Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Molasses Pumpkin Pie

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Molasses Pumpkin Pie

New Yorkers are rumored to be a cynical bunch—and, for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Moving here from California was like watching Annie Hall in reverse: shedding the golden optimism of the West Coast for the Woody Allen snarkiness of the East. Since sarcasm is my lingua franca, I usually fit right in … until November 1 rolls around. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, I’m an unrepentant sap.

“There is no season which so vividly recalls the endearments of home and so fully awakens the recollections of its blessings as the return of these annual holidays,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Thanksgiving Day, 1828. I might put it a little less floridly, but Longfellow and I agree on the main points. We love the family gatherings. We love the familiar traditions. And most of all, we love to eat.

“Talking about Thanksgiving Day puts me in mind of the Pioneers and ten thousand other things,” he wrote to his sister Anne. And those ten thousand things? They’re all food: “geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, roasted pork, plumb [sic] puddings, sour apples and molasses and pumpkin pies baked in milk pans.” Sure, the Pilgrims are important. But for Longfellow, pie is the priority.

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Longfellow was particularly proud of pumpkin pie’s New England roots. He summarily dismissed British holiday desserts, saying that their traditional mince pies were “far surpassed by the ‘New England peculiar’ baked pumpkin and pan-dowdy.” When observing Thanksgiving in Venice in 1828, he reassured his father that his dessert needs were being handled. “You must not think … that I am deprived of all your New England comforts. On the contrary: my good landlady has promised me baked-pumpkin and hasty-pudding for dinner to day!” Crisis averted.

But more than pie, Longfellow relished the holiday’s sense of community, and extended an invitation to supper for others who were far from home; Charles Dickens, on his second tour of America in 1867, spent Thanksgiving at the Longfellows’ table. The holidays, Longfellow wrote, were meant to “gather friends and relatives together, and call in from the thoroughfares of the world those that have been thrown out of the family circle, and jostled apart in the crowd.”

Although he was one of the most popular poets of his day, Longfellow’s work is now often criticized for being overly sentimental. You might say the same about his thoughts on Thanksgiving: “At such times,” he wrote, “the heart clings to home, as the dying man clings to life.” Sappy? Sure. But for this cynical New Yorker, ’tis the season for a bit of saccharine, in both our hearts and our desserts.

Molasses Pumpkin Pie from Scratch

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L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

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L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

More than leaving home or getting that first job, the defining moment of my adulthood was the realization that I could eat whatever I wanted, no longer restrained by the contents of my family’s pantry or my (nonexistent) allowance. “Growing up” meant learning to make your own menu, in a city of unlimited culinary options. And if you decided dinner will be a bag of discounted Snickers bars bought in a post-Halloween binge … that’s when you learned sometimes adults make bad decisions too.

This freedom, though, is temporary; it ends when you open your kitchen to others—a partner, a spouse, a family—and suddenly your meals are influenced by their presence. Someone else starts writing your menu. In the case of L. Frank Baum, that person was his wife, Maud.

Ten years after the stunning success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum made the down payment on a grand Hollywood estate, which he and Maud dubbed Ozcot. Visiting the Baum household was like entering the Emerald City itself: the elegance, the parties, the three-oven range. Baum was known to order 100 pounds of cheese for a single soiree. Maud’s niece Matilda later remarked that those evenings “represented to me something that I knew nothing about, I was thrilled with the things they did, their food … everything.”

But while Baum chaired the party-planning committee, Maud ran the family kitchen with the efficiency of a train conductor. According to L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, the Baums ate three square meals a day, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. (fruit, eggs, potatoes, “four to five cups of strong coffee with sugar and heavy cream”) and ending with a hearty dinner (“typically a thick cream soup, roast meat with gravy, potatoes and vegetables, and a rich dessert”).

Such regular mealtimes can sound like paradise to anyone who’s ever stared at the fridge, too tired to whip something up after work. But with it came a mandate: Don’t question Maud’s kitchen authority. Baum learned the hard way when he bought a box of jelly doughnuts for breakfast one morning. As punishment for meddling in the menu planning, Maud served the leftover doughnuts every morning for the next week, until they were so stale that Baum tried to bury them in the yard rather than face them again.

Thinking about Baum hiding the offending doughnuts in his napkin, it’s easy to see him as a grown-up child, living in a world where dinner is always served on time, where appetites are never spoiled. It’s a world that is startlingly like Oz, where (in Ozma of Oz) even the King has to be cautioned “not to eat too much cake late at night, or he would be ill.”

Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce Recipe

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Alice Munro: Rosemary Bread Pudding

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Alice Munro - Rosemary Bread Pudding

Last week, when Alice Munro found out she had won the Nobel Prize in literature, she was in bed. The prize committee had tried to reach her earlier by phone but ended up just leaving a voicemail, so it was Munro’s daughter who, hearing the announcement, ran to wake up her mom. That somehow seems fitting for Munro, whose stories revolve around intimate moments of domesticity. If Hemingway is a moveable feast, Munro is breakfast in bed.

Her writing is not only steeped in the household world; it also was created there. Munro’s desk is her dining room table, where she’s penned most of her work over the past few decades. As her interviewer at The Paris Review notes, “The dining room is lined floor to ceiling with books; on one side a small table holds a manual typewriter.” When she cooks in the neighboring kitchen, her work is never far away. Is it any wonder the two are connected in her stories, as in life?

Besides writing, cooking was the other constant in Munro’s own domestic drama. In her mostly autobiographical collection The View from Castle Rockshe recalls packing her father’s lunch in the morning, a regular chore: “three thick sandwiches of fried meat and ketchup. The meat was cottage roll ends or baloney, the cheapest meat you could buy.” Later, when she was married, Munro’s stories would continue to take a back seat to food prep. She told the Review, “I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework.”

Although Munro still cooks (one of her interviewers watched her prepare a meal, which made ample use of the Canadian countryside’s fresh herbs), she now often chooses to leave the kitchen to others. She regularly asks reporters to meet at her favorite restaurant in the nearby town of Gogerich, Ontario—Bailey’s Fine Dining—where she has a usual table (corner) and a usual drink (white wine, sauvignon blanc preferred, multiple pours encouraged).

Until just a few days before the award announcement, Haruki Murakami, known for his hulking postmodern novels, was said to be the front-runner for the Nobel. It’s hard to imagine a writer further than Munro. Her subjects are often described as “quiet” or “domestic” and (given that they’re short stories) “small.”

Munro herself sometimes doubted their impact; she told the New Yorker last year, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel.” But the major recognition of her work helps us all remember what a “small” story can do—how an intimate revelation at the dining room table can hold as much truth as an epic; how a perfect fried baloney sandwich can sometimes hit the spot more than any six-course meal.

Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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The Cocktail Hour: Carson McCullers

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Sherry Tea Cocktail Hot Toddy Recipe

If you’ve ever lived with roommates, you know that the kitchen can be a dangerous place—and not because of the sharp objects. Battles in the tiny kitchens of New York are usually fought on a more passive-aggressive level, tearing apart even the closest of friends: skirmishes over fridge space, scuffles over stolen food, brawls about dishwashing duty.

That’s what happened in Brooklyn in 1940, when a motley crew moved into a dilapidated brownstone at 7 Middagh Street: poet W.H. Auden; playwright Jane Bowles; her husband, Paul; and Carson McCullers, whose debut novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was the blockbuster book of the summer. Add composer Benjamin Britten and burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee, and you had a very eclectic roster of roommates—none of whom was particularly interested in doing the dishes.

Which isn’t to say they didn’t create enough of them. McCullers was the de facto chef of the house, though her signature dishes left a little to be desired. According to a biography by Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter, McCullers’ specialties included “canned green pea soup enlivened with small chunks of wieners, and a unique dish which she labeled ‘spuds Carson,’ made with creamed potatoes, ripe olives, minced onions, and grated cheese.” Recipes were something McCullers “preferred to talk about, to envision the results rather than to actually cook them.” In other words, she improvised.

