Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Another Marvelous Thing, Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin wrote two wonderful books about food—Home Cooking and More Home Cooking—and her obvious delight in it is one of the elements that unifies her fiction. Colwin died rather young, in 1992, of something heart-related; whenever I come across, in one of her (not particularly reliable) casually narrated recipes, an instruction like “you then put a lump of butter into the top of a double boiler and when it melts, add the eggs. Stir constantly, remembering to have your blood cholesterol checked at the earliest possible moment,” I feel an unhappy little frisson of real-life dramatic irony.

Colwin is an odd writer—on bad days, she rubs me the wrong way; other times I want to take the phone off the hook and read through her entire oeuvre without stopping. Her characters are affluent, good looking, with flaws that are meant to be charming rather than irritating. Their problems seem trivial. But there is a complicated undercurrent here, one that Iris Murdoch would have understood: they are trying to figure out what is a good, moral, meaningful life, no matter how unexpected the shape it may take.

Two of her books are about the place of adultery in a happy marriage; in at least one other it functions as a kind of minor chord. The excerpt that follows comes from one of the former. Francis, an aesthetic, cosmopolitan type, the sort that Colwin called, in another book, a “domestic sensualist”—keenly appreciative of the comforts of home—is having an affair with Billy, a woman who seems indifferent to comfort of any sort, physical or otherwise. Both are married, Francis to Vera, and Billy to Grey. Food is just one of the currencies of their relationship, one of the ways that manifests how they do and don’t fit together. In a neat reversal of the usual trope, here the appreciation of fine food feels more like an evasion of desire than an embodiment of it.

She was wearing his sweater which made Francis’s heart flutter. He could never quite get over her, even if he had just seen her three seconds before. He peered to see if she was going to finish her soup. He was starving and he knew he had eaten the last of the bread. He reflected that he never got enough to eat at Billy’s and that, no matter how much he got of her, his hunger for her never quite abated. He looked out the window to see that it was sleeting. The idea of going into the cold to get a decent lunch held little charm. Under the table he nudged her with his foot.

“Hey,” he said.

Billy looked up. She was half asleep. “Hey what?” she said.

“I’m starving.”

“Hmm,” said Billy.

“I require an egg,” said Francis. “More soup. Anything.”

“There aren’t any eggs,” Billy said. “I ate the last one.”

“Soup,” said Francis.

“There isn’t any more,” said Billy. “This is the last can.”

“A saltine.”

“This is the last saltine,” said Billy. “Do you want half of it?”

Francis regarded the saltine half. It looked wet and it was not, in fact, half. It was more a scant third.

“There’s some wheat germ,” said Billy. “On second thought, there’s not. Gee, I’m not good for much, am I?”

“Not for food,” said Francis. “But you have compensating charms.”

“Hey,” said Billy. “I know what. You stay here.”

She went into the kitchen and returned carrying a pottery terrine in the shape of a goose. Francis knew at once that it was full of pâté de foie gras.

“I forgot about this,” Billy said. “Grey’s uncle sent it to us ages ago. And look! Water biscuits.”

Francis adored foie gras. He thought, lovingly, of brown bread with Normandy butter, endive salad, chilled white wine, and spicy little cornichons to go with it, but here at Billy’s table, they ate their slices on stale water biscuits. He thought of other meals he would like to have with it: double consommé with tiny meat dumplings, Bibb lettuce with mustard dressing, toast points. On white plates with big linen napkins. This was his way of making mental reference to Vera, who knew how to serve foie gras, without thinking about her.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Long Secret, Louise Fitzhugh

If you don't immediately recognize the title of the book, or the author--that's all right: it's the utterly less-discussed sequel to Harriet the Spy.

