Thornton Wilder: Nougat Ice Cream

When I got married, my Louisiana native in-laws gave me a new cookbook for my collection: Talk about Good!, a production of the Junior League of Lafayette. The giant spiral-bound tome was a primer on Cajun cooking, bringing together hundreds of recipes passed down by generations of members and their families. Now, when the instructions for any conceivable dish are just a Google search away, community-sourced cookbooks like these are a reminder that finding the perfect recipe wasn’t always so simple—and that good friends were an essential resource in the hunt.

Thornton Wilder had a particularly fruitful recipe resource: his friends Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Toklas’ most enduring cooking legacy may be her recipe for pot brownies (which Wilder called “the publicity stunt of the year”), but she shared many more recipes directly with her friends, well before deciding to publish a book of them

Thornton didn’t cook those recipes himself; that role belonged to his sister Isabel, with whom he lived for much of his life. (Isabel’s responsibilities weren’t limited to cooking. At one particular dinner party, Alice fried chicken and asked Thornton whether he wanted light or dark meat; he turned to Isabel and asked earnestly, “Which is it I prefer?”). But both Wilders loved to eat and were willing recipe-testers for Toklas, hosting her at their Chicago apartment and ordering groceries in.

Even more useful for his friends, Thornton was an international sharer of recipes, serving as go-between for his contacts in Europe and his family and friends in the United States. He brought Isabel recipe books from France (“Isabel was screaming with pleasure over the pastry-dessert book,” he wrote to Stein) and shared Toklas’ recipes with curious acquaintances in the U.S. (“They look mighty elaborate to me; but good,” he editorialized.) Even his lawyer’s wife tried to get in on the action: After receiving a long letter from Wilder, filled with details about dinners with French luminaries like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, his lawyer responded tersely, “Anna is more interested in recipes.”

The Wilders sent recipes to Toklas too, but theirs were more, shall we say, focused: They were all about ice cream. “Alice has just had a charming letter from Isabel and all evening she was crowing over ice cream recipes,” Stein wrote to Thornton. Ice cream was the dessert for the Wilders over the decades: It appears throughout Thornton’s letters, whether as a treat for himself as a student in Italy (“I passed an American soldier … I ran back and spoke to him, inviting him to have an ice-cream with me”) or for his sisters during a hot summer on Long Island (“Passing through Amityville village get Charlotte a half-pint of vanilla ice-cream.”)

Toklas eventually published several of her own ice cream recipes in her famous book, perhaps inspired by those sent by Isabel. The recipes that Stein references in that have not been found; we also don’t have any of Thornton’s reactions to testing Toklas’ ice cream efforts. But we do have the words of Sabina, the dominant presence in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth, whose philosophy I’m officially adopting when it comes to dessert: “My advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.”

Although Toklas presents six ice cream recipes in her book, the nougat flavor stood out to me; made with honey instead of sugar and packed with pistachios and almonds, it’s like nougat candy in frozen form. The toasted nuts also reminded me of a compliment Thornton paid to Gertrude Stein in a letter, calling her “A wonder … a seer … you’re my Toasted ice-cream.” This was a reference to one of Stein’s own poems, but the line’s meaning evolved among this recipe-focused circle of friends, in which comparison to dessert was the highest praise.

Adapted from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • 2 teaspoons orange flower water or Cointreau
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds
  • 1/4 cup raw shelled pistachios
  1. Heat cream and milk in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally so the bottom of the pan doesn’t scorch.
  2. As the mixture comes to a boil, whisk egg yolks in a medium bowl until frothy and lighter in color.
  3. When the milk is just boiling, pour 1/4 of the liquid into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan. Continue whisking constantly over medium-low heat until the mixture has thickened slightly and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
  4. Stir honey and orange flower water into the milk mixture until completely dissolved. Let cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
  5. The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread almonds and pistachios on a baking sheet; toast 5 to 8 minutes, watching carefully, until fragrant but not burned. Set aside to cool completely, then coarsely chop nuts.
  6. Place ice cream base in an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions; when nearly done, add the toasted nuts. (Alternatively, just pour the base into a cold-safe container, stir in the nuts, and pop in the freezer; Toklas’ step says simply, “Freeze.”)

