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Archive for the ‘Food Literature’ Category

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The New York Times International Cookbook ‘by’ Craig Claiborne is among my small gathering of long-time book companions. I put the quote marks there because I’m not sure I see Craig anywhere in the book, aside from a preface where he lists a zillion names and gives thanks to a large city.

This is a book of recipes. Period. No commentary, no cultural notes, no cute little stories, no stressing over ingredients or substitutions, no ‘how to cook’ notes, no pages of equipment with details.

The collection of recipes is good and basic. So much so that the book feels substantive. But in terms of cooking from it – no, I never really did. It feels substantive, the book, but it is more on my shelves just because it feels substantive. Not because it is substantively useful to me.

There are several recipes in this book that were worthwhile to me, though. Very basic recipes but simple and delicious. Pastisio is the first – and the best of the lot. And if you don’t have pastisio every once in a while there will be a part of your soul lost. You will forget the glaring sun upon the open-aired sea, lose the taste of Retsina burning at the back of your throat, and rue the memory of cats sidling round your feet at the taverna.

Therefore it is important to keep the pastisio fires burning. One recipe. That’s why I keep this book.

You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up. Anybody knows that. (Kay Thompson)

Kay was really talking about pastisio when she wrote that.

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Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

The book remaining longest on my shelves, therefore deserving of Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral, is Waverly Root’s ‘Food’. Why should this be so? The poor old thing is broken-backed, it looks as if someone hit the edge of the bottom pages with red spray-paint lightly at some time, and the cover is the most repulsive olive-green to ever exist in the world.

In this case you can’t tell a book by its cover. Well, maybe you can. Depends on who you talk to.

Many people think Waverly Root was not quite de rigeur. Or rather, he may have been de rigeur but he was not right about a lot of things he wrote. This could be so. But above all, Waverly was entertaining, even in his sickening pea-green overcoat.

Let me show you Waverly. I’m going to flip open the book and see where it lands.

Broccoli. And E.B. White on broccoli. Chives. And He who bears chives on his breath Is safe from being kissed to death and then on to Martial on chives. FO, stands for fogas, a Hungarian fish. Yes, I know the fellow! LY stands for the lycopodium, whose root is no longer eaten as an aphrodisiac.

Parsley warrants a couple of pages, with a final mention of Platus then on to Chaucer in critical mode about a cook named Hogge of Ware who had some problems with parsley and a goose whose freshness might have been questionable

Of many a pilgrim hastow Cristes curs,

For of they persly yet they fare the wors,

That they han eaten with thy stubbelgoos;

For in thy shoppe is many a fly loos.

In the entry on rye we learn of witchcraft and ergotism.  SO stands for soump oil, a fat universallly used in the Ivory Coast, Chad, and East Africa, made from the intensely bitter fruit of the zachun-oil tree, which fails to explain why it is also called heglik oil

And Venus, of course, stands for a family of clams, notably the quahog, eaten with gusto in New England and when we get close to the end of the book, Waverly tells us that yellowtail (which in some places is called snapper or flounder) is called a I-don’t-know-what in Japan.

I don’t know what, either. But I do enjoy trying to figure it all out with Waverly.

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks

By shallow rivers, to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.

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Have you ever really wanted a book of some sort so much that you started to fantasize about owning it? I don’t mean like owning it part-time, taking it out of the library then returning it. I mean like a book you just have to own.

I have, and it’s strange, because I don’t really want to own a lot of books. Most books I read and give away, if I own them. Yes, even cookbooks. Because the ones that are pretty, really pretty – are mostly just that – only really pretty. Ultimately they are boring. And the ones that talk of one thing or another – or perhaps they have stories in them – unless there is something startlingly exceptional I really don’t want to have to have those books staring at me accusingly from my shelves as I once again run my fingers right past their spines when looking for inspiration or entertainment.

But this one book, I really want right now. It’s not available in the US as far as I know. And since it takes every bit of all my energy and resources to sit right here at home taking care of the usual things of children and life, I’m not about to hop on a plane to Paris to get this book.