Now I know that many of you will immediately think, "Why on earth is she ignoring the most important food element of this character?"--that is to say, Harriet's immortal tomato sandwich--and you would be right, I am. For me, although the tomato sandwich itself is immortal, but there isn't a description of it that I've carried around with me all these years. Except maybe the scene in which Harriet's mother is futilely suggesting other potential sandwiches ("Pastrami? Roast beef? Cucumber?"). And then one in which, in response to a note revealing that a classmate is sickened by her tomato sandwiches, Harriet, uncomprehending, thinks, "It was the best taste in the world. Her mouth watered at the memory of the mayonnaise." I can't tell you how often that happens to me; mayonnaise and I have a complicated relationship.

Oh, look. You got the tomato sandwich out of me after all.

The Long Secret is also a wonderful book, as sensitive as the original to the ordinary meanness and sadness of adolescence, and to the complicated fit of friendship. I've been thinking over this book for a couple of weeks, trying to pinpoint its appeal, which has something to do with the wholeness of the characters--even, or perhaps especially those who start out as caricatures--and the dignity the author affords to the questions and thoughts of children.

In the following scene, a lovely clambake is the prelude to one such serious discussion.

Over near the end of the spit which curved into Mecox Bay they could see Mrs. Welsch waving at them as Mr. Welsch leaned over the pit.

"Let's go," said Harriet, and they all ran across the sand.

Mr. Welsch had taken the tarpaulin off, and with the aid of tongs, was heaping things into baskets as he got down through each layer. First there was corn, steamed in the husks. Harriet grabbed an ear, burned her fingers, and dropped it, screaming.

"Wait," said Mrs. Welsch, "just wait."

Then came a layer of steamed clams, then a layer of mussels, more corn, then the lobsters. They could hardly wait until it was all piled high on their plates. There was a big pot of melted butter, which Mrs. Welsch divided into cups for each of them.

They all sat around on logs and rocks, dipping the lobster meat , the clams, the mussels, and covering their faces with butter and grins. Everything had a marvelous smooth, smokey taste.

"This is great!" said Janie, gnawing on her fourth ear of corn.

"Yeah!" said Harriet.

Even Beth Ellen ate a lot. They all stuffed themselves. Harriet lay back on the sand and pretended she was dead from overeating.

"That's the beauty of this kind of dinner," said Mrs. Welsch, "no dishes to wash." She threw her paper plate in the fire with abandon and watched it burn. They all threw their plates in and the fire reared up. It was getting darker and darker. They lay back, watching the fire glow and the dark come, all thinking their own thoughts.

After a while Mrs. Welsch stretched a little and said, "I think I'd like to walk out to the end of the spit. Anybody want to come?"

"I do," said Janie and jumped up. "Harriet says there's a swan skeleton out there!"

"There is," said Mrs. Welsch. "Here, I'll take the flashlight and show it to you."

"I'll go too," said Beth Ellen quietly and got up.

"Not me," said Harriet. "I ate too much."

"You shall be made fat," said Janie and got a sneaker thrown at her for her trouble. She jumped away and laughed.

"I'll watch the fire," said Mr. Welsch.

They left and Harriet and her father watched the stars begin to come out one by one.

"Daddy?" Harriet said after a while.

"Yes?" said Mr. Welsch.

"Are you religious?"

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Iliad, Homer

I am so sorry about my absence. My one typing hand is very tired indeed.

Lately I have been listening to The Iliad on audiobook on the way to work (easier than trying to hold on to the subway pole and a book with the same hand). I've never been much of an audiobook fan--we all best receive information in different ways, I think, and I don't retain things I've heard as well as those I've read--but I thought it might be interesting to listen to something that began as an oral tradition.

There isn't much to say about this excerpt; certainly throughout The Iliad there are plenty of descriptions of sacrifice and feast, some less appetizing than others (such as one evidently involving wine mulled with goat cheese). But I was hungry on my way home yesterday, and this sounded good.

The Greeks are being trounced by the Trojans, partly because Achilles is sulking in his tent, refusing to fight. An envoy, led by Odysseus, arrives at Achilles's camp to beg him to rejoin the battle.