Joan Didion: Crème Caramel

There’s a picture of Joan Didion’s kitchen that found new life on the internet shortly after the writer’s death in December 2021. It’s from a shoot for Vogue in her Malibu kitchen—hanging wire mesh baskets of produce, bountiful in their easy availability, but meticulously sorted into groups: onions, potatoes, apples, oranges. The yellow light and painted ceramic herb planters give the whole scene a distinctly California quality, one with which Didion would become inextricably linked. It’s a snapshot that’s already slightly nostalgic as it’s taken, “a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it” as Didion would say of her state’s changing landscape.

The photo could be seen as a predecessor of the popular social media fridge shot, where every meticulously organized crisper drawer is #fridgegoals and every labeled, color-coded tupperware suggests that no food is actually prepared here. But Didion’s kitchen wasn’t just for show. “She cooked nonstop,” said Eve Babitz, quoted in Tracy Daugherty’s Didion biography, The Last Love Song. Dinner parties, held at her and her husband’s house on Franklin Avenue in L.A., were legendary, complete with Spode china and placecards on the table. The guest lists could number in the hundreds, with Patti Smith or Janis Joplin turning up for Beef Wellington, made for a crowd.

The idea of cooking at this scale might make many of us blanch (or, at the very least, order in), but it was second nature to Didion. “She could make dinner for forty people with one hand tied around her back while everybody else was passed out on the floor,” Babitz said. Many of her recipes, released in a bonus cookbook for the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, were scaled to fit the occasion. Her recipe for parsley salad, serving 35 to 40 guests, was not an aspiration, but a necessity.

But as Didion’s California changed over the decades, her cooking did too. As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved away from the Sunset Strip to Malibu. And although there was still the occasional dinner party, food became less of an event and more of a daily practice, a routine. “After I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life,” Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking. “Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel … These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then.”

These routines became part of the Didion we would come to know through her work. Each day started with an ice-cold Coke before sitting down to write. In Blue Nights, we learn the process of packing school lunches for her daughter, Quintana Roo, an activity where no detail was spared. (Lunchboxes prepared by Didion included mini salt and pepper shakers for her homemade fried chicken.) And in Magical Thinking, after Donne’s death, we learn how Didion leans further on these food rituals in grief, eating only congee for days on end.

Daugherty notes that in one of Didion’s favorite books, Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi sees this as cooking’s essential role: “To cook, or fix some kind of food, is not preparation … It is practice. … Work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook.” These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Cooking for Didion could be a public performance, but it was a private devotion too. The photos we see of towering croquembouches or epic Thanksgiving spreads on social media might be the image of cooking we’re most familiar with lately: the food of entertainment, or the food of celebration. But Didion helps us remember that it’s the cooking of the everyday that supports us, that heals us, and finally helps us become ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion reminisces about the early Malibu years, when she and Dunne and nearby friends would visit each other’s houses for dinner, swapping recipes and dreaming about opening their own restaurant. These weren’t the heady, salad-for-forty days of Franklin Avenue; they were a middle ground between performance and practice. When Katharine Ross contributed some vanilla bean, brought from her travels, “we did crème caramel with the vanilla for a while but nobody liked to caramelize the sugar.”

A recipe for crème caramel, maybe the one that resulted from this series of experiments, made it into the bundle shared by Didion’s nephew. It’s a wonderful one for refining your own cooking ritual since, as Didion notes, the sugar is tricky to get right—but the result of your practice is its own reward.

Adapted from Joan Didion’s crème caramel recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 vanilla bean
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water, stirring just until sugar is dissolved. Heat without stirring until the sugar has turned a deep golden brown, swirling the pan as needed if one spot becomes too dark. Remove from heat and immediately divide caramel among four 6-ounce ramekins, swirling each ramekin slightly to coat evenly.
  3. Beat eggs, egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a heat-proof medium bowl. Set aside.
  4. Bring a kettle of water to boil.
  5. Heat milk and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat. When just simmering, remove the vanilla bean and slowly stream the milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
  6. Pour the egg mixture over the caramel in the ramekins. Place ramekins in a baking dish and transfer to the oven; pour the boiling water into the baking dish, until it hits about halfway up the ramekin, being careful not to splash it into the ramekins.
  7. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until the custard is just set and jiggles but doesn’t ripple. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 12 hours, up to 2 days.
  8. Run a knife around the edge of each ramekin and quickly invert onto a plate to unmold.

William Makepeace Thackeray: Beef Jalfrezi

Thackeray

Nearly every writing class I’ve ever taken has, at some point, trotted out the same piece of age-old wisdom: the classic know your audience. Writing comedy? Know your audience. Writing marketing copy? Know your audience. Writing a blog? Know your audience (luckily, you probably already do, since it’s mostly just your best friend and your mom at first).

You don’t hear that advice as often when learning to cook, but I find it even more important in the kitchen. How much salt should I add? Know your audience. Making a vegetarian main course? Know your audience. Serving a snack that’s basically just aerosolized peanut dust? Know your audience, or that friend with the allergies will never come over to your house again.

One of the best literary examples of a host who willfully neglects this piece of advice is in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel Vanity Fair, when Joseph Sedley gleefully encourages Becky Sharp to try her first curry, knowing she can’t take the heat:

“Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper.

“Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested.

“A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.

Most of us prefer not to torture our dinner guests, but it’s no wonder that Thackeray plays this for laughs: He probably did something similar himself. Born in Calcutta, where his father worked in the Board of Revenue for the British East India Company, Thackeray developed a high tolerance for spice. Although he returned to England when he was five, he retained his love of Indian food. He even wrote a poem, “Kitchen Melodies–Curry,” documenting the British way of preparing it:

THREE pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly halfapound,
And stews them in a pan until theyre brownd.
Whats next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With currypowder, tablespoonsfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for halfanhour,
A lemons ready juice shell oer it pour;
Then, bless herthen she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boiland serves quite hot.
P.S.—Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish;
        Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish
        Are fit to make A Curry. ’Tis, when done,
        A dish for Emperors to feed upon. 

Whether or not Thackeray tried to turn up the heat on his guests, he certainly did test their limits in other ways–particularly their stomach capacity. He was an over-the-top dinner party host, serving dishes like roast suckling pig, turtle and venison; one gathering featured 17 courses, including “about 24 cakes of different kinds.” He was also an over-the-top guest. In a letter, he described his typical routine: “I reel from dinner party to dinner party–I wallow in turtle and swim in claret and Shampang.”

But although Thackeray’s taste buds adapted to his chili pepper habit, his digestive system didn’t. When he was only in his forties, he suffered from recurring painful stomach troubles; his medical records cited “extreme dietary indiscretions” as the primary cause, mostly linked to alcohol and–yes–spicy foods. One night, after returning home from yet another dinner party, he had a vomiting attack so violent, he burst a blood vessel in his brain. At 52, his indulgence was the end of him.

From his letters, it’s clear Thackeray knew his tastes were the cause of his troubles.”In London & everything else there has been a little too much feasting,” he writes. “Can’t I, for heaven’s sake, be moderate?” It’s a question he answered a little too late. It’s one thing to know your audience. But when it comes to eating, perhaps it’s more important to  heed another piece of classic advice: know thyself … and know thy limits.

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Philip Roth: Soupe au Pistou

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I didn’t mean for this to become obituary blog; I’ve actually had this post on the back burner for several months, long before learning of Philip Roth’s death last week. I also didn’t mean to make “back burner” into a cooking pun but it’s also unusually opportune. Like soup simmering on a Sunday afternoon, these thoughts needed those months to percolate, to become more than the sum of its parts. It took these memorial days, reading others’ recent memories of Roth, to feel ready to serve up my own (although, like soup, it’s hard to declare writing “done” – it always promises to be better the next day).

Well before I picked up one of Roth’s novels, I had heard about them. I heard they were provocative; I heard they were disgusting. I heard they were brilliant; I heard they were misogynist. The opinions were so divided that I never got around to reading one of his books until after college, when I heard that Roth was retiring. Then I knew there was at least one thing that both of us could agree on: that writing is agonizingly, torturously hard.

“Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time,” Roth remarked to the New York Times when he retired in 2012. Before then, he was prolific, coming out with nearly a book a year. But for someone who spent so much of his former life writing, in retirement Roth didn’t seem to miss the process a bit. He entertained in his Connecticut house, he went to movies, he hosted parties, while on his disused computer on the Upper West Side a Post-it read, “The struggle with writing is over.”

So why enter into that struggle in the first place? Is it to delve into our own thoughts, to better understand ourselves? By most accounts, Roth did that well. His narrators are made in his image (white men, Jewish, usually from New Jersey), sharing even their most uncomfortable thoughts. To enter that particular struggle, you need to be comfortable spending lots of time with yourself, or at least have the willingness to untangle all the mysteries you contain. “The audience I’m writing for is me,” Roth admitted, “and I’m so busy trying to figure the damn thing out.”

While he was trying, Roth did not cook. He relied on others to do it for him: first mother, then his wife, then a private chef. And like Roth’s writing, his preferred dishes focused on the familiar. His favorite meal was soupe au pistou and, like their creator, his narrators turned to similar comfort foods: cabbage soup, matzoh-ball soup, cream of mushroom. Soup was a salve for Roth, providing a sense of continuity that stretched back to childhood. “During a winter snowstorm what is more thrilling, while stamping off the slush on the back landing at lunchtime, than … to smell cream of tomato soup heating up on the stove?” remarks the titular anti-hero of Portnoy’s Complaint. Soup is the safety that comes from sameness.

But there’s another reason we write, and read: to move beyond ourselves and discover the unfamiliar, to touch the unknown. And that’s where Roth leaves me cold. As another writer put it this week, Roth’s novels aren’t curious about the inner worlds of anyone outside his intended audience: himself. “Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.”

We’ll all gravitate toward warm soup on a cold afternoon, relishing the feeling of familiarity that comes with comfort food. Writing about ourselves is like trying to recreate one of those old recipes, to grasp for a taste of our past to better understand our tangled present. But when we reach for the unknown ingredient, the untested recipe, we force ourselves to move beyond our own experience, and identify with others—and in the process, learn more about ourselves than we ever did alone.

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin – Soft-Boiled Eggs

Ursula K Le Guin Egg

There are two dueling schools of thought when it comes to great cooking. One says it’s all about ingredients; the other says it just boils down to technique. But in my experience, neither is wholly correct. To be a great cook, you must have time. Time determines how beef falls off the bone, or whether a soufflé stays aloft. Time usually decides whether we cook at all: if we don’t have enough of it, we’ll skip the process altogether and get takeout.

In No Time to Spare, published shortly before her death last week, Ursula K. Le Guin reflects on all the things that compete for our limited time. Her hours are “fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading … with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen … None of this is spare time,” she writes. “I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.”

Le Guin was a master of time, especially at manipulating it. Her novels can collapse centuries into a single point, like a dying star. Her 1985 novel Always Coming Home involves a future society that closely resembles the past, with lessons for the present: three timelines in one. Perhaps her most well-known novel, The Wizard of Earthsea, switches between the future and past so often, you’re never quite sure what time it is. Reading Le Guin isn’t always easy. It’s not meant to be.

So leave it to Le Guin to take something that we rush through as quickly as possible—breakfast—and turn it into a meditation, a ritual unstuck in time. Rather than grabbing a coffee and a KIND bar, Le Guin settled in every morning for what she called “a Viennese cafe breakfast”: berries, tea, toasted English muffins (She couldn’t get “those lovely, light, crispy European rolls” in Portland) and, critically, a soft-boiled egg in the shell.

The soft-boiled egg was the crux of this breakfast ceremony. There were rules for everything from which way to position the egg in the cup (“I’m a Big-Ender”) to how to remove the circle of shell with the knife (multiple taps versus one whack). “This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it,” Le Guin wrote, noting, “It makes just as much sense as most wars.” (In Gulliver’s Travels, there was, in fact, a war about soft-boiled egg etiquette, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented.)

My default egg preparation is the quick-and-easy scramble, so my husband watched, fascinated, as I performed the ceremony one morning, delicately placing Ursula’s three-and-a-half-minute egg on its own little pedestal. “Who thought breakfast could be so hard?” he laughed. But that, Le Guin says, is precisely the point. “If you crack a soft-boiled egg and dump it out into a bowl, it tastes the same but it isn’t the same. It’s too easy. It’s dull,” Le Guin writes. “The point of a soft-boiled egg is the difficulty of eating it.”

When we talk about cooking these days, the conversation is dominated by convenience: the 30-minute-meal, the to-go cup. It’s to be done as quickly as possible, so that we can all have more of that elusive “spare time.” But in cooking an egg, Le Guin shows us the beauty of difficult things: the things we do not to survive, not because we must, but because we’re challengingly, gloriously alive.

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Margaret Atwood: Chocolate Chip Wheat Germ Muffins

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My apartment contains a painful secret. It sits on the shelf right above the stove. At first glance, you’d probably never notice—if you did, you might even make an admiring comment, not knowing the personal shame it carries. These are the cookbooks I’ve collected over the course of 10 years, from the one I got after college (Slow Cooker Revolution) to the one I got last week (Green Kitchen Stories). And even though they seem beautiful, with their full-bleed photos and heavy matte pages, my mortification builds as the stack grows. Because I almost never cook from them.

Every time I buy a new cookbook (and I do, of course, despite everything), I ask myself why this shelf remains largely untouched. I love entertaining, so why am I not a person who hosts Ottolenghi-inspired dinner parties? I eat dozens of macarons, so why have I never made a recipe from the book dedicated exclusively to crafting their tiny, perfect forms?

When I first started acquiring cookbooks, their order and authoritative tone were comforting; finally, someone to tell me how to make a sauce! But, taken in regular doses over months, then years, those rules become constricting. Just look at Margaret Atwood’s fiction. In The Handmaid’s Tale, cooking is a job for the Martha’s, synonymous with subjugation. In Atwood’s short story The Art of Cooking and Serving, cookbooks are called out specifically as a source of this control. A cookbook author imparts “strict ideas on the proper conduct of life. She had rules, she imposed order. Hot foods must be served hot, cold foods cold. … It just has to be done.”

So imagine my surprise when I learned that Atwood herself had once assumed that same role. When I found a secondhand copy of The CanLit Foodbook and saw her name on the cover, I bought it immediately. (Another one for the shelf.) I had to know: How would someone who based a career on breaking rules fare as culinary dictator?

The answer was immediately revealed in Atwood’s introduction to the book. “I’m one of those people who read cookbooks the way other people read travel writing,” she writes. “I may not ever make the recipe, but it’s fun to read about it, and speculate on what kind of people would.” She goes on to present her “recipe” collection: submissions from Canadian authors that range from poetry to meditations to more the more traditional instructions we’d expect from a cookbook … loosely defined. (Michael Ondaatje’s recipe is for grapefruit. It has one ingredient.)

As I paged through the book, I realized how Atwood approached cookbooks: like a novel, not a manual. Without any sense of obligation or expectation, cookbooks were an exercise in imagination, in becoming. Revisiting my cookbooks shelf with this perspective, I realized the opportunity to encounter not who I should be but who I could be: the one who hosts the dinner party, the one who eats her homemade macarons in bed. In learning to read a cookbook like a novel, the Atwood way, I discovered worlds where I’m free to be not-myself. And isn’t that why we read in the first place?

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Charlotte & Emily Brontë: Apple Cake

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One of the sobering realizations about marriage is that I now have a roommate for life. And with any roommate comes a critical question: How do we divide up all these chores?

Who does the dishes? Who takes out the trash? Can I eat those leftovers in the fridge? In previous roommate relationships, I tried a variety of strategies: The chore chart (organized, fairly unsuccessful). The  passive-aggressive note (disorganized, very unsuccessful). The ignore-everything-until-absolutely-necessary method (disorganized, but kind of successful if you don’t mind stepping over the piles of trash). 

Clearly I needed a more sustainable strategy with my new roommate-for-life. So I looked to another family-turned-roommate duo: Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

The Brontës grew up in Haworth, a small town on the edge of the Moors. Although they both ventured out on their own on short-lived posts as governesses, they eventually both returned to become housemates again. While there, they worked out a division of labor that lasted for the rest of their lives. 

Charlotte laid it all out in a 1839 letter to a friend. “I manage the ironing and keep the rooms clean,” she said. “Emily does the baking and attends to the kitchen.” This arrangement seemed to play to both of their strengths—or rather, to the least of Charlotte’s weaknesses. “I won’t be a cook; I hate cooking. I won’t be a nursemaid or a lady’s maid, far less a lady’s company … I won’t be anything but a housemaid.” Frankly, even her housemaid-ing talent seems questionable. “I excited aunt’s wrath very much by burning the clothes the first time I attempted to iron; but I do better now,” she wrote.

On the other hand, Emily’s skill at baking was known throughout Haworth; the town stationer, John Greenwood, said she could often be found “in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand.” In 1843, when the family maid broke her leg, Emily took over the rest of the cooking too, with beef and potatoes as mealtime staples. (Charlotte was known to pitch in for potato-peeling.)

So are you a Charlotte or an Emily? It shouldn’t be surprising how our household divvied up the tasks. I cook; he cleans. And being the cook has a notable benefit, particularly for Emily. It takes time—and that time can usually be spent with a book. “Books were, indeed, a very common sight in [the Brontë] kitchen,” Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of the sisters in her 1857 biography. “In their careful employment of time, they found many an odd five minutes for reading while watching the cakes.”

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Herman Melville: Quick Pickled Tomatoes

Herman Melville

Part of living in New York is missing the city you never knew. When I first moved to the Lower East Side, shadows of the city’s past were all around me, from the ghostly remains of advertisements painted on the brick sides of faded buildings to my own apartment, a former tenement that crammed a new stainless steel fridge and fresh tile into its centuries-old 300-square-foot blueprint. My favorite traces of that bygone city were right next door on Essex Street, formerly known as Pickle Alley.

There used to be 80 pickle vendors on Essex; when I moved to the neighborhood, three remained (as of this writing, there’s only one). I stopped by most weekends to scour the barrels of sours and half-sours, tomatoes and olives, things I didn’t even know could be pickled (mangoes?). It was hard not to wax nostalgic about this lost New York, when pickles weren’t just the postscript to a sandwich but stood on their own, a course unto themselves.

Born in 1819 in Manhattan, Herman Melville grew up in this Golden Age of pickles. His father was a wealthy merchant who lived on the “fashionable side” of Broadway; his mother threw fabulous parties where she served platters of pickled oysters—the very same, she bragged, as the ones “some of our Stylish Neighbors in Bond Street gave.”

Of course, pickling existed for more practical reasons than party snacks: Before refrigeration, it was a primary method of preservation. When his father died, leaving the family in debt, the 20-year-old Melville joined a series of merchant vessels and encountered pickles in a less luxurious format: as rations. His autobiographical novels detail the meals on board, full of “boiled potatoes, eggs by the score, bread, and pickle.” His memories of pickle barrels are less fond than my reminiscences of Essex Street; the brine aboard ship was used to pickle anything and everything. Rumor had it that a galley cook had once fished out a horses’ hoof, with the shoe still attached.