Instead, McCullers devoted the majority of her attention—and budget—to drinking. While living with her first husband, Reeves McCullers, she splurged on gallons of sherry, while dinners consisted mainly of eggs, bread and milk. By the time she moved to Middagh Street, McCullers still didn’t have recipes for actual meals, but she did have her signature drink down: a mix of hot tea and sherry, which she called “sonnie boy” and kept in a trusty thermos. She and the thermos were soon inseparable (there’s a picture of the two of them in The Lonely Hunter, with McCullers looking much happier than she did with the husband).

McCullers’ dubious skill in the kitchen was matched by her disregard for cleaning it. She would often forget about things on the stove, and return to find dinner burnt to a crisp, stuck to the pan. Visitors noted that “many of her pans, with remnants of charred food in them, were in soak on the kitchen floor.” This didn’t go over too well with the roommates—particularly Auden, the den mother of the group, who was in charge of both mealtimes (breakfast at 9 a.m. sharp.) and toilet paper patrol (one square per flush).

In his 1941 poem “New Year Letter,” Auden praises the merits of routine, work hours and regular meals. He doesn’t mention clean dishes, but you have to wonder if living with McCullers prompted the rant. Does a clean house really inspire creativity? Or is the cleaning just a distraction from inspiration itself? It’s an ongoing roommate debate—and if you live with a writer, one that might just be immortalized in verse, for future generations to read.

Carson McCullers - Cocktail Hour

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Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

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Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

As a Californian living in New York City, I’ve learned there are two things that lead to inevitable disappointment: walking without an umbrella in the summer, and Mexican food. I know you’re trying, New York. It’s cute. But whenever I bring East Coast friends to visit the hole-in-the-wall taco shop of my childhood, the scales fall from their eyes. It’s like they’re finally seeing the world in living color, when all they’ve ever known was that weird “Kelvin” filter on Instagram.

I can only imagine that Thomas Pynchon felt the same way when he first tried the real deal in his late 20s. Growing up on Long Island and studying at Cornell, Pynchon fled New York for the West Coast in 1960. After spending a few years in Seattle working for Boeing, he headed south toward California and Mexico … where he famously went silent, gaining a reputation as a literary recluse, refusing to have his picture taken or to speak with the media. What was he doing out there? We may never know entirely. But one thing’s for sure: He was eating.

Mexican food slowly began appearing in Pynchon’s novels, starting in The Crying of Lot 49 and cropping up in nearly every book since: the San Gabriel taco stand in Gravity’s Rainbow, Tajo Carajo in Vineland, and the delightful Lupita’s in Against the Day, where customers “fill their lunch pails or paper sacks with chicken tortas, venison tamales, Lupita’s widely-known brain tacos, [and] bottles of home-brewed beer.”

Over time, Pynchon’s descriptions of food become more lavish, loving, even tinged with danger. Inherent Vice features a whopping meal that includes “enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tostadas, and tamales for two called El Atomico, whose entry on the menu carried a footnote disclaiming legal responsibility.” Following the same trend, I can only expect Pynchon’s new book, Bleeding Edge, will feature a crime scene involving an unusually spicy torta.

Why was Mexican food so pervasive in Pynchon’s work? Let’s just say he had done plenty of “research” on the subject. In his friends’ memories, he was always seeking his next meal, “wearing an old red hunting-jacket and sunglasses, doting on Mexican food at a taco stand.” Throughout the late 60s and 70s, Pynchon became a regular at El Tarasco in Manhattan Beach (it’s still open today, if you want to follow in his culinary footsteps). Neighbors would frequently spot him chowing down—the notorious hermit, lured into public by a burrito.