A "chine" is a cut of meat. The translation is Robert Fagles's.

So Prince Achilles hailed and led them in,
sat them down on settles with purple carpets
and quickly told Patroclus standing by, "Come,
a bigger winebowl, son of Menoetius, set it here.
Mix stronger wine. A cup for the hands of each guest--
here beneath my roof are the men I love most."

He paused. Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
and across it laid a sheep's chine, a fat goat's
and the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
while lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
and Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
and stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
in ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge

It was a delight to watch Marmaduke Scarlet making pastry, for if ever a man was a master-craftsman at his work that man was Marmaduke. His wielded his rolling-pin like a king's sceptre, and so light was his pastry that it looked more like sea foam than dough as he flicked it over on his board. Beside him stood a great dish of succulent chunks of veal and ham, hard-boiled eggs, parsley and chopped onion. Maria's mouth watered as she looked at it, and when he swung the great oval of white pastry over it she had to swallow hard. Then he started to make the decorations for the top of it, his skillful fingers pinching out flowers and leaves from the dough with an artistry that any sculptor might have envied.
... Then he went through one of the doors in the wall, through which Maria could see a cool stone-vaulted larder, and came back with a big blue bowl full of eggs and a blue jug of cream; and, mounting once more upon his stool, he proceeded to make a syllabub. Twelve eggs went into the making of the syllabub, a pint of cream, and cinnamon for flavouring.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Hazel Green, Odo Hirsch

Another Australian children's writer today - Odo Hirsch, who by night writes about strawberry tarts and ginger fingers, but by day is/was a doctor who treats torture victims and a management consultant (or so the internet claims)... anyway, onto the pastries.

Old Mrs Volio, the baker's mother, gave Hazel a cup of cocoa.
'Now, what would you like?' she asked.
Hazel looked around the bakery. The pastries were laid out on trays stacked high in steel frames. Vanilla slices, chocolate eclairs, almond croissants, strawberry tarts, custard doughnuts, raspberry crunches, ginger fingers... Hazel's belly began to rumble.
'What about a lovely chocolate rollo?' said young Mrs Volio, although she didn't look particularly young to Hazel. But she was certainly younger than old Mrs Volio, who was definitely old. Old Mrs Volio must have been almost a hundred!
Young Mrs Volio picked up a rich brown pastry with a delicious nubbin of chocolate showing through the end.
Yes, thought Hazel, a lovely chocolate rollo, fresh from the oven, with warm runny chocolate that would flood into your mouth and roll, roll, rollo down your tongue as soon as you took a bite...
'No, Teresa,' said Mr. Volio.
Mr. Volio shook his head. He was grinning mischievously. Then he winked.
'Eh, Teresa?'
Mrs Volio grinned as well. Hazel didn't know what they were talking about. The baker went over to a tray in the corner. Unlike the other trays, it was covered with a cloth. He reached under the cloth and took a pastry out. He handled it as carefully as if it were made of glass. Everyone in the bakery had turned to watch, the two Mrs Volios, and Andrew McAndrew, and the four apprentices, who were all sitting in a row on the other side of the table - everyone except Martin, the pastry chef, who was working with the last heat of the ovens, lost in concentration.
Mr Volio put the pastry in Hazel's hand. 'Now you tell me, Hazel, whether Mr Murray has ever made something like this!'
Hazel was holding a round pastry with a shortbread crust. The top was made out of toffee, and a glazed strawberry sat in the middle. She examined it carefully. She had never seen anything like it before. It must have been Mr Volio's latest invention.
Hazel took a bite. First the sweet toffee fractured between her teeth. Then she tasted the wonderful smooth caramel custard. Then there were swirls of strawberry. Then there was a delicious surge of almond and cinnamon. And just when she thought she had discovered all the flavours in the pastry, her tongue dipped into a layer of chocolate covering the base. And all in one bite!