick creamy milk. The delicious liquid soon bubbles round the fruit, and leaves it at last just peeping above its surface.

This preparation is called 'kokoo', and a most luscious preparation it is. The hobby-horse and the pestle and mortar were in great requisition during the time I remained in the house of Marheyo, and Kory-Kory had frequent occasion to show his skill in their use.

But the great staple articles of food into which the bread-fruit is converted by these natives are known respectively by the names of Amar and Poee-Poee.

At a certain season of the year, when the fruit of the hundred groves of the valley has reached its maturity, and hangs in golden spheres from every branch, the islanders assemble in harvest groups, and garner in the abundance which surrounds them.

The trees are stripped of their nodding burdens, which, easily freed from the rind and core, are gathered together in capacious wooden vessels, where the pulpy fruit is soon worked by a stone pestle, vigorously applied, into a blended mass of a doughy consistency, called by the natives 'Tutao'. This is then divided into separate parcels, which, after being made up into stout packages, enveloped in successive folds of leaves, and bound round with thongs of bark, are stored away in large receptacles hollowed in the earth, from whence they are drawn as occasion may require. In this condition the Tutao sometimes remains for years, and even is thought to improve by age. Before it is fit to be eaten, however, it has to undergo an additional process. A primitive oven is scooped in the ground, and its bottom being loosely covered with stones, a large fire is kindled within it. As soon as the requisite degree of heat is attained, the embers are removed, and the surface of the stones being covered with thick layers of leaves, one of the large packages of Tutao is deposited upon them and overspread with another layer of leaves. The whole is then quickly heaped up with earth, and forms a sloping mound.

The Tutao thus baked is called 'Amar'; the action of the oven having converted it into an amber-coloured caky substance, a little tart, but not at all disagreeable to the taste.

By another and final process the 'Amar' is changed into 'Poee-Poee'. This transition is rapidly effected. The Amar is placed in a vessel, and mixed with water until it gains a proper pudding-like consistency, when, without further preparation, it is in readiness for use. This is the form in which the 'Tutao' is generally consumed. The singular mode of eating it I have already described.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernieres

Today's excerpt was sent in by Megan, who says that: "Here is the food passage that has struck me most strongly in recent reading. The rest of the book is amazing as well, though filled with violence and sadness." Having actually had a Circassian chicken dish recently at the home of a friend, this description is special in that it really evokes the taste and warmth of the food, and makes me long to eat it again.

It was to be an orgy of garlic. Leyla took two aubergines and charred them over the brazier, leaving them until they became soft enough to mash up with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.
She boiled potatoes until they were utterly soft, and mashed them up with the same ingredients, adding the olive oil drip by drip. She made cacik with mint and yogurt, garlic and cucumber. She prepared humus so that the chickpeas would provide an aphrodisiac, and she mixed a marvellous and exotic drink of camel's milk with honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardomom, with the same aim in mind. She made a paste of yellow lentils, in order that happiness and laughter should come into the house. The cook took cubes of lamb, made a small slot in each, and hid a small clove of garlic in every one. He browned them over a quick flame and then simmered them at almost indiscernible heat for the whole day, in a ratatouille of parsley, tomatoes, onions and pepper. He would add the remaining flavours at the last minute so that they would be full in the mouth. He made Smyna meatballs and Adana kebabs. In honour of Leyla he created Circassian chicken, rich with tarragon, cloves, paprika, walnuts, garlic and walnut oil. He laid it out on a great flat dish so that it would be as white and round and lovely as the face of the Circassian maid that she purported to be.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Mistress of Spices, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

First things first: we are blog of the week over at Readerville, how lovely! Thank you, dear friends.

And now, kheer.
But here is another image. A woman in a kitchen, cooking my rice. She is fragrant as the grains she rolls between her fingers to see if they are done. Rice steam has softened her skin, has loosened hair tied back taut all day. Has gentled the smudges under her eyes. Payday today, so she can begin the frying, mustard seeds sputtering in the pain, brinjal and bitter gourd turning yellow-red. Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to bring patience and hope. Is she one, is she many, is she not the woman in a hundred Indian homes who is sprinkling, over sweet kheer that has simmered all afternoon, cardomom seeds from my shop for the dreams that keep us from going mad? Inside my head her thoughts knock against one another, falling.
... But it is dinnertime now. The mothers call out and the children come running from homework, chairs are pulled up, the steaming dishes brought in. Rice. Rajma. Karela sabji. Kheer.
Kheer today after so long, and there's enough after Father and Elder Brother have been served, enough even for Mother who eats always last for all. Kheer with almonds and raisins and crunchy pods of elaichi because the old woman at the store said they were on sale when she saw us looking. I dip my mouth into its sweetness, milkwhite lines on my lips, and it's like New Year, and like New Year I can wish for anything.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

The cooking in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not luxe or even particularly delicious-seeming, but it conveys other qualities that I have always found compelling.