After Melville returned to New York, it wasn’t long before he experienced his own historical FOMO. Nostalgic for the childhood days he spent on his uncle’s farm, he and his wife, Lizzy, bought 160 acres in the Berkshires to start a farm of their own, named Arrowhead. The Melvilles grew apples, corn, potatoes, eggplants and “his favorite tomatoes,” according to his sister Helen.

But the writer’s idealized view of farming didn’t prepare him for its harsh realities. The buildings leaked, his plantings were infested with worms, and the difficult work left little time for writing. Everyone seemed to have advice to give, including his mother. “Rocborn advertises asparagus roots,” she wrote. ” I would advise you to authorize me to purchase five bundles at least, it would be a good investment, give you a healthy vegetable for the table, & as the roots extend year after year … it is our earliest vegetable & one of the best & healthiest.” Thanks, Mom.

In 1863, the Melvilles gave up the farming life and sold Arrowhead to Herman’s brother Allan, who was much more suited to the task. Allan’s wife prepared for the move by ordering new crops, things that could be easily preserved for the harsh winter, including three dozen tomato plants. “Lots of material for pickle she will have,” remarked Lizzy. But Melville’s stay at Arrowhead wasn’t a total loss, since he produced something even more enduring than pickles there: Moby-Dick. 

Our efforts to revive the past are usually futile. The idyll of farm life may be a fiction; the glory days of Essex Street will likely never return. But if you open a pint of pickled tomatoes, you might be able to accomplish it, living the forgotten days of late summer, just for a single bite.

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Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas: Summer Champagne Fruit Salad

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My grandmother doesn’t eat cheese. If this seems like an incredible statement, prepare to be amazed: She also declines tomatoes, fresh herbs (?!), onions, garlic, and any “strong flavors.” It’s not that she’s allergic or intolerant; she just does not like these things. As someone who could live on pizza, in all its cheesy, saucy glory, I regularly puzzle over how these preferences came to be. Is it her German heritage? Was it a family tradition? Who determines what we eat?

Our tastes are being manipulated all the time: by our culture, which indoctrinates us; by our food systems, which dictate what’s available to us; by trends, which tell us that quinoa is in and rice is out. Most commonly, though, our tastes are formed by whoever is cooking for us. In Gertrude Stein’s household, that person was Alice B. Toklas.

“[Toklas] was a critic and connoisseur, more interested in preparing food, tasting it and passing comment on it, than in consuming it. … Stein’s appetite, by comparison, was prodigious,” writes Diana Souhami in her introduction to The Alice B. Toklas CookbookAlice cooked; Gertrude ate. “Alice is going religiously through all the cakes in the Austrian cook-book and then I have solemnly to decide the good and bad quality of the new one,” Stein wrote to Thornton Wilder, bravely taking on what must have been a punishing task.

But even as the official cake-tester, Stein had very little say in what got made. The daily menu was dictated by Toklas’ culinary experiments, and that meant French cuisine reigned supreme. “All of our French friends who had been in America had always said that the eating was inedible,” Stein wrote, and Alice had become similarly convinced. “[The French] bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts,” she wrote in her cookbook. (Toklas did, however, have a fondness for American gadgets, especially the Sunbeam Mixmaster, one of the earliest mass-produced electric mixers. “Alice all smiles and murmurs in her dreams, Mix master,” Stein wrote.)

The overwhelming influence of French food could have shaped Stein’s and Toklas’ our tastes for a lifetime … and very nearly did. When Stein embarked on an American tour in 1934, the first time in her native country in 30 years, Toklas (always Stein’s traveling companion) worried about the Americanness of the food; she even had a friend send a hotel menu in advance, to make sure there was something she could eat on the trip. But unlike my grandmother, the trip to the U.S. sparked Toklas’ re-appreciation of what was now a “foreign” cuisine. “The variety of dishes was a pleasant surprise. … Consolingly, there were honey-dew melons, soft-shell crabs and prime roasts of beef.” Stein was even more enthusiastic: she ordered the honeydew twice a day, every day.