But I have had a fantasy about getting the book delivered. And I assure you, this fantasy surpasses by far any fantasy a girl is supposed to have about her wedding. My fantasies about weddings mostly go as far as seeing the cake and wondering what it tastes like. Rather compressed, this wedding fantasy. Oh well.

But my book. Now that’s a different matter. This is how it would happen: I’d be sitting in my kitchen writing on my computer. I can see out the window next to me as I do this. The mailman would appear around the corner, spindle-shanked in his shorts and socks and sandals. My mailman I am sure listens to NPR in his spare time. He is of medium height, has curly dark brown hair and round wire-rimmed glasses and he looks as if he frequents the health-food store, worrying about things that people worry about who frequent the health-food store. But no, this is wrong. I can not have my book delivered by my mailman, for several reasons. One is that his shanks are too skinny. It worries me, his shanks. If they were lamb shanks sitting wrapped in a styrofoam tray wrapped in clear plastic at the grocery store I would not want to buy them.

Do you remember the song from the Sixties that had a phrase in the middle of it ‘Who wants to dance with the lady with the skinny laiiiigs?’ the guy mockingly sang out right in the middle of it, and boy, I’ll tell you at the age of five or six or seven that song made me feel quite discouraged. Apparently nobody wanted to dance with ladies with skinny legs, at all! And my legs were very skinny. I felt terrible.

But anyway. At least that now I have acheived a more Botticelli-like form I don’t have to worry about that anymore! At least now I can look at the Venus-Clamshell lady and closely analyze as much as one can do without a microscope exactly how rounded her tummy is and whether it is more or less rounded than mine, and how all this will affect my outlook on life.

So forget the mailman. My book will be delivered by the UPS guy. The big brown truck will pull up, and park. The UPS guy will hop out of the truck door and walk towards my door. Now I always get a little nervous when the UPS guy delivers anything because of one particular thing. Fact is, the guy is just about my height. And since I’m pretty short, this doesn’t happen too often. But when it does it can be a little weird, because guys whose eyes are pretty much on a level with mine have an unusual aura. At least they have an unusual aura with me, when their eyes meet mine, and this is what makes me nervous when I have to sign the UPS thingie. There is a strange energy emitting from the guy who is pretty much my height. He is looking at me, and as I have the ability to see parallel worlds that exist alongside this regular one every once in a while I know the parallel world that is existing here, coming from the short guys eyes out towards me.

In his parallel world, both he and I are in the same place at my door but in a flash he is no longer a UPS guy. In a startling instant his UPS uniform sort of rips off all by itself and he is dressed in a Tarzan outfit. He is King of the Jungle.

Trust me, I cut that parallel universe thing off right at that point. I don’t want to know any more about it.

But here he is, anyway, with my book. He greets me, does the parallel universe thing, I sign the UPS magical signing thing, and I have a cardboard box in my hand with ‘Amazon’ printed on it. Joy! Oh joy! My book is here!

The rest, dear reader, you must imagine. How I rip open the cardboard, lovingly caress the cover, gently turn then wildly flip through the pages, staggeringly thrilled at the entire thing!

I went through my shelves the other day, to see what books I’d kept through many travels, too many damp cellars, and much giving-away of books. Here’s the list:

Waverly Root – Food

Time-Life Series Cookbooks – Vienna’s Empire

Ellen Brown – Cooking with the New American Chefs

Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries

Craig Claiborne – The New York Times International Cookbook

Judith Olney’s Entertainments

Witty and Colchie – Better Than Store Bought

Alan Davidson – North Atlantic Seafood

Evan Jones – American Food, The Gastronomic Story

Maria Polushkin Robbins – The Cook’s Quotation Book

Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus

One book short of a dozen, in this category! To have almost a dozen books of my dreams – this is good.

But I can still dream of yet another. Even if I do have to meet Tarzan’s eyes momentarily to get it.