Katie Nolan is a tough woman, not particularly loving, but she is protective, determined, and fierce. This list of the staples she provides for her family, poor children-of-children of immigrants in nineteenth-century Brooklyn, is a catalogue of effort, ingenuity, and an attentiveness informed by scarcity. There is an odd feeling of abundance, although not the sort we usually associate with food.

I've been learning some interesting things by typing out passages word for word from well-loved books. There is insight into syntax, cadence, the way a scene is built. Betty Smith's writing is not as precise, not as metered as I thought it would be--but that doesn't dim its effectiveness one bit.
The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She'd take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny's worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn't quite melt and that made it wonderful.

Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime's worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny's worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny's worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

Midori's cooking was far better than I had expected: an amazing assortment of fried, pickled, boiled and roasted dishes using eggs, mackerel, fresh greens, aubergine, mushroom, radishes, and sesame seeds, all cooked in the delicate Kyoto style.

'This is great,' I said with my mouth full.

'OK, tell me the truth now,' Midori said, 'You weren't expecting my cooking to be very good, were you - judging by the way I look?'

'Not really,' I said honestly.

'You're from the Kansai region, so you like this kind of delicate flavouring, right?'

'Don't tell me you changed the style especially for me?'

'Don't be ridiculous! I wouldn't go to that much trouble. No, we always eat like this.'

'So your mother - or your father - is from Kansai?'

'Nope. My father was born in Tokyo and my mother's from Fukushima. There's not a single Kansai person among my relatives. We're all from Tokyo or northern Kanto.'

'I don't get it,' I said, 'How can you make this 100 per cent authentic Kansai-style food? Did somebody teach you?'

'Well, it's kind of a long story,' she said, eating a slice of fried egg. 'My mother hated housework of any kind, and she almost never cooked anything. And we had the business to think about, so it was always 'Today we're so busy, let's get a take-away,' or 'Let's just buy some croquettes at the butcher's,' and so on. I hated that when I was little, I mean I like cooking a big pot of curry and eating the same thing three days in a row. So then one day - I was in the fifth year of school - I decided I was going to cook for the family and do it right. I went to the big Kinokuniya in Shinjuku and bought the biggest, handsomest cookbook I could find, and I mastered it from cover to cover; how to choose a cutting board, how to sharpen knives, how to shave fresh bonito flakes, everything. It turned out the author of the book was from the Kansai, so all my cooking is Kansai style.'

'You mean you learned how to make all this stuff from a book!?'

'I saved my money and went to eat the real thing. That's how I learned flavourings. I've got pretty good intuition. I'm hopeless as a logical thinker, though.'

'It's amazing that you could teach yourself to cook so well without having anyone to show you.'

'It wasn't easy,' said Midori with a sigh, 'growing up in a house where nobody gave a damn about food. I'd tell them I wanted to buy decent knives and pots and they wouldn't give me the money, 'What we have now is good enough,' they'd say, but I'd tell them that was crazy, you couldn't bone a fish with the flimsy knives we had at home, so they'd say, 'What the hell do you want to bone a fish for?' It was hopeless trying to communicate with them. I saved up my allowances and bought real professional knives and pots and strainers and stuff. Can you believe it? Here's a 15-year-old girl pinching pennies to buy strainers and whetstones and tempura pots when all the other girls at school are getting huge allowances and buying beautiful dresses and shoes. Don't you feel sorry for me?'

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Blog recommendation

Another food in fiction (and movies) blog - Readable Edible Watchable Potable - which seems to have far less tea, toast and crumpets present than this one.

Comrade Bingo, P. G. Wodehouse

[Edit: James is a new contributor to this blog - by way of introduction, he was responsible for the Gogol post yesterday, and has read far more books than anyone I've ever come across in my life. However, he is a vegetarian.]