There are only a few non-Frenchified recipes in Toklas’ cookbook, including the “haschich fudge” recipe from a friend that’s now her best-known creation. But there’s also a tribute to that melon, the ingredient that helped Toklas rediscover the American table. Much like the books we read, limiting our diet to the familiar can narrow our tastes, and our perspectives. But when we expand our consumption, we gain a capacity to appreciate difference in the world around us. Stein said it simply: “Books and food, food and books, both excellent things.”

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Umberto Eco: Bagna Cauda

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I’m not good at talking to strangers. I don’t have the natural ability to turn to someone and turn on the charm; my main strategy for small talk is simply asking lots of questions. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of “favorites”: What’s your favorite restaurant around here? What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend? Your kids are adorable; which one’s your favorite? (That last one might need some workshopping.)

Naturally, I have a lot of questions stored up about food favorites: what dish you’d pick for your last supper or what ingredient you’d choose if you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life. It’s tempting to twist the answers into a metaphor for the people themselves, to assume that the person who picks a hamburger for a last meal is categorically different from the person who wants oysters and caviar. That’s why I was so struck by this Q&A with Umberto Eco from 2011.

Q: What’s your favorite comfort food? A: Pizza.

What did it mean? I wondered. Was Eco, despite his professorial vibe, actually a down-to-earth guy who liked to kick back with a beer and a greasy slice on Friday night? Was it a political choice, a pre-meditated hat-tip to the tastes of the common man? Or was it just because he was Italian?

Based on the available records, Eco did eat a lot of pizza. He was spotted eating slices in a cab in New Haven. He ordered a calzone before an interview with The Paris Review. He did caution against serving pizza on international flights, because of our natural propensity as humans to get sauce stains on our clothes, but “given a choice between eating a pizza a few doors down the street and taking a taxi to go discover a new trattoria … I choose the pizza,” he wrote.

But was pizza Eco’s “favorite” food … or is it just the easiest to come by? If we’re going by frequency of consumption, my favorite food would be yogurt, but if anyone said that to me, I would assume he was essentially bland and slightly sour. For Eco, pizza wasn’t a revelation. It was a convenience. The food worth taking a taxi for was bagna cauda. 

Eco was born in Piedmont, in northern Italy, where bagna cauda is not a dish, but the basis for an entire day’s worth of eating. At the Ecos’, “the meal began at noon and ended at five in the afternoon and everything, except the coffee, was based on garlic.” The star of the event is the dip, made from an anchovy and garlic paste, which is eaten with everything from vegetables to chunks of bread. Eco would bring friends back to Piedmont just to participate. “A ritual like that bagna cauda that brought back magical moments of my childhood,” he wrote.

Why do we label things “favorites”? Often out of familiarity, or the need to have a pat talking point at a party or in a rapid-fire Q&A. But often the foods that are closest to our heart can’t be contained in a few words. “I went looking for food not simply to satisfy my palate, but to experience a certain kind of culture; not only to savor a taste, but to experience enlightenment, or a flash of recollection,” Eco wrote. He used food to reveal bottomless internal worlds in his fiction too. “You have to let the reader eat,” he wrote, “in order to make him understand how the characters think.”

In 2009, I was staying on the outskirts of a tiny town on the border of Poland and Germany. The closest bar was a 30-minute walk away through a field of dry grass, where they served beer mixed with Coke and called it a “diesel.” I had been traveling for two months and was reaching peak homesickness (a feeling that’s only amplified by ordering a beer and getting a diesel instead).

When I got back to my hostel, a package was waiting for me postmarked from New York, which seemed to take everyone by surprise given the remoteness, the dry-grass field, etc. Inside was a bag of Smooth & Melty Nonpareils (my typical pick from the bulk candy store near my old apartment), and an index card with a quote from Umberto Eco:

I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.

It was exactly the reminder of home I needed: a declaration of love, and my (now) favorite candy, one that still makes me think of travel, Umberto Eco, and that feeling you have in the first months of falling in love.

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