Monday, 30 November 2009

The Erl King, Angela Carter

I love Angela Carter. I've posted an excerpt from The Magic Toyshop before, but I really love her stories based on traditional folk/fairy tales and myths (fairy tales themselves fascinate me). She is one of the best female writers I've ever read, because to me her writing is so deeply feminine, and she's so good at capturing the tension and beauty of being an adolescent girl especially. This story is about the Erl King, a sinister creature of the forest, rapacious, deathly and beautiful. In the story, a young girl wanders into the forest where she is surprised by and seduced by the Erl King (she first is aware of his presence in one of my favorite lines from the story 'the two notes of the song of a bird rose on the still air, as if my girlish and delicious loneliness had been made into a sound'), with his room filled with aromatic herbs and, most tellingly, cages and cages of trapped songbirds carelessly piled upon each other. Although she knows the mysterious Erl King 'will do you grievous harm', the girl allows herself to be seduced by him, with a surprising twist - but you'll have to read the entire story to find out. This is also one of the few stories where the food mentioned is somewhat fantastical (perhaps with the exception of chanterelles and oatcakes), but you can somehow imagine the taste, smell and appearance of the dishes mentioned perfectly.

The Erl-King lives by himself all alone in the heart of the wood in a house which has only one room. His house is made of sticks and stones and has grown a pelt of yellow lichen. Grass and weeds grow in the messy roof. He chops fallen branches for his fire and draws his water from the stream in a tin pail.
What does he eat? Why, the bounty of the woodland! Stewed nettles; savoury messes of chickweed sprinkled with nutmeg; he cooks the foliage of shepherd's purse as if it were cabbage. He knows which of the frilled, blotched, rotting fungi are fit to eat; he understands their eldritch ways, how they spring up overnight in lightless places and thrive on dead things. Even the homely wood blewits, that you cook like tripe, with milk and onions, and the egg-yolk yellow chanterelle with its fan-vaulting and faint scent of apricots; all spring up overnight like bubbles of earth, sustained by nature, existing in a void. And I could believe that it has been the same with him; he came alive from the desire of the woods.
He goes out in the morning to gather his unnatural treasures, he handles them delicately as he does pigeon's eggs, he lays them in one of the baskets he weaves from osiers. He makes salads of dandelions that he calls rude names, 'bum-pipes' or 'piss-the-beds', and flavours them with a few leaves of wild strawberry but he will not touch the brambles, he says the Devil spits on them at Michaelmas.
His nanny goat, the colour of whey, gives him her abundant milk and he can make soft cheese that has a unique, rank, amniotic taste. Sometimes he traps a rabbit in the snare of string and makes a soup or stew, seasoned with wild garlic. He knows all about the wood and the creatures in it.
... He is an excellent housewife. His rustic home is spick and span. He puts his well-scoured saucepan and skillet neatly on the hearth side by side, like a pair of polished shoes. Over the hearth hang bunches of drying mushrooms, the thin, curling kind they call jew's-ears, which have grown on elder trees since Judas hanged himself on one; this is the kind of lore he tells me, tempting my half-belief. He hangs up herbs in bunches to dry, too - thyme, marjoram, sage, vervain, southern wood, yarrow. The room is musical and aromatic and there is always a wood-fire crackling in the gate, a sweet, acrid smoke, a bright, glancing flame. But you cannot get a tune out of the old fiddle hanging on the wall beside the birds because all its strings are broken.
... Goat's milk to drink, from a chipped tin mug; we shall eat the oatcakes he has baked on the hearthstone. Rattle of the rain on the roof. The latch clanks on the door; we are shut up inside with one another, in the brown room crisp with the scent of burning logs that shiver with tiny flame, and I lie down on the Erl-King's creaking palliasse of straw. His skin is the tint and texture of sour cream, he has stiff, russet nipples, ripe as berries. Like a tree that bears blossom and fruit on the same bough together, how pleasing, how lovely.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Eve of St Agnes, John Keats

(This is just an excerpt.)

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,

In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,

While he forth from the closet brought a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd

From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,

From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.

These delicates he heap'd with glowing hand

On golden dishes and in baskets bright

Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand

In the retired quiet of the night,

Filling the chilly room with perfume light.

"And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!

Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:

Open thine eyes, for meek St. Agnes' sake,

Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache."