It’s easy to think of food in simple nutritional terms: energy in, energy out. But that doesn’t account for its remarkable ability to revive us in other ways. We each have certain dishes that make us feel more like ourselves. Richard Fariña, Pynchon’s close friend from college, recalls the two of them buying tacos and beer in California, “Pynchon coming to life with the tacos, not having had any Mexican food in a couple of weeks.” On mornings when you’re not yet ready to face the day, head to the kitchen and see what inspires you. Sometimes, all it takes to re-enter the world is a really good meal.

Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos RecipeSlow Cooker Braised Chicken Tacos

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Roald Dahl: Frozen Homemade Kit-Kat Cake

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Roald Dahl: Homemade Frozen Kit-Kat Cake

As I was growing up, no book did more to encourage my incipient interest in dessert than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka’s world offered a blissful alternate universe, where candy was not dangerous, or merely delicious, but magical. How different this is from the food corporations we hear about today—the ones that have conspired to hook us on salt, sugar and fat. There aren’t many Wonkas in the world anymore; we’re in a food world run by Slugworths.

Roald Dahl himself was the industry’s perfect victim, growing up just as large chocolate companies were asserting their influence. When he was born, in 1916, “The chocolate revolution had not begun,” he wrote in the Sunday Magazine. “There were very few delicious chocolate bars to tempt us.” But soon, chocolate was everywhere—and nowhere was it more influential than in Dahl’s own backyard. His boarding school, Repton, was right down the road from the Cadbury chocolate factory, which would frequently enlist the boys to test new creations, mailing them boxes of bars to try.

The golden age, according to Dahl, was from 1930-37; that’s when the world saw the debut of the Mars Bar, Rolos and (Dahl’s personal favorite) the Kit-Kat. Until his death, in 1990, Dahl would eat at least one Kit-Kat every day. (His dog, Chopper, preferred Smarties, eating four after lunch and four after dinner) He would save their silver wrappers, adding them to a giant foil ball on his desk, where visitors to the Dahl house can still see it today.

Dahl was hooked early—but he began to notice the candy industry’s increasing interest in the “bland, almost tasteless” tastes the public preferred. His special disdain was reserved for one of Cadbury’s bestsellers, “the blandest and most disgusting thing of all,” the Crème Egg. These “fondant-filled horrors” didn’t have any of the surprises—the delightful crunch, the bright colors, the sharp flavors—of Dahl’s beloved bars. “Nobody I know eats them. But somebody obviously does, by the bucketful.”

Because it wasn’t sugar that hooked Dahl, after all; it was food’s magical ability to amaze, to astonish, to transform. When Dahl’s first wife fell ill, he would surprise her at breakfast with pink milk, because—why not pink milk? Like Wonka, Dahl saw how food opens us to a world of new sensations, new possibilities, new sensations. With every new taste, childlike, we encounter a bit of wonder.

Frozen Homemade Kit-Kat Cake Recipe

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Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

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Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

There’s something about summer that brings out our inner procrastinator: Temperature goes up; productivity goes down. Everyone bemoans the challenge of cooking in the heat, which is why with every July comes a parade of shortcut recipes for no-bake desserts, miscellaneous salad variations, and anything you can conceivably “toss on a grill.” But my general lethargy is not limited to the kitchen. Writing, reading, remaining conscious—it’s all just too hard to find the energy.

To urge myself into usefulness, I’ve been taking a tip from Susan Sontag: making lists. Sontag was a prodigious list-maker—though not necessarily with productivity in mind. Many of her lists are less things to do, and more how to be. They range from the mundane to the profound to the overwhelmingly meta; a list titled “things I like” includes “architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts” and, lastly, “making lists.”

In all these lists, patterns start to emerge: the comings and goings, friends and lovers, haunts and restaurants that make up a life. And for Sontag, one of the most regular of these habits was pizza-eating. In her notebooks, pizza becomes a familiar rhythm, a culinary mantra. “A + David and I go to Frank’s Pizza,” she writes in 1960. One week later: “Dinner at Frank’s (Pizza).” Every so often, she misses a beat: In Cambridge, Sontag notes: “Walked to Central Sq. and gorged myself on passable pizza at Simeone’s ($1.58).” Before long, she’s back to Frank’s.