Bingo Little's tendency to fall in love with every girl he happens to meet has involved his friend Bertie Wooster in more than one awkward culinary encounter. Bingo here attempts to court Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, the daughter of a political radical, and compels Wooster to host a tea for his new comrades. Although Bertie is reluctant to commit himself to revolution (pointing out that the "whole hub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me"), he does his best to play the gracious host:

Funny how one changes as the years roll on. At school, I remember, I would cheerfully have sold my soul for scrambled eggs and sardines at five in the afternoon; but somehow, since reaching man’s estate, I had rather dropped out of the habit; and I’m bound to admit I was appalled to a goodish extent at the way the sons and daughter of the Revolution shoved their heads down and went for the foodstuffs. Even Comrade Butt cast off his gloom for a space and immersed his whole being in scrambled eggs, only coming to the surface at intervals to grab another cup of tea. Presently the hot water gave out, and I turned to Jeeves.

“More hot water.”

“Very good, sir.”

“Hey! what’s this? What’s this?” Old Rowbotham had lowered his cup and was eyeing us sternly. He tapped Jeeves on the shoulder. “No servility, my lad; no servility!”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“Don’t call me ‘sir.’ Call me Comrade. Do you know what you are, my lad? You’re an obsolete relic of an exploded feudal system.”

“Very good, sir.”

“If there’s one thing that makes my blood boil in my veins—“

“Have another sardine,” chipped in young Bingo—the first sensible thing he’d done since I had known him. Old Rowbotham took three and dropped the subject, and Jeeves drifted away. I could see by the look of his back what he felt.

At last, as I was just beginning to feel that it was going on for ever, the thing finished. I woke up to find the party getting ready to leave.

Sardines and about three quarts of tea had mellowed old Rowbotham. There was quite a genial look in his eye as he shook my hand.

“I must thank you for your hospitality, Comrade Wooster,” he said.

“Oh, not at all! Only too glad—“

“Hospitality?” snorted the man Butt, going off in my ear like a depth-charge. He was scowling in a morose sort of manner at young Bingo and the girl, who were giggling together by the window. “I wonder the food didn’t turn to ashes in our mouths! Eggs! Muffins! Sardines! All wrung from the bleeding lips of the starving poor!”

“Oh, I say! What a beastly idea!”

“I will send you some literature on the subject of the Cause,” said old Rowbotham. “And soon, I hope, we shall see you at one of our little meetings.”

Jeeves came in to clear away, and found me sitting among the ruins. It was all very well for Comrade Butt to knock the food, but he had pretty well finished the ham; and if you had shoved the remainder of the jam into the bleeding lips of the starving poor it would hardly have made them sticky.

“Well, Jeeves,” I said, “how about it?”

“I would prefer to express no opinion, sir.”

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Christmas Eve, Nikolai Gogol

We've had lots of new readers recently, particularly from Maud Newton, Moonrat and Gayle Brandeis. Welcome, everyone! We hope this blog makes you as hungry as it makes us. Also, for those who haven't seen it yet, Geoff Nicholson's recent essay on awful food in books was very interesting. It reminded me that descriptions of disgusting food can often be just as (if not more) memorable than delicious ones, and we'll definitely be putting more of those here.

Today's excerpt comes courtesy of James B, who introduces it by saying:
"Gogol's work is surfeited with elaborate gastronomic set-pieces. The bulk of his narratives feature long, lingering and often comical descriptions of food and feasting. There's a sad irony in this: although Gogol was himself prone to overeating, he incessantly complained of severe and chronic gastric pain (he was convinced that his stomach was upside down). Towards the end of his life, Gogol suffered from religious mania; and in pursuing a regimen of obsessive asceticism, he starved himself to death.

"Christmas Eve" is drawn from the second volume of Gogol's Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a cycle of stories that feature a frame narrator spinning tales derived from the Ukranian folk tradition.

It's Christmas Eve, and the Devil is free to wreak whatever havoc he pleases for a night. He descends upon Dikanka to torment Vakula, the local blacksmith, in retaliation for the unflattering portraits Vakula paints of the Devil in Dikanka's church. Vakula is meanwhile trying to win the favor of Oksana, the village beauty, who tells him that she will only marry him if he can obtain for her the Tsarita's slippers. Suspecting that his task can only be achieved through magic, Vakula decides to visit Patsyuk, a Cossack who is widely alleged to have friendly relations with the devil.