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

In light of the recent rather unseemly revelations about what ground beef may or may not contain, I bought a meat-grinding attachment for my big stand-mixer--something I'd been meaning to do for a while. It feels primal, somehow, grinding meat, obviously not in the same camp as my super-hardcore friend Novella Carpenter, who raises and butchers her own chickens, rabbits, and pigs (and wrote a splendid book about it), but still very satisfying.

One reason I'd had this on my mind for a while was that the following passage from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was imprinted on me at a very young age. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Neeley came home and he and Francie were sent out for the weekend meat. This was an important ritual and called for detailed instructions by Mama.

“Get a five-cent soup bone off of Hassler’s. But don’t get the chopped meat there. Go to Werner’s for that. Get round steak chopped, ten cents’ worth, and don’t let him give it to you off the plate. Take an onion with you, too.”

Francie and her brother stood at the counter a long time before the butcher noticed them.

“What’s yours?” he asked finally.

Francie started the negotiations. “Ten cents’ worth of round steak.”



“Lady was just in. Bought a quarter’s worth of round steak ground. Only I ground too much and here’s the rest on the plate. Just ten cents’ worth. Honestly, I only just ground it.”

This was the pitfall Francie had been told to watch against. Don’t buy it off the plate no matter what the butcher says.

“No. My mother said ten cents’ worth of round steak.”

Furiously the butcher hacked off a bit of meat and slammed it down on the paper after weighing it. He was just about to wrap it up when Francie said in a trembling voice,

“Oh, I forgot. My mother wants it ground.”

“God-damn it to hell!” He hacked up the meat and shoved it into the chopper. Tricked again, he thought bitterly. The meat came out in fresh red spirals. He gathered it up in his hand and was just about to slam it down on the paper when . . .

“And mama said to chop up this onion in it.” Timidly, she pushed the peeled onion that she had brought from home across the counter. Neeley stood by and said nothing. His function was to come along for moral support.

“Jesus!” The butcher said explosively. But he want to work with two cleavers chopping the onion up into the meat. Francie watched, loving the drumbeat rhythm of the cleavers. Again the butcher gathered up the meat, slammed it down on the paper and glared at Francie. She gulped. The last order would be hardest of all. The butcher had an idea of what was coming. He stood there trembling inwardly. Francie said all in one breath,


“Son-of-a-bitchin’ bastard,” whispered the butcher bitterly. He slashed off a piece of white fat, let if fall to the floor in revenge, picked it up and slammed in on the mound of meat. He wrapped it furiously, snatched the dime, and as he turned it over to the boss for ringing up, he cursed the destiny that had made him a butcher.

After the chopped meat they went to Hassler’s for the soup bone. Hassler was a fine butcher for bones but a bad butcher for chopped meat because he ground it behind closed doors and God knows what you got. Neeley waited outside with the package because if Hassler noticed you had bought meat elsewhere, he’d proudly tell you to go get your bone where you got your other meat.

Francie ordered a nice bone with some meat on it for Sunday soup for five cents. Hassler made her wait while he told the stale joke: how a man had bought two cents’ wroth of dog meat and how Hassler had asked, should he wrap it up or do you want to eat it here? Francie smiled shyly. The pleased butcher went into the icebox and returned holding up a gleaming white bone with creamy marrow in it and shreds of red meat clinging to the ends. He made Francie admire it.

“After your mama cooks this,” he said, “tell her to take the marrow out, spread it on a piece of bread with pepper, salt, and make a nice samwish for you.”

“I’ll tell Mama.”

“You eat it and get some meat on your bones, ha ha.”

After the bone was wrapped and paid for, he sliced off a thick piece of liverwurst and gave it to her. Francie was sorry that she deceived that kind man by buying the other meat elsewhere. Too bad Mama didn’t trust him about chopped meat.

It was still early in the evening and the street lights had not yet come on. But already, the horseradish lady was sitting in front of Hassler’s grinding away at her pungent roots. Francie held out the cup that she had brought from home. The old mother filled it halfway up for two cents. Happy that the meat business was over, Francie bought two cents’ worth of soup greens from the green grocer’s. She got an emasculated carrot, a droopy leaf of celery, a soft tomato and a fresh sprig of parsley. These would be boiled with the bone to make a rich soup with shreds of meat floating in it. Fat, homemade noodles would be added. This, with the seasoned marrow spread on bread, would make a good Sunday dinner.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving

I vaguely remember my father reading bits of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. to me when I was a kid, but my earliest recollection of this story comes from the Bing Crosby-narrated Disney version. As such, I can only picture that Ichabod, with his giant, bobbing Adam's Apple and huge, twitching ears dribbling over a tottering stack of cartoonishly delicious pancakes slathered with shiny syrup. Mmmm... Oh, and there's also that timeless piece of advice from one of the several musical interludes: "With a hip-hip, and a clippety-clop/He's out looking for a head to chop/So don't stop to figure out a plan/You can't reason with a headless man."

Despite looking like "Famine descending upon the earth or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield," Ichabod has a monstrous appetite, and a tendency to read his surroundings in culinary terms.

As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly Autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples--some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat-fields, breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered and garnished with honey or treacle by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.


The pedagogue's mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind's eye he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. In the porkers he saw carved out the future sleek side of bacon and juicy relishing ham; not a turkey but he beheld daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages; and even bright Chanticleer himself lay sprawling on his back in a side-dish, with uplifted claws, as if craving that quarter which his chivalrous spirit disdained to ask while living.

Door In Your Eye, from 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,' Wells Tower

I have a crush on Wells Tower. What is written on the internet is written forever, I know, so I do not want to write any more on this topic lest I embarrass myself beyond belief - but there you have it, I have a raging crush on Wells Tower, insofar as you can have a crush on someone who you've only read one book and a handful of articles by (though as a child I had a crush on Astroboy, so perhaps you don't even need to be real or have human legs to impress me). Part of me simply appreciates the fact that someone is named Wells Tower, let's be honest, but his collection of stories, 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned', is also one of the best things I've read recently. I noted with pleasure when reading it that there was a good amount of food, particularly in the story 'Retreat', which has an especially disconcerting, slightly stomach-churning passage. I wanted to post that one, but since it's quite long and integral to the story, I thought I'd post an excerpt from 'Door In Your Eye' and suggest you buy the book to read the other story instead. Here, eighty-three year old Albert, recently moved in with his adult daughter, visits the prostitute across the street who he has been observing for some time...

'You were right about this dope,' I said after a while. 'It does make you crave something to eat.'
'You hungry?'
'Oh, yes,' I said.
'Well, don't look at me,' she said, 'I can't be cooking now. This is one of my busy days.'
'What about that?'
'That tomato. We could eat that,' I said, 'It looks ripe.'
'You want to eat my tomato?'
'Sure,' I said.
She reached out and snapped the tomato off its vine and handed it to me.
'You don't want some?'
'Nah,' she said, 'Go to town.'
I took a bite. It was delicious, full of the strong, green flavor of the vine. So much juice ran out that Carol stopped me and went to get a towel. The juice ran down my chin. I could feel my beard getting heavy with it, but I didn't care.
I was nearly finished when Carol motioned me over to the open window. Charlotte had gotten home. She was out on the porch next to my empty chair, holding the crabs in a white paper package, turning her head up and down the street.
'Is that your daughter?'
'That's her,' I said.
Charlotte shouted out for me, a yell as loud as a bullhorn.
Carol seemed not to hear. She held up the little remnant of our cigarette. 'You want any more of this?' she asked.
'No, thank you,' I said.
She licked her fingers and pinched it out, and then she popped it in her mouth and swallowed it.
Down below, Charlotte yelled for me again. 'You're not going to see about her?' Carol asked.
'I put my hands on the windowsill and stuck my entire head out into the afternoon. The wind chilled the wetness on my lips and my chin. 'Hey,' I called out to my daughter, 'Hey, Charlotte, look up here.'

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Monday, 23 November 2009

Là-Bas, Joris-Karl Huysmans

Although not quite as well known as À rebours, Là-Bas is nearly as entertaining. In it, we are introduced to Durtal, a thinly veiled stand-in for the author, who would later become a recurring character in a series of novels chronicling Huysmans' conversion to Catholicism. At this point, however, Durtal is a paradigm of fin de siècle world-weariness and boredom; and in an effort to escape the hollow banality of the modern world, he does what anyone else would do: he embarks upon a study of medieval occultism and researches the life of famed 15th century child-murderer Gilles de Rais. Needless to say, his investigations come to reveal that Satanism is alive and well in 19th century Paris.

In this scene, over a cozy pot-au-feu at the bell-ringer's house, Durtal and des Hermies, his friend and chief verbal sparring partner, debate the relative merits of restaurant dining. Ever the provocatuer, des Hermies provides a decidedly unappetizing account of a restaurant that he nonetheless frequents "once a month or so," all in the interest of observing how rapidly its patrons are deteriorating from the sub-par cuisine.

“Can we help you finish laying the table?” suggested des Jermies.

But Carhaix’s wife refused.

“No, no, sit down. Dinner is nearly ready.”

“That smells good,” said Durtal, inhaling the odour of a bubbling pot-au-feu, in which the odour of celery added piquance to the smell of the other vegetables.

“Dinner is served,” boomed Carhaix, reappearing in a clean blouse, his face gleaming from a good scrubbing.

They sat down. The glowing stove roared. Durtal, almost fainting, felt the sudden sense of nervous relaxation which a frozen soul experiences when immersed in a warm bath; one was so far away from Paris here at the Carhaix’s, so far out of this century!

The lodge was extremely poor, but so welcoming and comfortable! Even the table was laid country-style, the polished glasses, the covered dish of semi-salted butter, the cider pitcher, the old-fashioned lamp, which had seen better days, and which emphasized the homely atmosphere by casting reflections of tarnished silver over the white expanse of the table-cloth.

“The next time I come, I must remember to stop at that English delicatessen and buy a jar of that deliciously dependable orange marmalade,” said Durtal to himself, who, by mutual agreement with des Hermies, never dined with the bell-ringer without furnishing a share of the provisions.

Carhaix prepared the pot-au-feu and a simple salad and provided some of his own cider. So as not to be a burden, des Hermies and Durtal brought the wine, coffee, liqueurs, desserts and arranged matters such that their contributions compensated their hosts for the soup and the beef, which would otherwise have lasted them for several days, that were consumed.

“Just right!” noted Mme Carhaix triumphantly, serving to each in turn a bouillon the colour of mahogany whose iridescent surface was looped with rings of topaz.

It was succulent and unctuous, robust and yet delicate, flavoured as it was with a broth made from chicken liver.

Everyone was silent now, their heads lowered over their plates, their faces shining from the steam of the savory soup.

“Now is the moment to repeat one of Flaubert’s favorite commonplaces: ‘You never eat like this in a restaurant,’” remarked Durtal.

“No maligning of restaurants,” said des Hermies. “They afford a very special delight to those who know the right way to inspect them. Only the other night, coming back from a house call, I dropped in on one of those establishments which do a set menu for three francs: soup, a choice of one or the other of the day’s specials, side salad and pudding.

“Now I eat at this restaurant once a month or so. It has an unvarying clientele: irritable stuffed-shirts, officers in mufti, Members of Parliament, civil servants.

“While fiddle-faddling about with the sauce au gratin which accompanied a redoubtable sole, I examined the habitués seated around me. They had singularly changed since my last visit. They had become either bloated or emaciated; their eyes were either hollow, with violet rings around them, or puffy, with crimson pouches under them; the fat ones had turned yellow and the thin ones were becoming green.

“It was obvious that the terrible concoctions served in this place, far deadlier than any of the lethal potions employed by the popes of Avignon, were slowly poisoning the customers.

“You can imagine how interested I became. I immediately carried out a toxicological investigation on my own person, paying careful attention to what I was eating. The ingredients were frightful: a mixture of tannin and coal dust, used to mask the smell of fish which is no longer quite fresh, not dissimilar to the stench of decomposing human tissue; marinated meats, painted with sauces the colour of sewage; wines adulterated with fuscin, perfumed with furfurol, provided with artificial body by the addition of molasses and plaster!

“I have promised myself to return every month in order to chart the customers’ decline…”

“How dreadful!” cried Mme Carhaix.

“Good God!” exclaimed Durtal. “What a black sense of humour you have!”

Recipe For A Salad, Sydney Smith

I think I may actually try to make this one for the next time I post... stay tuned.

"In a letter to Lady Holland in 1839, Smith gives the recipe for this salad. It follows the poem except that at the close Smith instructs her, "Mix the Salad thoroughly just before it is used" (The Letters of Sydney Smith, Vol. II, ed. Nowell C. Smith [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953]: 684)."*

To make this condiment, your poet begs

The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;

Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,

Smoothness and softness to the salad give.
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl, 

And, half suspected, animate the whole.

Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,

Distrust the condiment that bites so soon; 

But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault, 

To add a double quantity of salt.
Four times the spoon with oil from Lucca brown,

And twice with vinegar procured from town;

And, lastly, o'er the flavored compound toss

A magic soupcion of anchovy sauce.
O, green and glorious! O herbaceous treat! 