For Sontag, who rarely cooked (her guests recall meals of canned mushroom soup, slightly warmed), going out for pizza was a preferred form of procrastination, a break from the list-making and essay-writing. Sigrid Nunez, who shared an apartment with Sontag for a year, recalls the writer emerging from her study with a fatigued air: “I can’t do this today. I’m just not in the mood. Why don’t we go out for pizza?” For me, food-as-distraction takes the form of “procrasti-baking.” Case in point: the brownies I made while writing this post.

But, just as often, food serves as the antidote to our idleness, providing the inspiration that impels us to act. It took a slice of pizza for Sontag to realize that her yearlong relationship (with playwright Maria Irene Fornes) was at an end. “It came to me last night (dinner, pizza, Frank’s) that I have lost her. Like a bulletin coming into view in Times Square.” A good meal has a funny way of making even those most difficult decisions a little clearer—and breaking up over pizza has an added benefit: When you’re mourning your loss the next morning, you can console yourself with glorious leftovers, straight from the fridge.

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Pizza Margherita recipePizza Margherita recipe

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Marcel Proust: Quick Croissants with Coffee Glaze

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Marcel Proust - Quick Croissants with Coffee Glaze

You were waiting for this, right? Authors and food equals Proust and madeleines. It’s arguably the most recognizable culinary pairing in literature, and definitely the one I’m asked about the most. (This site was almost named “Proust’s Madeleine,” or something equally pretentious, until the idea was greeted by faux barfing noises from my focus group/boyfriend.) So why hasn’t Marcel appeared here yet?

The thing is: There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that Proust really ate madeleines. Although his vivid memories of the delicate cookies from In Search of Lost Time have become iconic, early versions of the novel actually don’t include madeleines at all. Instead, we see Marcel biting into a humble biscotte – a piece of dry toast. And as Edmund Levin’s meticulous experiments in tea-dunking and crumb-making reveal, Proust’s description of the famous treats doesn’t seem to match up with any known recipe. It’s likely that the madeleines of our imagination were just that: a figment of Proust’s culinary mind.

So what was Proust really eating? He’d be so glad you asked. Before asthma reduced his appetite (and even for an unhealthily long time after), Proust was a notorious glutton, stuffing himself so full that he sometimes resorted to wearing a corset. He blissfully described one of his meals, which included “two tournedos steaks—I ate every scrap—a dish—of chips (about twenty times as much as Félicie used to make), some cream cheese, some gruyère, two croissants, a bottle of Pousset beer.” He summed it up more succinctly in a letter to his mother: “Lunch is my favorite moment.”

But as his illness worsened, his need to write began to subsume his desire to eat, and breakfast became Proust’s meal of choice. Instead of the madeleines and tea we know from his fiction, the real Marcel demanded croissants and cafe au lait, brought to him in bed while he read the paper and began his work. He would dunk his croissant in the coffee (just as his fictional self would mimic with a cup of tea) and ate little else for the rest of the day.

Céleste Albaret, Proust’s trusted servant, later marveled at the writer’s ability to live on so little, after years of hedonistic eating. “The most extraordinary thing was how he could survive and work, ill as he was, … by living on the shadows of foods he’d known and loved in the past.” In the absence of beef and beer, Proust’s writing (and those morning croissants) was all that remained, evoking those tantalizing sense memories of meals gone by—his own personal madeleine moments.

Easy Croissant Recipe with Coffee Glaze

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Jamaica Kincaid: Cheddar-Leek Corn Pudding

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Jamaica Kincaid: Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding

I’ve always been encouraged by late bloomers, since I long harbored the secret, desperate hope I might be one of them. I read Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” in a seventh-grade English class, at an age when I could already feel the potential endings of my own story narrowing down to a handful of plots. Others seemed to have already found their own talents by then: had spent years on the soccer field or in the art studio, drafting a rough outline of their futures. I still remember a classmate telling me I should forget about being a journalist, since I hadn’t written a single article for the school paper yet. For aspiring late bloomers, middle school is the absolute worst.

