C.S. Lewis: Cinnamon Bourbon Rice Pudding

With Sartre and his halva addiction, Agatha Christie and her devotion to cream, and Wallace Stevens’ cookie obsession, writers seem to thrive on a sugar high. Halloween must be a very productive time of year, creatively speaking: too gloomy to go outdoors, and lots of candy at hand to fuel the creative spark. It makes you wonder how many Great American Novels could only have been written with a steady supply of cake, cookies, and caffeine.

But just as I was beginning to think that sweets were the secret to success, C.S. Lewis broke the mold. He is not only ambivalent toward candy – he actually refuses to eat it. To someone whose favorite part of Halloween is stocking up on half-price Reese’s the morning after (don’t judge), this is the most harrowing discovery of the season.

Lewis comes up with various excuses for avoiding sugary treats: “I’m getting terribly fat and have had to diet” or “I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe every few months!” He once wrote to a friend, who apologized for sending him stationery rather than sweets, “I must confess that I eat notepaper and envelopes, so your very kind gift may be described as being that of the edible variety.” Which is all to say what Lewis would ultimately admit: “I have not a sweet tooth.”

But his distaste for the insubstantial went further than food. Lewis also disdained literature that went down a little too easily. He cautioned a friend against detective novels, saying, “A little sense of labour is necessary to all perfect pleasures I think: just as (to my palate at least) there is no really delicious taste without a touch of astringency … The apple must not be too sweet.” Who would have thought the immortal creator of Narnia could wind up being the trick-or-treater your mother would love: He’ll leave the M&Ms, and ask for a Granny Smith instead.

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Allen Ginsberg: Aloo Gobi

When I was a kid, I hated lamb. Well, let me clarify: My mother hated lamb, so I hated lamb. I had never actually tasted it, since it was barred from our home, but that was entirely irrelevant to my 10-year-old self. My mom seemed to be right about everything else, so why would she be wrong about lamb?

It wasn’t until I moved away—with an apartment of my own and a boyfriend who tore into lamb like a rabid chupacabra—that I actually took a bite. It was at an Indian restaurant, another territory where my family had always been cautious. We’d consider the menu at length: lots of thoughtful nodding with a smattering of “hmm”s. Then we’d order the same chicken tikka masala and garlic naan we always did.

Allen Ginsberg had our number. Traveling around India in the 1960s, practicing Buddhism and Krishnaism, Ginsberg was eager to bring his new lifestyle to the States. He had just one concern, he told Hare Krishna founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Could Americans handle the food?

Allen Ginsberg: So my question is this: … Is this something that a large mass of people can enter into?
Srila Prabhupada: In time, yes. Why not? …
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, but what it requires is an adaptation to Indian dress and
Srila Prabhupada: That is not very important.
Allen Ginsberg: And an adaptation to Indian food. …
Srila Prabhupada: Then that is Indian food? Do you mean to say it is Indian food?
Allen Ginsberg: Well, the curried vegetable dishes.

Although Ginsberg seems skeptical that potential converts could handle the Hare Krishna diet, he was a culinary adventurer himself. In his letters, Ginsberg lists dozens of local delicacies he sampled over the course of his wanderings, like a beat-poet Anthony Bourdain. In Hong Kong, he recommends the 100-year eggs; in Korea, try the snail and cuttlefish dish; in Denver, check out the all-organic Mercury Cafe (where you could catch him singing the occasional set with his rock band).

But even Ginsberg had his own culinary prejudices to overcome. In a letter to the poet Gary Snyder, he expressed surprise at how well he ate in India. “Food quite good … Bombay has great food all over. I’ve even drunk water practically all over and not been bugged. And everybody tells me it was instant death.”

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Agatha Christie: Fig and Orange Scones with Devonshire Cream

Certain foods defy any attempt at portion control. Think chocolate chips, or those disturbingly addictive pretzel pieces that must be flavored with some kind of stimulant in addition to the honey mustard. I have such a Cheez-It obsession that, studying abroad in Paris and unable to find them in any grocery, I ordered three boxes online in a hunger-fueled panic. My host mother – who, in typical French fashion, served perfectly portioned meals on an adorable tea tray – brought the package to my room with a look of pure horror. I guiltily ate a whole box as soon as her back was turned.

But Agatha Christie clearly felt no such shame when it came to her food addiction: She loved cream, and all of Devon county knew it. “Agatha was very fond of food – she was passionate about cream,” the local vicar’s daughter remembered. “She would have it by the cupful. She would have a cup of cream by her typewriter.” Even Christie’s fictional characters couldn’t escape the obsession. Miss Marple is similarly famed for her love of cream, and even the picky Hercule Poirot partakes.

Christie made minor attempts to curb her appetite, to no avail. “She used to drink cream from a huge cup with ‘Don’t be greedy’ written on the side, an injunction she never showed any sign of obeying,” her grandson Mathew recalled. Frankly, I think that anyone who has a designated cream-sipping cup is fighting a losing battle with willpower, but I’m the one with a personal bag of chocolate chips in the pantry, so who am I to judge?

There was only one person who had control over Christie’s dessert intake: her butler. George Gowler oversaw the elaborate two-hour dinner parties at Greenway, Christie’s country estate. But instead of letting her choose the menu for the final course, Gowler would randomly assign everyone a different plate of fruit – a game of dessert roulette – allowing guests to choose their favorite dish only once a week. Christie’s favorite was fresh figs, which you can still sample from the trees she grew at Greenway. But beware if you encounter them in one of her mysteries: One unlucky lady who indulges in Syrup of Figs gets poisoned for her trouble. Safer to stick with the cream instead.

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