Patsyuk is at first too busy devouring magical dumplings and turnovers --which leap from their bowl into cream and then directly into his mouth--but eventually reveals to Vakula that the devil is in fact hiding in the sack that he's carrying over his shoulder."

Not without some timidity, the blacksmith opened the door and saw Patsyuk sitting Turkish-fashion on the floor before a little tub on which stood a bowl of dumplings. This bowl stood as though purposely planned on a level with his mouth. Without moving a single finger, he bent his head a little toward the bowl and sipped the soup, from time to time catching the dumplings with his teeth.
"Well,' thought Vakula to himself, 'this fellow's even lazier than Chub: he does eat with a spoon, at least, while this fellow won't even lift his hand!"
Patsyuk must have been entirely engrossed in the dumplings, for he seemed to be quite unaware of the entrance of the blacksmith, who offered him a very low bow as soon as he stepped on the threshold.
'I have come to ask you for a favor, Patsyuk!' said Vakula, bowing again.
Puzaty Patsyuk lifted his head and again began swallowing the dumplings.
'They say that you - no offense meant...' the blacksmith said, taking heart, 'I speak of this not by way of any insult to you - that you are a little akin to the devil.'
When he had uttered these words, Vakula was alarmed, thinking that he had expressed himself too bluntly and had not sufficiently softened his language; and, expecting that Patsyuk would pick up the tub together with the bowl and fling them straight at his head, he turned aside and covered his face with his sleeve so that the hot dumpling soup might not spatter it. But Patsyuk looked up and again began swallowing the dumplings.
... 'If you need the devil, then go to the devil,' answered Patsyuk, not lifting his eyes to him, but still chewing away at the dumplings.
'It is for that that I have come to you,' answered the blacksmith, offering him another bow. 'I suppose that nobody in the world but you knows the way to him!'
Patsyuk answered not a word, but ate up the remaining dumplings. 'Do me a kindness, good man, do not refuse me!' persisted the blacksmith, 'Whether it is pork or sausage or buckwheat flour or linen, say - millet or anything else in case of need... as is usual between good people... we will not grudge it. Tell me at least how, for instance, to get on the road to him.'
... Then Vakula noticed that there were neither dumplings nor a tub before him; but two wooden bowls were standing on the floor instead - one was filled with turnovers, the other with some cream. His thoughts and his eyes unconsciously fastened on these dainties.
'Let us see,' he said to himself, 'how Patsyuk will eat the turnovers. He certainly won't want to bend down to lap them up like the dumplings; besides he couldn't - he must first dip the turnovers in the cream.'
He had hardly time to think this when Patsyuk opened his mouth, looked at the turnovers, and opened his mouth wider still. At that moment a turnover popped out of the bowl, splashed into the cream, turned over on the other side, leaped upward, and flew straight into his mouth. Patsyuk ate it and opened his mouth again, and another turnover went through the same performance. The only trouble he took was to munch it up and swallow it.
'What a miracle!' thought the blacksmith, his mouth open with surprise, and at the same moment he was aware that a turnover was creeping toward him and was already smearing his mouth with cream. Pushing away the turnover and wiping his lips, the blacksmith began to reflect what marvels there are in the world and to what subtle devices the evil spirit may lead a man, saying to himself at the same time that no one but Patsyuk could help him.
'I'll bow to him once more; maybe he will explain properly... He's a devil, though! Why, today is a fast day and he is eating turnovers with meat in them! What a fool I am, really. I am standing here and preparing to sin! Back...!' And the pious blacksmith ran headlong out of the hut.

The Slaves of New York, Tama Janowitz

Tama Janowitz: one of the most underrated overrated writers ever: overrated for being part of a scene and an era; underrated for her spectacularly anatomized descriptions of how people live and behave.

She is also tremendous on food. A Certain Age, her contemporary take on House of Mirth, is full of terrible and expensive food--comfortless, baroque, absurd. (I would quote from that, but I recently lent it to my mother.) In the following excerpt from her celebrated collection of short stories, a tableau of neuroses, competition, and authenticity (whatever that means) arranges itself against the backdrop of a New York diner, amply illustrated by the distinct pleasures of bad New York–diner food.
"Big Top is really one of my favorite places," I tell everyone when we are seated in a booth. There's something so reassuring about being in here. The boxes of stale chocolate-covered caramels arranged at the cash register behind us, the Muzak--nothing bad, aside from poor service and lousy food, could ever happen here.

Stash can't figure out what to order. "I don't know whether to get dinner or dessert," he says. "I took a nap before we went out, and when I woke up I had angel food cake."

"Mmm," Daria says. "I haven't had angel food cake in years. Who made it?"

"I did," I say.

"You make angel food cake?" Simon says. "Boy, that's really something. She's really something, Stash."

I keep my mouth shut and merely look modest: I don't admit that I made the cake from a mix. Honestly, it tastes better than the same thing made from scratch. A girlfriend of mine works in a restaurant where spectacular angel food cake is served. I begged her to steal the recipe, and she confided that the cake came from a packaged mix. The one time I tried to make the cake from scratch, I used up twelve eggs and ended up with a new plastic product. Stash thought it was delicious: he likes rubbery foods in a big way.

"How can you not be able to figure out what to order when the selection here is so marvelous?" I say. "For example, the Wizard's Fried Clams have always been a favorite of mine."

"Really?" Stash says. "That's funny. That's what I was thinking of getting. But do you think it's safe?"

"What you're getting is something frozen and reconstituted," I say.

"Daria, would you order the Wizard's Fried Clams?" Stash says.

I'm irritated that he's asking her. Why would she know more about the safety of the clams than me?

At the last minute Stash decides to have BLT on white toast, and Simon says, "That sounds good. I think that's what I'll get, too."

"Very good," the waiter says. He's about our age, and resembles a stand-up comedian in a Catskills resort: reedy mustache, red bow tie, a tic in one eye.

"What kind of bread do you have?" Simon says.

"We have rye, wheat, and white."

"I'll have whole wheat," Simon says.

"Good choice, excellent choice!" the waiter says. He notices we're all looking at him--he's like some sorcerer's apprentice. "Well," he says nervously, "there were only three possibilities available to you, for a BLT sand.--rye, wheat, or white. Of course, some people don't get bread at all. Do you want bread?"

"A BLT without bread?" Simon says.

"Sure," the waiter says. "Didn't you ever hear of a tuna sand., hold the sand.?" I love how he calls a sandwich a sand. He goes on, half mumbling, "That means the person just wants tuna on a bed of lettuce."

"I'll have my BLT on rye toast," Simon says.

"Here we call rye 'Robert.'"

"Not 'Roger'?" Simon says.


"Okay, then, a BLT on Robert and a Heineken."

"Something to drink with that?"

"To drink with the Heineken?" Simon says, peeved.

"Oh. I didn't hear that," the waiter says. Daria and Stash give each other a look.

"And I'd like a soda," I say, since no one asks. "I'd like to have mocha-chip ice cream and chocolate syrup." I figure part of my new personality is to make my wants known.

"Wait," the waiter says. "We only have milkshakes, and they're premade--there's only a choice of three flavors. It's a bottled mix."

"I'm very disappointed," I say. "But in that case, I'll have a tuna sand." This isn't what I want at all, but it's good when it comes: in fact, that tuna salad is like a shot of heroin and goes right to my bloodstream. I look at Daria and think, Go ahead, make my life easier. "Your dog," I say. "How did it happen?"

"Oh, he was hit by a car," Daria says.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Trouble for Lucia, E. F. Benson

By way of a break from children's literature I offer you this excerpt from E. F. Benson's immortal Mapp and Lucia series--which is pretty much British children's literature for adults. Elizabeth Mapp and Lucia Pillson spend their days scheming against each other, although if you asked, each would claim that the other is a dearest friend. In the rather long bit that follows, Elizabeth makes her bid to run the town's summer guest--Miss Leg, a novelist--over a simple country dinner. The excerpt is long, because the meal is punctuated (inflated, really) by conversation made up almost entirely of whoppers told by Elizabeth and her husband, Major Benjy Flint. (The meal, too, is a lie.)

If you've never read these books I cannot commend them highly enough. They are brilliant--light-seeming but utterly savage. And there is plenty of food; in one of Benson's wonderful set pieces, Mapp and Lucia go to sea on an overturned table, all because of a hotly desired recipe. I'm sure you'll be seeing more from these ladies in this space.

