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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Gustave Flaubert and George Sand: Potato and Gruyère Galette

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When asked “What famous writer would you invite to a dinner party?” famous wits like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain definitely come to mind. But even the fictional dinner cast of my dreams pales in comparison to a real-life guest list: George Sand’s house parties in Nohant, France, in the 1860s and 70s. Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin were a few of the mouths at Sand’s table. But one of her favorite guests was not only another giant of the arts, but her de facto gym buddy: Gustave Flaubert.

Although Sand loved to cook, she found herself with regular digestive problems, and kept trying different eating regimens in an attempt to find what would make her feel her best—an “elimination diet,” before they were cool. This included cutting out red meat, and occasionally trying vegetarianism. “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach,” she wrote Flaubert. Her approach to cutting out alcohol was more moderate: “I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.”

Flaubert followed his friend’s lead; after all, a diet’s always easier when someone else is suffering with you. Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert’s protege, observed, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate … finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Flaubert and Sand would collaborate on their meal planning through their correspondence, sharing tips with each other. “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee,” Sand wrote.

Not only did the two writers share diet strategies, they also encouraged each others’ fitness habits. “I have followed your counsel, dear master, I have EXERCISED!!! Am I not splendid; eh?” Flaubert bragged in a letter to Sand—the 19th-century equivalent of posting your daily step count on Fitbit.

Despite living 300 kilometers apart, Flaubert and Sand would visit each others’ cities specifically to eat together. “I shall make a great effort and shall leave at eight o’clock Sunday, so as to lunch with you,” Sand would write. “When you arrive in Paris, give me a rendezvous. And at that we shall make another to dine informally tete-a-tete,” Flaubert encouraged.

“I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. … What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”The best thing about getting healthy with friends is that, even if your weight never budges, you’ve still spent many hours sharing meals with someone you love.

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Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)

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Henrick Ibsen - Honey-cake

Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns, and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.

Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of Norwegian constitution, bonfires of St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.”

As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, besides Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30, and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jaeger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.

Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jaeger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”

Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20pm to 2pm, and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Cafe. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.

This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Cafe closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his cafe chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Cafe, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.

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Ibsen Honeycake Recipe

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Laura Ingalls Wilder: Gingerbread Cake with Chocolate Icing

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Wilder Gingerbread Cupcakes

There’s an old story in my family, one of those anecdotes that gets told to every dinner guest, about a Thanksgiving 25 years ago. A sleepy three-year-old me burst into tears in front of my dessert plate. When asked what was wrong, I sobbed: “I can’t decided whether to eat my pie or my ice cream first.”

I don’t cry about it anymore, but the weight of dessert decisions still bears heavy on my mind, especially when faced with the cornucopia of the holidays. It’s a feeling that might sound familiar to Almanzo in Farmer Boythe second installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. “When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.” Do you eat your pumpkin pie or your custard pie first? It’s an impossible question.

My mom read the Little House series to me until I was old enough to dive into them myself, and (as many have noted) the food scenes still stand out—for good reason. Wilder was writing from her experience as a seasoned cook on her own farm, the basis for her books. “All the work of the farm centers in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen,” she wrote in an early column for The Missouri Ruralist, essays that germinated the idea for the children’s series. “[It] must be more than merely a kitchen. It is the place where house and barn meet, often in pitched battle.”

Wilder’s kitchen was a flurry of activity: “I skim milk, make butter, and cook bran mashes for the chickens and potato pairings for the hogs in mine,” she wrote. It also had to accommodate a variety of non-cooking uses. When re-doing the kitchen, her plans included storage for chicken feed buckets and pigs’ swill. The entire budget for her kitchen renovation? $49.84. HGTV would have a heart attack.