'T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat:

Back to the world he'd turn his fleeting soul, 

And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl!

Serenely full, the epicure would say,

"Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day."

Friday, 20 November 2009

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Pirate Prentice has the ability to get into and "manage" the dreams and fantasies of others; he also has a bananery, from which he culls the ingredients for the following dishes. The first is something of an appetizer, and the second, which features some potentially delicious banana French toast, is a proper banana breakfast feast.
"Across a blue tile patio, in through a door to the kitchen. Routine: plug in American blending machine won from some Yank last summer, some poker game, table stakes, B.O.Q. somewhere in the north, never remember now....Chop several bananas into pieces. Make coffee in urn. Get can of milk from cooler. Puree 'nanas in milk. Lovely. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of England....Bit of marge, still smells all right, melt in the skillet. Peel more bananas, slice lengthwise. Marge sizzling, in go long slices. Light oven whoomp blow us all up someday oh, ha, ha, yes. Peeled whole bananas to go on broiler grill soon as it heats. Find marshmallows...."

"With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate's mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, a southern island well across a tropic or two from chill Corydon Throsp's mediaeval fantasies, crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto ... tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead ... banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter ..."

We won something!!

As you may have noticed thanks to Emily's recent posts, Lashings & Lashings of Ginger Beer is back. From now on, we are going to update the blog a lot more frequently.

But first, I want to thank Kitty at Fahrenheit 350 for giving us a wonderful Lemonade Stand Award. I'm not so sure we really deserve this award, as we've been terrible about updating, but I think we will take it as a gentle encouragement to keep this blog going and to show gratitude to all the people who comment and read us. Thank you!

It's also a great opportunity to make a note of some blogs that we love, since the rules of accepting and sharing this award are:

1. Put the logo on your blog or post
2. Nominate at least 10 blogs that show an attitude of gratitude
3. Link to your nominees within your post
4. Comment on their blog to let them know they've received this award
5. Share the love and link to the person who nominated you
6. Tell us how you've come to have an attitude of gratitude

Well, though I don't think we can bestow the award back, let's focus on Fahrenheit 350 first. I would not at all recommend going to this blog if you are hungry or attempting to lose weight. It's the visual equivalent of walking past a bakery at 6am in the morning, or someone shoving a freshly baked cinnamon bun under your nose, or envisioning a world where everything is made out of chocolate. If you don't believe me, look at these moon pies. I could die.

The 10 blogs who get the award from us are (in no particular order):

1. Amy at Blue Lotus - this beautiful blog details the meals that the author makes and eats in her adopted home of Japan. Unlike many other blogs, the food is presented simply, without pretension, and in the midst of her normal family life. It's a great glimpse into all aspects of another culture, and I've learned so much about Japanese food from it.

2. Elly, Sarah & Alix at Vintage Cookbook Trials - we've been planning to do a collaboration with them, but due to my laziness and general chaotic-ness, haven't gotten around to it yet. Anyway, I think this is one of the best ideas for a food blog, and their efforts to create some alarming sounding recipes from old cookbooks are both respectful of the food they're dealing with and quite humourous. My favourite has to be the ill-fated Party Pyramids, from the drunken cook to the way that the recipe, which must have been so sophisticated in its time, now appears as exceedingly bizarre.

3. Mr. Dave at The Ridiculous Food Society of Upstate New York - this blog is just immensely enjoyable to read. His willingness to try the most horribly packaged of foods alongside his obvious enjoyment of carefully creating dishes out of scratch is great. I wish Mr Dave was my next door neighbour and I could poke my head out of my window and ask him how the primitive beer he is brewing is coming along, or to eat some bacon-wrapped fudge. He also has an enviably adorable child.

4. Meg from Queenie Takes Manhattan - one of the first blogs to be nice to us. A lady (as in, one really classy lady) with perfect taste in everything, from food to interior decorating. She also has great advice on where to eat when in Paris or New York.

5. Maud Newton - needs no introduction, and isn't technically a food blogger, but it's fine because she's fantastic.

6. Eric Hanson - Eric is an illustrator whose work has appeared in a range of illustrious publications and who has written 'A Book of Ages', described as: ""An Eccentric Miscellany of Achievements, Misdeeds, Crossed Paths, Bypaths, Inventions, Scandals, Child Prodigies, Late Masterpieces, Marriages and Breakups, Fueds, Dead Ends, Second Chances, Adventures and Misadventures, Novels Written and Battles Won and Lost, All Organized by Year of Age." He also has made a picture of a crocodile riding a bicycle.