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How do we think of food? We think of it as something to eat, of course. We think of it as pretty pictures on a page – and the growing numbers of food pornographers, both amateur and professional, testifies to the immense hunger existing for viewing food this way.

We think of it as fodder when it is something we don’t like or don’t approve of (usually in this case it is always someone else’s food – not our own, of course!) Some think of food as a thing that describes who we are in a deep essential way – so much so that the oft-used quote ‘You are what you eat’ can almost be heard as a battle-cry sounded by a gathering tribe, fingers pointed as if sharpened spears.

Some of us think of food as a way to make money. Some of us who think of food in this way pretend not to. It’s important to pretend not to, or the sparkling glamour of it all may disperse into the everyday. And goodness knows that would be unfortunate, within how we think of food.

And of course food is a craft, an art, a political tool, a necessity, an economist’s important focal point. Food is memory, memory sad or pleasant or delightful and always memory that might be just the tad bit false, as memory can be.

One of the ways I like my food is when it is a character – when it gets a life, one with movement and passion quite aside from how it passively tastes and looks – a life where it does not lay in wait submissively to be gobbled up by the diner. When it stands up and becomes something alive – with every bit as much power to wield as any real person has (and each to their own levels and forms). I’m not talking singing bananas here, nor cute little tomatoes bouncing along batting their false eyelashes. There are other ways to be real.

Food is often used in writing as allegory or through metaphor. Allegoric or metaphoric use of food to strike meaning into the hearts and minds of readers has been effectively used in the Bible and in other texts preceding it. Foods are used to hint at beauty, at hubris, at the salacious, at the appetites man (or woman) may have for these things.

Just as common is the use of food as definer, in literature. One will understand who the characters are in the stories, by what they eat. Their social status, their personality, their aspirations, their cultural background . . . all can be known by just putting a plate with food on it right in front of them and watching their reactions.

But there are times when food is not the condiment to the story but rather the yeast. A vital, integral part, a living thing that moves the narrative forward – an unacknowledged yet essential character within the plot. In these cases, the food is not merely consumed to give the story flavor. Rather, it is a secret antagonist – or sometimes a false protagonist – in the story line. Not exactly a personification is the food in these cases, yet the relationship exists. A mysterious relationship, one of smoke, mirrors and imagination – but without this relationship how flat the entire narrative might become!

Three writers come to mind when I think of food getting a real life. M.F.K. Fisher’s strength as a writer (aside from her great ability to teach about foods ‘foreign’ to some and of ways to cook) was her use of food as symbol – but her incredible ability to express every strong human emotion through those foods brought the foods close to being alive. One could believe in the power of the foods every bit as much as one could believe in the power of any human person in her narratives.

Haruki Murakami often includes food in his writing. Three of his short stories – The Year of Spaghetti; The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes; Crabs – each of these stories offers the reader a look at how food can get a life through the author’s pen.

One food I’ve seen get a life is many people’s favorite way to start the day: coffee. In Mark Helprin‘s Memoir of Antproof Case it is coffee – not as something actually imbibed, not as a commodity bought or sold – but coffee as an idea so vital in the protagonist’s mind as to be as real as any actual person – that drives the story from fantastic start to magnificent end.

If you don’t know of any foods who have gotten real lives, try reading some of the above stories.

You may find that food is not just a pretty plate.

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Ouch. It’s January 2009, and wallets previously ready to fly open at the slightest beckoning call of the local free-range organic rabbit (head still on, bones intact, tiny tail bone looking rather pitiful now shed of its cute fluffy fur) for $7 per pound – which effectively makes the cost of the meat shorn of the bones somewhere around $15 per pound – those wallets are balking.

But it is not 1940. And we are not in London. And we are not kept busy in the ways the Women Firewatchers shown in the above photograph (from British Vogue in 1940 by Lee Miller) were kept actively busy at that time.

But getting back to the wallets of 2009. Some will still open. Many more will not.

Pain shows in the hearts and faces of men and women when facing their finances. Not only have their retirement funds been hobbled but food – right now – today! – is becoming more and more expensive. What’s a person to do?