On the farm, multiple dessert options wasn’t a problem—it was a necessity, in order to make it through a physically-demanding workday. Rose, Laura’s daughter, described her father’s typical breakfast: “Here are bowls of oatmeal, with whole pints of cream, large dishes of baked apples, the big blue platter full of sizzling ham, with many eggs disposed upon it; here are hot cakes piled by the tens and dozens, with melting butter and brown sugar between them, and hashed brown potatoes, Graham bread and white bread, fresh butter, honey, jam, milk and the steaming pot of coffee. Here are doughnuts or gingerbread to accompany the coffee cups’ second filling.”

One way to solve the problem of what to have for dessert is simply to have it at all times of day;on the prairie, instead of being seen as a sweet, gingerbread served year-round alongside the main meal, like a side of cornbread, as an aid to digestion. But Almonzo Wilder went a step further, embracing the idea of dessert for breakfast with “just one medium-size wedge of apple pie to top off the meal and finish the foundation for a good day’s work.” At this time of year, we’re all Farmer Boys at heart; when we begin to eat pie, there’s no stopping us.

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Jack Kerouac: Crêpes Suzette

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Jack Kerouac Crepes Suzette Recipe

When was the last time you memorized a phone number? It’s been years since I learned a new one—just as I haven’t made much of an effort to brush up on multiplication tables, important historical dates, or birthdays (sorry, friends). But despite relying on my phone/the internet/Facebook for the bulk of my knowledge, I still memorize recipes. Having few great dishes tucked away in the back of your mind is, to me, far more useful than remembering how many pounds are in a kilo. These are the meals that come through in a pinch: the pasta that can save any failed dinner party, or that soup that you swear can cure a friend’s post-breakup broken heart.

Because they’re often so simple, our back-pocket dishes don’t get a lot of attention. A lot has been written about Kerouac and apple pie for instance—the bulk of it by Kerouac himself in the semi-autobiographical On the Road. “That’s practically all I ate all the way across the country … I knew it was nutritious.” But when it was his turn to cook, you wouldn’t see Kerouac rolling out a pie crust. Instead, he fell back on an old family favorite: crêpes.

While he might seem like an author as American as, well, apple pie, Kerouac was raised in a French-Canadian family; he was more comfortable speaking French than English up until high school. He was also more comfortable eating French, delighting in his mother’s Breton specialties. Kerouac later bragged about his mother’s signature French-American cooking, decadent even during the Depression: “crêpes with maple syrup, sausage and chocolate milk; pork meatball stew with onions, carrots and potatoes.”

These were the dishes that Kerouac filed away in his mental recipe box, to draw upon upon when the situation called for a homemade meal. And what better situation than a sexy one? “Dark Eyes came to my house tonight,” Kerouac wrote in a 1947 diary entry. “We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. … I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.” A writer who cooks dinner and watches the royal wedding? I’m melting over here.

Kerouac used food to impress the ladies, but he also knew its healing potential. One of the founding members of the Beat movement, Helen Hinkle, remembers a fight breaking out between Neal Cassidy and William Burroughs. “Jack busied himself, started immediately to fill the vacuum … He asked to make crêpes suzettes. He had a recipe. Nothing was happening to he had to start saying something. he said, ‘Do you have flour and eggs?’.'” Clearly, Kerouac recognized the value of those back-pocket recipes. You never know when you’ll need to diffuse tension … through the power of French cooking.

Crepes Suzette recipe

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Patricia Highsmith: Peanut Butter Granola

Patricia Highsmith - Peanut Butter Granola

If you’ve ever had a roommate, and especially if that roommate happens to be your significant other, you’ve undoubtedly had to come to terms with your SBB: secret single behavior. (Sure, it’s an old Sex and the City reference, but stay with me for a moment.) Your SBB are all the things you do when no one is around, like watching The Bachelor or drinking wine from a plastic novelty baseball cup. When my boyfriend (now fiancé!) moved in, I knew I couldn’t hide the truth for long. Eventually, he was going to see what I really eat.

“There is an ever more acute difference … between my inner self which I know is the real me, and the various faces of the outside world,” Patricia Highsmith wrote in 1947. To those meeting her for the first time, Highsmith was a classic 30-under-30 success story: a Barnard graduate whose first novel, Strangers on a Train, was immediately adapted into the iconic Hitchcock film upon publication. She was fluent in several languages, and traveled to pied-à-terres in London and Paris. But Highsmith’s pedigree belied some serious secret single behavior of her own … especially where food was concerned.

Although her family moved to New York when she was 12, Highsmith’s culinary tastes stayed rooted in her Fort Worth, Texas childhood. “Her favourite food was the traditional cooking of the South—cornbread, collard greens, spare ribs, black-eyed peas and peanut butter,” Andrew Wilson writes in his biography, Beautiful Shadow. She ate breakfast at all times of the day, preferring cereal to any three-course meal.

But when friends would visit, Highsmith played the part of the consummate hostess, preparing complicated dishes for her guests rather than serving Cheerios. It didn’t always go well. One evening, Highsmith served up a roast beef that she left “two hours too long in the oven,” leaving her visitors to chew on the leathery result. Another friend recalled opening the fridge in Highsmith’s Paris apartment to grab a snack: “All there was was peanut butter and vodka.”

Highsmith never tried harder to mask her secret single behavior than when she was cooking for her lovers, like the Parisian Monique Buffet. “Every time Monique visited Moncourt, Pat made a côte de bœuf or a lapin and a salad … although she wouldn’t eat a bite herself.”

But you can only conceal your secret self for so long; when she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in 1993, Highsmith finally let her secret out. “She would carry jars of peanut butter around in her handbag, as that’s all she could eat,” Wilson tells us. Breakfast, her favorite meal of the day, became the only one she ate. Like Tom Ripley, one of Highsmith’s most famous creations, discovers, keeping our single behavior secret is exhausting; it quickly becomes a burden. Sharing it is scary but when you’re no longer alone, the load feels that much lighter.highsmith2

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John Keats: Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Dressing

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John Keats - Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Cream

Although many of John Keats’ most famous poems—Hyperion, Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes—include descriptions of lavish meals and crave-worthy feasts, the man who penned them is better known for eating nothing at all. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 24, Keats was prescribed a meager diet of bread, milk and anchovies; “the chief part of his disease,” his doctor wrote, “seems seated in his stomach.”

It was an especially grim sentence for a man who, only two years before, had an appetite that might kindly described as healthy, verging on hedonistic. “I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me,” Keats wrote in a letter from 1818, before he had taken ill. “I take a whole string of Pork sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s gingers.” Roast beef was a particular favorite; he once praised a dinner host for “carv[ing] some beef exactly to suit my appetite, as if I had been measured for it.”

Keats’ letters preserve his contributions to literary history, but they also contain a surprising moment in culinary history: one of the first mentions of a roast beef sandwich in print. On a walking tour of the U.K. in 1818, Keats worked up such a hunger that he fantasized about food. “[I] long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfry … and give me—a dozen or two capital roast-beef Sandwiches,” he wrote—perhaps the only Romantic poet to privilege lunch over lust.

While the first appearance of sandwiches in print dates back to 1762, they were often made with ham; it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that roast beef sandwiches were popular enough to be referenced by cookbooks. By the turn of the century, the dish had firmly established its place in the lunchtime pantheon; Keats’ fantasy meal was well ahead of its time.

By the end of his life, however, roast beef was be exactly that: a fantasy. “The distended stomach keeps him in perpetual hunger or craving,” observed Keats’ Joseph Severn, who was tasked with monitoring the poet’s food intake. Severn himself was not so deprived. Imagine Keats’ agony if he could hear what his friend was eating just steps away: “I have 1st dish macarona [macaroni] … made of Flour with butter &c—very good—my 2nd dish is fish—and then comes Roast Beef or Mutton … every good thing—and very well cooked.”

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