7. Sonya at EpiCute - cute, cute, darling, adorable, lovely, sweet, pretty, gorgeous food. Look at this! WTF how cute is that?!

8. Michael at Forgotten Bookmarks - this too is not a food blog, but Michael is considering branching out into a blog that makes recipes found in books, so this award is our encouragement to do that (perhaps an entrepreneurial food blogger can approach him?). It is also my favourite blog of all blogs ever, I think.

9. Food Snob - Food Snob is so famous that people are impressed that I am his Facebook friend. That's real fame.

10. Amuse Biatch - they haven't updated in a million years which is an absolute travesty when you consider a) how unbelievably good this season of Top Chef is, and b) how funny their blog is. This 'award', is, when applied to them, more of a warning to update immediately or I will punish them.

11. Laura Schaefer at The Teashop Girl's Blog - the author of a book that is going to be featured on this blog very soon, I hope.

12. Readable Watchable Edible Potable - our sister blog in a way, who is far better at updating than we are, and includes film, too.

And there you have it! Back to your (now) regularly scheduled programming soon, with more Proust, Wells Tower and Ancient Romans coming up in the next few days, I promise.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Bad News, Edward St. Aubyn

I just love Edward St. Aubyn's trilogy of novellas, Some Hope, of which Bad News forms the middle installment. St. Aubyn is a fine writer: his prose crackles with tart humor, real insight, and a kind of brutal honesty that you suspect has cost the author something. So much so that I'm almost surprised to have to admit that it's a novel about recovery--from abuse, from drug addiction, toward hard-won self-knowledge--not the kind of book I usually find myself reading, much less enjoying.

It is the story of Patrick Melrose, son of a tyrannical, talented father and a vacant, wealthy mother. In Bad News, he travels from London to New York to collect his father's ashes and try to come to grips with his drug problem, and which of these is the more difficult task is hard to reckon. His most potent weapons are his ferocious intelligence and brittle wit--no match for the sirens he'll encounter along the way.

Food in literature is not always about being happily transported--it is, as we've seen, also about longing, about what's missing in a relationship, about poverty of spirit, about snobbery. The passage that follows takes us into somewhat unhappy new territory, elevating a meal into a vehicle for contempt, and in the end for utter self-loathing. I was talking to a friend today about this book, and about how it's possible that despite all the pompousness, all the scorn and derision, all the nastiness--despite all of these terrible qualities, we still like Patrick, and we still root for him. We couldn't come to any conclusion; I offer up this scene as proof.

Trying to outrun his desire for heroin, he picks up a girl at the Mudd Club (it's the 1980s). The diner they go to together reminded me of a place down in TriBeCa I used to frequent in those days, Terminator Chili--they had something called a "garbage plate," which I loved. Poor old Rachel.

"I'm feeling kinda hungry," said Rachel uneasily.


"Yeah, I got this craving for chili."

"Well, I'm sure we can get you some on room service," said Patrick, who knew perfectly well there was no chili on the Pierre's all-night menu and would have disapproved if there had been.

"But there's this diner where they make like the greatest chili in the entire world," said Rachel, sitting up eagerly. "I really wanna go there."

"Right," said Patrick patiently. "What's the address?"

"Eleventh Avenue and Thirty-eighth."

"I'm sorry about this," said Patrick to the driver, "we've changed our minds. Could we go to Eleventh Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street instead?"

"Eleventh and Thirty-eighth?" repeated the driver.


The diner was a ribbed silver caravan with TRY OUR FAMOUS CHILI AND TACOS in red neon outside. It was an offer that Rachel could not resist. A green neon chili flashed cutely next to a yellow sombrero.

When the giant oval plate arrived loaded with chili-flavored minced meat, refried beans, guacamole, and sour cream, topped with bright orange cheddar and accompanied by speckled ochre tortilla shells, Patrick lit a cigarette in the hope of drawing a veil of thin blue smoke over the pungent heap of spicy food. He took another sip of insipid coffee and sat back as far as possible in the corner of the red plastic bench. Rachel was clearly a nervous overeater, stuffing herself before he stuffed her, or perhaps, very persuasively, trying to put him off sex altogether by wreaking havoc on her digestive system, and saturating her breath with the torrid stench of cheese and chili.

"Uh-hum," said Rachel appreciatively, "I love this food."

Patrick raised an eyebrow slightly but made no comment.

She piled the chili into the tortilla, smeared some guacamole on top, and patted down the sour cream with the back of her fork. Finally, she took a pinch of cheddar between her fingers and sprinkled it on top.

The tortilla flipped open and chili flooded onto her chin. Giggling, she lifted it with her index finger and forced it back into her mouth.

"Delicioso," she commented.

"It looks disgusting," said Patrick sullenly.

"You should try some."

She stooped over the plate and found ingenious angles from which to snap at the collapsing tortilla. Patrick rubbed his eye. It was itching wildly again. He stared out of the window but was drawn back into the arena of its reflections. The tulip-red bar stools on their chrome stems, the hatch into the kitchen, the old man hunched over a cup of coffee and, of course, Rachel like a pig in a trough. It reminded him of the famous painting by whathisname. Memory getting burned out. The terror of forgetting everything. Hooper . . . Hopper. Got it. Life in the old dog.

"Finished?" asked Patrick.

"They make a great banana split here," said Rachel saucily, still chomping her last mouthful of chili.

"Well, don't restrain yourself," said Patrick. "Will one be enough?"

"Don't you want one too?"

"No, I do not," said Patrick pompously.

Soon a long glass dish arrived on which scoops of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream were bracketed by the two halves of a banana, buried under rippling waves of whipped cream and decorated with beads of pink and green candy. Red maraschino cherries ran down the center like a row of clown's buttons.

Patrick's leg twitched up and down involuntarily as he watched Rachel exhume bit of banana from the mound of brightly colored creams.

"I've given up dairy products," she said, "but I allow myself these binges sometimes."

"So it seems," said Patrick stiffly.

He was overcome with loathing and contempt. The girl was completely out of control. Whereas drugs were at least amenable to advertising: life on the edge, exploring the inner Congo, the heart of darkness, outstaring death, returning with the scars and medals of a haunting knowledge, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Leary . . . ; and even if this advertising seemed horribly false to anyone who had taken drugs at all seriously, it wasn't possible even to pretend that there was anything heroic about an eating problem. And yet there was something unsettlingly familiar about Rachel's obsessive greed and ridiculous dishonesty.

"Can we go now?" snapped Patrick. "Yeah, okay," said Rachel timidly.

He ordered the check, threw down a twenty-dollar bill before it arrived, and wriggled out of the booth. Another fucking taxi drive, he thought.

* * *

"I feel kinda nau-tious," complained Rachel, as they went up in the hotel elevator.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Swann's Way, Marcel Proust

Goodness, I've been away so long I've forgotten how to use Blogger.

What have I been doing? Among about a million other things I've undertaken, with the help of an excellent on-line reading group called The Cork-Lined Room, to read Proust, something I've always meant to do but been consistently thrown back by the first few pages. It turns out that those first few pages are like the breakers; you have to crash past them in order to swim comfortably. And now the pages fly by.

So we all know the famous madeleine passage from this novel--in fact I believe Fatima used it way, way back as the very first post in this blog. Food, of course, is a frequent vehicle for the reminiscences of Marcel, Proust's narrator; as I recently learned, at the time Proust was writing, it was still not understood scientifically how efficiently taste and smell can be attached to memory (if you are interested you can read more about it here), but Proust understood it quite clearly.

Food is also used to quite humorous effect as it is in this brief passage. I'm still working out why it's funny--at the moment I only know that it is. Here Marcel recalls the rigid structures of his Aunt Léonie's days, and the exceptions, which are also rigid. It feels like there are memories folded into these foods in a manner oddly reticent for Proust, who will willingly describe pretty much anything.

The translation is by Lydia Davis.

And so, for instance, every Saturday, because Françoise went to the Roussainville-le-Pin market in the afternoon, lunch was, for everyone, an hour earlier. And my aunt had so thoroughly acquired the habit of this weekly violation of her habits that she clung to it as much as to the others. She was so well "routined" to it, as Françoise said, that if she had to wait, some Saturday, to have lunch at the regular hour, this would have "disturbed" her as much as if on another day she had had to move her lunch forward to the Saturday hour. What was more, this early lunch gave Saturday, for all of us, a special face, indulgent and almost kindly. At the time of day when one usually has another hour to live through before the relaxation of the meal, we knew that in a few seconds we would see the arrival of some precocious endives, a gratuitous omelette, an undeserved beefsteak.