This poverty is a different shape, here and now in 2009, than it has been in times past. For aside from the fact that the grocery stores are still filled to over-brimming with every product from almost everywhere in the world, there is the question of those wallets. Are those wallets as damaged as they have been in past times of hardship? Not being an economist, I can’t answer that.

But I do know that in past times though there may have been mortgage payments and utility bills and all the usual expenses of day-to-day life, there was no monthly cell-phone bill . . . there was no monthly cable or internet connection bill . . . there was no high health insurance payment due . . . there usually was not a second or third car payment bill due . . . and let’s not even start talking about the cost of a higher-education where funds must be saved or financed for the Masters or Ph.D rather than for the Bachelors degree – which now for the most part is about as useful to the job-seeker as a High School degree was in times past – useful, that is, as a mere nod into the door of a low-paying entry job.

In times of hardship one looks to times of past hardships for answers: what to do, how to survive. There’s also the sense of seeking reassurance that indeed, people did survive. They did live and love and eat and hate and plot and plan and dream and finally either regain their feet – or if not – simply go on living, somehow.

One of our most-revered writers on life, food, and hungers – MFK Fisher – wrote a huge body of work during the 1940’s during times of war and some hardships. Consider the Oyster (1941) was written as she and her husband Dillwyn Parrish fled a war-torn Europe to come back to the US. Dillwyn was dying – in a most painful way – in a way where his body was slowly, bit by bit, being claimed by Buerger’s disease. How to Cook A Wolf was published in 1942 – the year when the rationing (already in place in England) finally came to US shores.

Tires were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 because supplies of natural rubber were interrupted. Soon afterward, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were rationed by November 1943.[3] (Source wiki-rationing-US)

How To Cook A Wolf is full of information about how to survive when there is little to survive on. I’ve read this book more than once, in varying circumstances. The time I most appreciated it was when I moved to Paris into a wonderful apartment whose heating system required the insertion of coins into a small box on the wall. It seemed apt to read MFKF then and there.

Much of what is in this book will not be accepted by today’s readers, looking for answers in terms of ‘what to eat’ when the pocketbook is hurting. Gently given advice to ‘Go fishing for your dinner‘, or to ‘Gather wild foods for the one daily meal’, and ‘Eat mush‘ (recipe provided) come to mind.

In 1943 MFKF published The Gastronomical Me – to my mind the greatest of her works. Here is life, punctuated by food. Food is the thing that binds, that ties, that rocks, that cradles – a river that the larger themes of existence flow upon, with the prose of MFKF as wind goddess moving it all along.

Then followed a novel, then the translation of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.

There are many ways to face being pinched by the dollar. As for myself, I won’t try cooking and eating mush – unless I really have to. And I am grateful that my days are not spent scanning the skies for warplanes and fires.

But I will read MFK Fisher. And not just only (or not even substantially) for the advice she gives (though some of it is good).

I’ll read her just for her words, alone. They’re better in some ways than even the most perfect slab of Kobe beef.

An added bonus? They are sustainable.
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Live recording of Billie Holiday from the 1940’s: Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

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Postscript: A selection from Betty MacDonald’s classic book The Egg and I was one of the featured works included in Molly O’Neills’ American Food Writing – An Anthology with Classic Recipes.

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I’m not sure whether I think that people who read books who also cook are very amusing people in general or whether I136552743_6feec58175 think that people who cook who also read books are very amusing people. From the festival website:

April 1st is the birthday of French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), famous for his book Physiologie du goût, a witty meditation on food. April fools’ day is also the perfect day to eat your words and play with them as the “books” are consumed on the day of the event. This ephemeral global banquet, in which anyone can participate, is shared by all on the internet and allows everyone to preserve and discover unique bookish nourishments

The photos of winners from previous years are wonderful (and hilarious at times also). (Click through the links to see more winners from the main page . . .)

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I LOVE IT!!!!!!!

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