Without further ado:

"A very plain simple dinner, dear Miss Leg," said Elizabeth as they sat down. "Just potluck, as I warned you, so I hope you've got a country appetite."

"I know I have, Liz," said Benjy heartily. "A round of golf makes me as hungry as I used to be after a day's tiger shooting in the jungle."

"Those are trophies of yours at Grebe, then," said Miss Leg. "I consider tiger shooting a manly pursuit. That's what I mean by sport, taking your life in your hand instead of sitting in an armchair and firing into flocks of hand-reared pheasants. That kind of 'sportsman' doesn't even load his own gun, I believe. Butchers and poulterers; that's what I called thim in one of my books."

"Withering! Scathing!" cried Elizabeth. "And how well deserved. Benjy gave such a wonderful lecture here the other day about his hairbreadth escapes. You could have heard a pin drop."

"Ah, that's an old story now," said Benjy. "My shikari days are over. And there's not a man in Tilling who's even seen a tiger except through the bars at the Zoo. Georgie Pillson, for instance--"

"Whom I presented to you at tea yesterday, Miss Leg," put in Elizabeth. "Husband of our dear Mayor. Pointed beard. Sketches quite prettily, and does exquisite needlework. My wicked Benjy once dubbed him Miss Milliner Michael-Angelo."

"And that was very withering, too," said Miss Leg, eating lumps of expensive middle-cut salmon with a country appetite.

"Well, well, not very kind, I'm afraid, but I like a man to be a man," said Benjy. "I'll take a bit more fish, Liz. A nice fresh-run fish. And what are you going to give us next?"

"Just a brace of grouse," said Elizabeth.

"Ah, yes. A few old friends with Scotch moors haven't quite forgotten me yet, Miss Leg. Dear old General!"

[. . .]

"Well, I do call that rude," said Diva warmly. "High and lofty, that's what she is. She told me her chef would send me a recipe for cream wafers. I tried it. Muck. I gave one to Paddy, and he was sick. And she rang me up just now to go to tea with her this afternoon. Did she think I was going out to Grebe, just when I was busiest, to eat more muck? Not I. She dined at Elizabeth's last night, and Janet heard from Elizabeth's parlormaid what they had. Tomato soup, middle cut of salmon sent over from Hornbridge, a brace of grouse from Rice's, Melba peaches, but only bottled with custard instead of cream, and tinned caviar. And Elizabeth called it potluck! I never had such luck there, pot or unpot."

Little House On The Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Wow, Emily has been posting some really good ones! Her comment about children's books reminded me of this - I've been meaning to post it for a while, so here it is in all its deliciousness.

Then Pa brought water from the creek, while Mary and Laura helped Ma get supper. Ma measured coffee beans into the coffee-mill and Mary ground them. Laura filled the coffee pot with the water Pa brought, and Ma set the pot in the coals. She set the iron bake-oven in the coals, too.
While it heated, she mixed cornmeal and salt with water and patted it into little cakes. She greased the bake-oven with a pork rind, laid the cornmeal cakes in it, and put on its iron cover. Then Pa raked more coals over the cover, while Ma sliced fat salt pork. She fried the slices in the iron spider. The spider had short legs to stand on in the coals, and that was why it was called a spider. If it had had no legs, it would only have been only a frying pan.
The coffee boiled, the cakes baked, the meat fried, and they all smelled so good that Laura grew hungrier and hungrier.
Pa set the wagon-seat near the fire. He and Ma sat on it, Mary and Laura sat on the wagon tongue. Each of them had a tin plate, and a steel knife and a steel fork with a white bone handle. Ma had a tin cup and Pa had a tin cup, and Baby Carrie had a little one all on her own, but Mary and Laura had to share a tin cup. They drank water. They could not drink coffee until they grew up.
While they were eating supper the purple shadows closed around the camp fire. The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the great sky.
The camp fire was cosy in the big, chill darkness. The slices of pork were crisp and fat, and the corncakes were good. In the dark beyond the wagon, Pet and Patty were eating, too. They bit off bites of grass with sharply crunching sounds.
"We'll camp here a day or two," said Pa, "Maybe we'll stay here. There's good land, timber in the bottoms, plenty of game - everything a man could want. What do you say, Caroline?"