Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

This is a little bit of a cheat--or a great deal of a cheat, depending on how you feel about such things--because this excerpt is from a book I haven't finished. I made it a good way through, and then something intervened (I can't remember what) and I never picked it up again. And where discussing a passage from a book you don't know at all offers an obvious challenge, I've been surprised by how hard it is to narrow down my thoughts about books I know--it seems--too well.

Here is breakfast at the Sanatorium Berghof. It is observed with the same care and formality with which the Sanatorium's inhabitants note their every symptom. This takes place very early in the book, as Hans Castorp--for now just a visitor at the Sanatorium, not a patient--gathers impressions and begins to reckon with the shadow that falls over even the nicest things or (to move the metaphor from outward to in) the ever-present rotting core.

The translation is by John E. Woods:

There were plates of marmalade and honey, bowls of oatmeal and creamed rice, plates of scrambled eggs and cold meats; they had been generous with the butter. Someone lifted the glass bell from a soft Swiss cheese and cut off a piece; what was more, a bowl of fruit, both fresh and dried, stood in the middle of the table. A dining attendant in black and white asked Hans Castorp what he wanted to drink--cocoa, coffee, or tea? She was as small as a child, with an old, long face--a dwarf, he realized with a shock. He looked at his cousin, who merely shrugged and lifted an eyebrow as if to say, "Right, what else is new?" and so Hans Castorp simply accepted the fact and, since it was a dwarf, asked for his tea with special courtesy. He began with some creamed rice topped with sugar and cinnamon, meanwhile letting his eyes wander over the other items he intended to sample and across the seven tables of assembled guests--Joachim's colleagues, his companions in misfortune, all with the same illness deep inside, all chatting and breakfasting.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Little House On The Prairie (2), Laura Ingalls Wilder

Happy Holidays, everyone!

When he saw the creek rising, Mr. Edwards said, he had known that Santa Claus could not get across it. (“But you crossed it,” Laura said. “Yes,” Mr. Edwards replied, “but Santa Claus is too old and fat. He couldn’t make it, where a long, lean razor-back like me could do so.”) And Mr. Edwards reasoned that if Santa Claus couldn’t cross the creek, likely he would come no farther south than Independence. Why should he come forty miles across the prairie, only to be turned back? Of course he wouldn’t do that!

So, Mr. Edwards had walked to Independence. (“In the rain?” Mary asked. Mr. Edwards said he wore his rubber coat.) And there, coming down the street in Independence, he had met Santa Claus. (“In the daytime?” Laura asked. She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime. No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.)

Well, the first thing Santa Claus said was, “Hello, Edwards!” (“Did he know you?” Mary asked, and Laura asked, “How did you know he was really Santa Claus?” Mr. Edwards said that Santa Claus knew everybody. And he had recognized Santa at once by his whiskers. Santa had the longest, thickest, whitest set of whiskers west of the Mississippi.)

So Santa Claus said, “Hello, Edwards! Last time I saw you you were sleeping on a cornshuck bed in Tennessee.” And Mr. Edwards well remembered the little pair of red-yarn mittens that Santa Claus had left for him that time.

Then Santa Claus said: “I understand you’re living now down along the Verdigris River. Have you ever met up, down yonder, with two little young girls named Mary and Laura?”

“I surely am acquainted with them,” Mr. Edwards replied.

“It rests heavy on my mind,” said Santa Claus. “They are both of them sweet, pretty, good little young things, and I know they are expecting me. I surely do hate to disappoint two good little girls like them. Yet with the water up the way it is, I can’t ever make it across that creek. I can figure no way whatsoever to get to their cabin this year. Edwards,” Santa Claus said, “Would you do me the favor to fetch them their gifts this one time?”

“I’ll do that, and with pleasure,” Mr. Edwards told him.

