Anton Chekhov: Blini Stack with Honey Orange Filling

Anton Chekhov: Crepe Cake with Orange Honey Filling

One month from now, I’m going on a “big trip” – the kind of major vacation you typically put off until the time is right, or the airfare goes down, or your parents hit a major anniversary (which is eventually what happened). There are lots of plans in the works, for luggage, visas, appropriate clothing … which can all be dealt with later. Right now, I’m busy deciding what to eat.

For a dedicated eater, travel plans are really just food plans in disguise. So you can imagine how disappointed Anton Chekhov was by his trip to Siberia, where after a long grueling journey, he found that the food was only aspiring to edibility. Siberian cuisine “is not for the European stomach,” he wrote in 1890, a situation intensified by the notable lack of health codes. “One old lady wiped a teaspoon on her hindside before handing it to me,” he balked.

Chekhov’s put-downs during his Siberian stay have become legendary (“Tomsk is a very dull town. … The inhabitants are very dull, too”), sparking a long and bitter feud between the playwright and his hosts. But he saved his most cutting remarks for the cuisine. For an all-time gastronomic low, he described a dish of duck stomachs, which “haven’t been entirely cleaned of their contents and so, when you bite into them, cause you to think your mouth and your rectum have changed places.” Suddenly, all my worst kitchen failures are looking positively delicious in comparison.

But there was one bright spot on Chekhov’s trip: the baked goods. The residents of Tomsk baked “the most delicious bread … delicious also are the pies and pancakes, the fritters and dinner rolls.” Blinis are a Siberian specialty, and Chekhov marveled at their remarkable thinness. I imagine him bingeing on entire dinners of fritters and blinis, retreating into the culinary safety of carbs. As someone who regularly asks for bread basket refills, this sounds like a perfectly enjoyable solution.

Chekhov immortalizes his love for blinis in the short story “On Mortality,” which opens with a diner “quivering with impatience, await[ing] the moment the blini would appear.” When a stack emerges from the kitchen, they are “crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter.” A whole lot sexier than duck stomachs, in other words, and maybe even worth a trip. 

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Alexandre Dumas: Purple Potato Salad with Spring Onion Pesto

Alexandre Dumas - Potato Salad with Spring Onion Pesto

After you decide you want to be a writer, the problem becomes what to write about. Every subject seems to come with a prepackaged identity: the introspective memoirist, the philosophizing critic. And then there’s “food writing,” a term so broad, it’s practically identity-free (Wikipedia’s list of food writers mentions both the Greek scholar Athenaeus and Martha Stewart, two people who, I imagine, would have very little to discuss at a dinner party).

The one thing that does seem to unite “food writing” is the widely held belief that it is frivolous, somehow “less than.” A book I read recently described someone as “too good a writer to be a food writer,” and while I’d heard versions of that before, it gnawed at me all the same. It didn’t belong there, in this book I otherwise liked.

Alexandre Dumas was fighting the same attitude when he made his food-writing debutDumas had already established his identity in the literary world: The Count of Monte Cristo was only, you know, the most popular book in all of Europe. So he had his reputation on the line when he decided to write about food – and he knew it.

His food book, he argued, would be different, combining “both scientific knowledge and an element of wit,” and would “perhaps deserve to be read by men of serious character.” In other words, it wasn’t just for that cookbook-reading riffraff. The result is a strange little encyclopedia, written of two minds: half food worshiper, half food apologist. The one thing Dumas can say for sure is that he just really loves potatoes.

The unexpected star of the book, potatoes take up an entire section in From Absinthe to Zest, as “a most excellent vegetable.” He details their historical significance: During the French Revolution, the royal gardens were torn up to make way for them. He also makes grand claims about their health benefits: “The alacrity with which one observes children eating baked potatoes, and feeling all the better for them, proves that they suit all dispositions.” I’m not sure about that evidence—considering the alacrity with which I ate Twix bars at that age—but he seems convinced enough.

Dumas’ main gripe is that while the potato was embraced by the masses, “absurd prejudices prevented it from being duly appreciated for a long time” by the upper classes. “Many people thought it a dangerous foodstuff, or at least a coarse one.” Dumas took it upon himself to change prejudices toward the potato … and began changing prejudices toward food writing at the same time. Now it’s up to us to finish the job.

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