Cooking seemed like yet another talent you had to discover young to possess. Kincaid’s “Girl” only added to that idea. It’s full of kitchen wisdom, passed down early: “Cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil,” “soak salt fish overnight before you cook it.” Considering the main things I learned about cooking as a kid were 1) knives are sharp and 2) stirring is fun, I didn’t think I had the detailed instructions that made a fledgling chef. But, as it turns out, they worked just fine—even for Jamaica Kincaid herself.

Unlike the character in her story, Kincaid didn’t master the techniques to cook fritters or salt fish. Her job at family dinner time was the same one I had growing up: setting the table, the lamest of all kitchen tasks (besides “making placecards,” the other chore that inevitably got assigned to me). It wasn’t until Kincaid became a mother herself that she started to take an interest in food, first exploring her garden and then returning to the kitchen, this time in a more active role.

“My husband gave me a hoe, a rake, a spade, and some flower seeds,” she writes in My Garden, an entire book detailing her midlife conversion to domesticity. A neighbor taught her “what the new shoots of peonies look like,” she writes: “That was how I came to recognize a maple, but not that its Latin name is Acer; Latin names came later, with resistance.” She discovered Edna Lewis’ seminal cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, and began devouring the recipes, passing on favorites like corn pudding and fried chicken to her own children.

Latin, I’m afraid, isn’t a talent that I’ve also picked up in adulthood. Yet as a relative latecomer to cooking, I’ve realized we have more control over how our stories unfold than we might think. Whenever people tell me they’re “not a chef” or even (perish the thought) “not a reader,” I remember how our talents are interconnected, our abilities and our confidence in them reinforcing one another, until we believe we truly can do anything. “Gardening is a form of reading,” Kincaid writes. “So is actually cooking.”

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Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding Recipe

Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding Recipe

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Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

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Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Note: I’ve never had a guest post on P&S belore, but when Aimee Gasston told me about the unpublished recipes she found in Katherine Mansfield’s papers, I couldn’t wait to have her share one here. Plus, I’ll clearly take any opportunity to trot out my ramekins (I’m a sucker for individual-size desserts). Enjoy, and many thanks to Aimee. 

Another Note: If you’re reading this via Google Reader, there are alternatives to get P&S updates after Reader shuts down tomorrow. Plus, you can always find what’s up on Facebook. Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming. 

It’s lucky that Katherine Mansfield, maybe the key innovator of modernist short fiction, had such a hearty appetite, without which her prose would be far less rich. Virginia Woolf described Mansfield as having the finest senses of her generation – so when I heard about newly discovered food-related material of hers acquired by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, I couldn’t wait to get a look at it.

Plump as a child, Mansfield would be made gaunt by tuberculosis in adulthood, but her hunger for worldly pleasures remained constant throughout her truncated life. Her personal writing is full of daydreams involving food, which she vividly described in letters and journals as she traveled Europe in search of health.

Switzerland was a particular disappointment, as she wrote in a letter to the artist Anne Estelle Rice in 1921: “Curse them. And the FOOD. It’s got no nerves. You know what I mean? It seems to lie down and wait for you; the very steaks are meek.  […]  As to the purée de pommes de terre, you feel inclined to call it ‘uncle.’”

Despite her love of eating, cooking wasn’t the most pressing of Mansfield’s priorities due to her poor health and a fierce dedication to her work. In her excellent biography A Secret Life, Claire Tomalin describes Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry’s juvenile culinary tendencies: “Like children, they lived mostly on the junk food of the day, meat pies and the cheapest possible restaurants; Katherine had no time or wish to cook.”

Instead, Mansfield’s cooking would take place largely on the page. Besides the spirited culinary rhymes that she penned amid her account books (including an unpublished poem called “An Escapade Undertaken by a Green Raspberry and a Kidney Bean”), her short fiction was always embroiled with the messy materiality of life, with prose you cannot only see, hear, touch and smell, but really taste.

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Mansfield Orange Souffle Recipe

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