Then Santa Claus and Mr. Edwards stepped across the street to the hitching-posts where the pack mule was tied. (“Didn’t he have his reindeer?” Laura asked. “You know he couldn’t,” Mary said. “There isn’t any snow.” Exactly, said Mr. Edwards. Santa Claus traveled with a pack mule in the southwest.”)

And Santa Claus uncinched the pack and looked through it, and he took out the presents for Mary and Laura.

“Oh, what are they?” Laura cried; but Mary asked, “Then what did he do?”

Then he shook hands with Mr. Edwards, and he swung up on his fine bay horse. Santa Claus rode well for a man of his weight and build. And he tucked his long, white whiskers under his bandana. “So long, Edwards,” he said, and he rode away on the Fort Dodge trail, leading his pack-mule and whistling.

Laura and Mary were silent an instant, thinking of that.

Then Ma said, “You may look now, girls.”

Something was shining bright in the top of Laura’s stocking. She squealed and jumped out of bed. So did Mary, but Laura beat her to the fireplace. And the shining thing was a glittering new tin cup.

Mary had one exactly like it.

These new tin cups were their very own. Now they each had a cup to drink out of. Laura jumped up and down and shouted and laughed, but Mary stood still and looked with shining eyes at her own tin cup.

Then they plunged their hands into the stockings again. And they pulled out two long sticks of candy. It was peppermint candy, striped red and white. They looked and looked at the beautiful candy, and Laura licked her stick, just one lick. But Mary was not so greedy. She didn’t even take one lick of her stick.

Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.

The cakes were too pretty to eat. Mary and Laura just looked at them. But at last Laura turned hers over, and she nibbled a tiny nibble from underneath, where it wouldn’t show. And the inside of the cake was white!

It had been made of pure white flour, and sweetened with white sugar.

Laura and Mary never would have looked in their stockings again. The cups and the cakes and the candy were almost too much. They were too happy to speak. But Ma asked if they were sure their stockings were empty.

Then they put their hands down inside them, to make sure.

And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny!

They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.

There never had been such a Christmas.

...She looked up again when Ma gasped. And Mr. Edwards was taking sweet potatoes out of his pockets. He said they had helped to balance the package on his head when he swam across the creek. He thought Pa and Ma might like them, with the Christmas turkey.

There were nine sweet potatoes. Mr. Edwards had brought them all the way from town, too. It was just too much. Pa said so. “It’s too much, Edwards,” he said. They never could thank him enough.

Mary and Laura were too excited to eat breakfast. They drank the milk from their shining new cups, but they could not swallow the rabbit stew and the cornmeal mush.

“Don’t make them, Charles,” Ma said. “It will soon be dinner-time.”

For Christmas dinner there was tender, juicy, roasted turkey. There were the sweet potatoes, baked in the ashes and carefully wiped to that you could eat the good skins, too. There was a loaf of salt-rising bread made from the last of the white flour.

And after all that there were stewed dried blackberries and little cakes. But these little cakes were made with brown sugar and they did not have white sugar sprinkled over their tops.

Then Pa and Ma and Mr. Edwards sat by the fire and talked about Christmas times back in Tennessee and up north in the Big Woods. But Mary and Laura looked at their beautiful cakes and played with their pennies and drank their water out of their new cups. And little by little they licked and sucked their sticks of candy, till each stick was sharp-pointed on one end.

That was a happy Christmas.

Friday, 11 December 2009

George Orwell's Christmas Pudding and Plum Cake Recipes

Thanks to the Guardian, here is George Orwell's Christmas pudding and plum cake recipes, typed in his own fair hand:

I wonder if that stain is indeed a pudding stain.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Study of Two Pears, Wallace Stevens

This is perhaps somewhat different than most of our posts: there's no meal involved, just a couple of pears observed with ambiguous precision. Even if the pears can't be seen as the observer wills, perhaps they can be eaten as the reader wishes.

Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

I didn't know which excerpt to post from this book - the sickening account of the filthiness of the expensive Parisian hotel kitchen (cockroaches in the bread bin, 'the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy - the nasty, greasy fingers which he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair, the toast retrieved from the dirty floor); the wolfing down of two loaves of bread and a bottle of wine after starving for three days; the lament of the kitchen dishwasher who bobs helplessly on waves of the cook's 'ceaseless, nagging... orders'; or the religious workers who tempt the homeless with fruit buns? But perhaps including any of these excerpts from a book which is all about not having food (or very much else) is not telling enough - the passages that struck me most were those where food and hunger are obsessions, when the narrator finds himself in a world in which food, the one thing that can revive him or inspire any motivation in him, is obscenely abundant, and yet horribly out of reach. Personally, it also disturbs me whenever I read it because, while aware, intellectually, that there are billions of people for whom constantly battling hunger is a reality, it is so easy to be totally oblivious on a daily basis of that fact, and to have not even a chance of understanding what it must be like when you live in a world where your most difficult choices about food are whether to have dessert or not or whether to go to a Japanese restaurant or eat an organic, grass-fed burger instead - so Orwell provides a good jolt in that respect. It is, at least, an interesting counterpart to the many excerpts we have here which are all about feasting - in these, the feast is nothing more than an impossible, painful fantasy.

And then there are your meals - meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. [...]
You go to the baker's to buy a pound of bread, and you wait while the girl cuts a pound for another customer. She is clumsy, and cuts more than a pound. 'Pardon, monsieur,' she says, 'I don't suppose you mind paying two sous extra?' Bread is a franc a pound, and you have exactly a franc. When you think you might be asked to pay two sous extra, and would have to confess that you could not, you bolt in panic. It is hours before you dare venture into a baker's shop again. [...]
You discover what it is to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyere cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you, and you refrain, from pure funk.
You discover the boredom which is inescapable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do, and, being underfed, can interest yourself in nothing. For half a day at a time you lie on your bed, feeling like the jeune squelette in Baudelaire's poem. Only food could rouse you. You discover that a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.


Two bad days followed. We had only sixty centimes left, and we spent it on half a pound of bread, with a piece of garlic to rub it with. The point of rubbing garlic on bread is that the taste lingers and gives one the illusion of having fed recently... We were too hungry to think of anything but food. I remember the dinner Boris finally selected for himself. It was: a dozen oysters, borscht soup (the red, sweet, beetroot soup with cream on top), crayfishes, a young chicken en casserole, beef with stewed plums, new potatoes, a salad, suet pudding and Roquefort cheese, with a litre of Burgundy and some old brandy. Boris had international tastes in food. Later on, when we were prosperous, I occasionally saw him eat meals almost as large without difficulty.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Eggs à la Nabocoque, Vladimir Nabokov

Maxime de la Falaise had a varied career as a fashion model, cookbook author, and Andy Warhol collaborator (she was featured in Blood for Dracula, and designed a menu for Warhol's version of the automat--the Andymat). She wrote a food column for Vogue, and in 1973 published Seven Centuries on English Cooking.

Found among Vladimir Nabokov's archives is the following recipe, dated November 18, 1972, and addressed to Maxime, who presumably requested it for inclusion in her cookbook. Nabokov noted on the top of the page "Maxime de la Falaise McKendry for a cooking book"; a later note reads, "Never acknowledge by Maxime." Perhaps it wasn't quite what she was looking for.

At any rate, here's the recipe that Nabokov sent Maxime:

Eggs à la Nabocoque

Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!). Take two eggs (for one person) out of the refrigerator. Hold them under the hot tap water to make them ready for what awaits them.

"Place each in a pan, one after the other, and let them slip soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan.

If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an oldfashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away. Take another and be more careful.

After 200 seconds have passed, or, say, 240 (taking interruptions into account), start scooping the eggs out. Place them, round end up, in two egg cups. With a small spoon tap-tap in a circle and hen pry open the lid of the shell. Have some salt and buttered bread (white) ready. Eat.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

This Is Just To Say, William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold