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)

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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John Keats: Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Dressing

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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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

Pity the forgotten siblings of famous writers. Doris Salinger? Forgotten. Ursula Hemingway? Blank stares. Imagine constantly being introduced as “the writer’s brother” and tell me you don’t feel for the Ursulas and Dorises of the world, the little-known brothers and sisters that history forgot.

But in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s family, that sibling situation was reversed: It was Harriet who was known, for the first half of her life, as “the cook’s sister.” Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the advent of the Civil War, Catharine Beecher was the big name in the family—thanks, in part, to her expertise in the kitchen. At 16, after her mother died of tuberculosis, Catharine became the lady of the house and took on the task of preparing meals for her siblings, including Harriet, more than 10 years her junior.

It was Catharine, not Harriet, who became the family’s first famous female writer. A decade before the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Booka collection of Catharine’s recipes and kitchen advice, was one of the best-selling cookbooks of the century. A vocal advocate for universal education, Catharine cofounded her own school for women (Harriet included), which taught subjects both academic (math, Latin) and domestic (cooking, baking).

Catharine’s concoctions were among Harriet’s favorite dishes: After watching her sister make her signature peanut brittle, Harriet would include the process in her books. “Mother would put on a couple of quarts of molasses to boil in the afternoon … the whole dark, smooth, ropy liquid was poured out from the kettle into a well-greased platter, and set out in a snow-bank to cool.”

But Catharine’s writing was also influenced by Harriet and her abolitionist views. Although her popular brittle recipe was officially titled “molasses candy,” Catharine advised against using the traditional cane sugar, a product of plantations’ slave labor. Instead she claims that, for true candy aficionados, Northern-made “maple is best.”

It looked as though Catharine was destined to be the sibling that history would remember—until her little sister wrote the book that would push the country to war. Now her contribution to writing—and cooking—has largely been forgotten. After all, the only conflict it provoked was at the dinner table, arguing over that last piece of candy.

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Maple popcorn peanut brittle recipe

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Victor Hugo: Venison with Balsamic Blackberry Glaze

Victor Hugo: Venison with Blackberry Balsamic Tarragon Glaze

Whether you’re reading a Russian classic or a Great American Novel, Big Books tend to make big demands: on your time, your concentration, your upper arm strength. Just cracking one open can seem daunting … until you imagine writing one. Reading Les Misérables might take me a few months. It took Victor Hugo 17 years to write the Big Book that became his most enduring work, one that was fueled by a seriously Big Appetite.

“The world and his waistcoat are not wide enough to contain the glory of Victor Hugo—or his corpulence,” Théophile Gautier joked, after his friend had become a national literary star. It’s hard to tell what about the author attracted more attention: his body of work or his bodily girth. Visitors to the Hugo family table remarked on the multiple cups of hot cocoa in the morning, the “enormous pieces of roast meat” in the evening. Most everything in the Hugo household was large, including Hugo himself.

Not only was Hugo’s hunger unstoppable, it was also indiscriminate. Anything that could be eaten whole, would be—even lobsters in the shell. (Why waste a perfectly good shell?). Even orange peels went down the hatch. A fellow author remembered, “At the end of the meal he dipped orange quarters into his wine and ate them with marked satisfaction. Everything about Victor Hugo was extraordinary, even his digestion.”

The problem with a ravenous appetite, though, is what happens when there’s nothing left to feed it. Hugo was famously forced to slim down during the 1870 Siege of Paris, when the Prussian army blockaded the capital and waited for the city’s residents to slowly starve. But Parisians never say die, especially where cuisine is concerned. Throughout the siege, restaurant menus still touted delicacies like begonias au jus and rat salami with sauce Robert.

With his taste for excess, Hugo took the restrictions particularly poorly. “Decidedly horse is not good for me,” he wrote, not that it stopped him (“I ate some”). Yet, while he sampled rat and other reject proteins most Parisians called dinner, his fame gave him special access to choicer meats. When the city zoo began to sacrifice its animals to the cause, Hugo’s kitchen got first dibs. “Yesterday we ate some stag; the day before we partook of bear; and the two days previous we fared on antelopes,” he wrote. Hemingway may have hunted elephant, but Hugo ate it first.

Venison with blackberry balsamic glaze

Recipe: Venison with blackberry tarragon glaze

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Lewis Carroll: Rosemary Olive Oil Crackers with Sea Salt

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

When you spend a lot of time talking about food, your friends begin to think you know something they don’t. That’s when the recommendation requests start coming in: for restaurants; recipes; the best thing to bring to a picnic, housewarming, boss’ birthday. This should be fun—flattering, even. But I must have read too much Lewis Carroll as a kid, because instead I feel myself becoming the Red Queen, my culinary commands spoiling someone else’s good time:

‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly, taking a little box out of her pocket. ‘Have a biscuit?’
Alice thought it would not be civil to say ‘No,’ though it wasn’t at all what she wanted. So she took it, and ate it as well as she could: and it was very dry; and she thought she had never been so nearly choked in all her life.

Reading Through the Looking Glass for the first time, I saw the Red Queen as everything I disliked about adults: brash, pushy, imposing her will on people less powerful than herself (Every teenage invocation to “Stop telling me what to do, Mom!” was directed partially at her.) As her creator, you’d think Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if we’re calling him by his real name) would have seen her as a warning. But instead, he was more like her than he’d probably care to admit.

For one, he was also really into biscuits. They formed the core of his diet; after a 9 a.m. breakfast, Dodgson would subsist almost entirely on them for the rest of the day, occasionally pairing them with a nip of sherry. Even when visitors asked him over for a meal, “he assured [them] that he never took anything in the middle of the day but a glass of wine and a biscuit.” He’d often bring his own wine too.

But, taste for biscuits aside, Dodgson also shared the Queen’s worst habit. He believed he knew best, especially where food was concerned. (Besides his Spartan diet, he was also a convert of “Whiteley exercisers,” a 19th-century training regimen bizarrely akin to today’s TRX.) In a classic Red Queen move, he imposed his habits on the children he cared for. According to his nephew, “When he took a certain one of them out with him to a friend’s house to dinner, he used to give the host or hostess a gentle warning, to the mixed amazement and indignation of the child, ‘Please be careful, because she eats a good deal too much.'”

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers Recipe

Rosemary Sea Salt Cracker Recipe

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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

Whenever I’m asked what famous writer I would invite to a dinner party, the easy answer is Mark Twain. I always imagined someone who could toss out one-liners like “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” could be counted on to liven things up when conversation wound down. The thing is, there’s no evidence Twain said that famous line. What he actually wrote about his adopted city was far more generic—suggesting he may have been as prone to small talk as the rest of us after all.

“I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” Twain remarked blandly after heading west and settling in San Francisco in 1864. A year later, he became nationally famous—one of the many fortune-seekers to find their future in California. 

I thought of Twain last week, as I prepared to make the same cross-country move, packing up my New York life to return to the coast where I grew up. Over the last five years, Manhattan became my own adopted city, and  with barely a week to say my goodbyes, I sought out the things it does best: tingling dan dan noodles at Lan Sheng, bagels loaded with whitefish at Russ and Daughters, the perfect pizza slice at Di Fara.

Which coast has the best oysters, though, is still up for debate, 100 years after Twain posed the question. A seafood connoisseur, he was a regular at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, taking his typical breakfast of salmon and fried oysters. He’d return for dinner at 7:30 p.m., when, he wrote, “if you refuse to move upon the supper works and destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock, the landlord will certainly be offended.” Twain’s relationship with the landlord, it should be noted, was excellent.

But Twain didn’t discriminate against Eastern oysters; he was an equal-opportunity eater. After spending two years in Europe, Twain drafted a menu of all the U.S. dishes he missed—over 75 of them. A whole section was devoted to shellfish, in preparations from around the country: “Fried oysters; stewed oysters. … Blue points, on the half shell. Cherry-stone clams. San Francisco mussels, steamed. Oyster soup. Clam Soup. Philadelphia Terapin soup. Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.”

Twain returned to his home country through the food he ate there, and after a week away, I’m finding myself doing the same: jotting down smoked fish recipes and eyeing pizza stones, wondering if cooking up a taste of the past will be cheaper and easier than buying a plane ticket. Over the last five years, I fell in love with a most cordial and sociable city. Now I’m inviting Mark Twain to dinner, hoping he’ll help me do it again.

Oysters Rockefeller Recipe twain3

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Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Whenever I’m trying to remember something important—a due date, a birthday, the name of a friend’s new baby (oops!)—I’m always amazed by the random information my brain has quietly absorbed instead, without my knowledge. Most, to my chagrin, is completely useless: ’90s song lyrics, all the presidents in order, the name of the cat from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. But also, without knowing how or when it happened, I unexpectedly learned to cook.

Between all the poetry, philosophy, and cultural theories, Friedrich Nietzsche’s brain wouldn’t seem to have much space for cooking skills either. Food in general often gave him more trouble than pleasure. Suffering from digestion problems, he hopped around Europe, from the French Riviera to the Italian coast, hoping the climate would restore his health. He avoided restaurants, where, he complained, “one is made accustomed to ‘overfeeding’; that is why I no longer like to eat in them.”

Yet, over the years, Nietzsche absorbed a love of cooking by learning the same way I did: through those around him. In Genoa, his landlady taught him to fry artichokes and whisk eggs for torta di carciofi, the local specialty. In Sorrento, in a villa surrounded by lemon trees, his housemaid showed him her secret to a perfect risotto, lovingly ladling out the stock as she stirred. Studying the techniques of his Italian housekeepers, Nietzsche was eager to become a teacher himself. He wrote to his mother: “I shall teach you later how to cook risotto—I know now.”

Nietzsche would later revise his opinion of restaurants, becoming a regular at several neighborhood trattorias, but he always reserved special praise for those dishes he learned himself; game recognize game. In a letter from Turin, he detailed his regular order: “minestra or risotto, a good portion of meat, vegetable and bread—all good … I eat here with the serenest disposition of soul and stomach.”

For most of us, cooking doesn’t happen intentionally; we don’t crack open a book to “Chapter 1: Let’s Talk About Knife Skills.” Instead, the path to the kitchen unwinds slowly, over a lifetime: “helping” sift the flour for a batch of cookie dough, learning to cut an onion without catching your fingers, trying to perfect the swirl on top of a meringue pie. It’s hard to remember each step we took. Instead it’s the guides we remember—be it a mother, grandmother, father or kindly landlady—for leading us along the way.

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Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint recipe

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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Pudding Cake with Roasted Pears

Although it’s conspicuously absent from biology classes and science textbooks, I’m convinced that certain humans (myself included) have developed a rare but necessary extension of the digestive system: the “dessert stomach.” How else to explain our ability to be simultaneously completely full of dinner, but so ready for the final course? Friends with actual medical training tell me it’s all psychological, but I’m going with the two-stomach theory.

After all, the evidence goes back hundreds of years, to the New England table of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When you look at the dinner party guest lists now, they read like a survey of American literature—Emerson, Thoreau and a young Louisa May Alcott might be spotted, digging in—but the food was just as important as the company. “Should we be the more ethereal, if we did not eat?” he wondered in a letter. “I have a most human and earthly appetite.”

Even after those elaborate meals, though, Hawthorne could always find a little extra room when the main courses were cleared. Writing to his son after a particularly overwhelming feast, he admitted, “I had hardly any appetite left.” Nevertheless, “I did manage to eat some currant pudding, and a Banbury cake, and a Victoria cake, and a slice of beautiful Spanish musk-melon, and some plums.” If Hawthorne came to your Thanksgiving, he’d be the guy “testing” every kind of pie on offer (and don’t forget the ice cream).

Fruit was a frequent after-dinner treat, and Hawthorne doted on the orchards on his land (“What is a garden without its currant-bushes and fruit-trees?” he wrote). But, as anyone with a dessert stomach can attest, fruit alone isn’t nearly enough. After his daily walk through the grounds, Hawthorne would eat “a pint bowl of thick chocolate (not cocoa, but the old-fashioned chocolate) crumbed full of bread.” When fruit was in season, he’d add it to the mix—a stealth move to combine two desserts in one.

Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifle recipe hawthorne images

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Mary Shelley: Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

Mary Shelley - Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

With the polar vortex hitting New York and my Californian disregard for warm coats, it was bound to happen: I am sick. Not sick enough to be devastating, but just sick enough to be achy, whiny, and wishing for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup at all times. Instead of indulging myself, though, I took a cue from Mary Shelley, pulled on my pajamas, and made kale.

It’s tempting to think of kale as a marvel of modern marketing, engineered by the savvy people of Whole Foods to make us eat our vegetables. But the leafy green was one of the most common types of produce in Europe before it was outpaced by cabbage around 1600, and its popularity continued into the 18th century. For Shelley, kale wasn’t a trend, something to be massaged or blended into drinks. It wasn’t “healthy.” It was comforting.

Mary was the resident caregiver in her literary family; her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, wasn’t so good at looking after himself. “He could have lived on bread alone without repining,” his biographer Richard Henry Stoddard wrote. “Vegetables, and especially salads … were acceptable.” Mary was the one who made sure her husband was fed, not that he noticed much. She “used to send him something to eat into the room where he habitually studied; but the plate frequently remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day he might be heard asking, ‘Mary, have I dined?'”

Food has long been our chosen way of providing for those we love; when I was in college, my mom’s “care packages” were 5% socks, 95% cookies (a ratio I heartily approved of). Mary Shelley’s letters show just how far back the tradition goes. When her aunt Everina fell ill, Mary, far away in Rome, dispatched a friend to put together a care package of her own: “jelly, oranges, spongecakes and her favourite kale.” Kale became a frequent gift, an all-purpose treatment for what ails you.

A new batch of Shelley’s letters was recently discovered from when she herself was ill, with a brain tumor that would kill her a few years later. Percy was gone by then, as was Everina. The only person Mary had left to care for was herself, hopefully with her friends around her and some kale on the stove, cooking to heal the soul.

Kale and Fried Egg Tartine Recipe

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