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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Pearl S. Buck: Brown Bean Shrimp with Garlic Green Beans

Pearl S. Buck: Stir-Fried Shrimp and Garlic Green Beans

There’s an old familiar standard by which so many of our meals are measured: Is it as good as mom used to make? We tend to praise dishes that conjure up where we’ve come from—but what about the ones that take us where we’ve never been? If we don’t have any immediate plans to go floating down the Mekong or tooling around in Tuscany, food can be our quickest ticket: a sensory trip through another culture without the jet lag (or constantly needing to disturb the person in the aisle seat when you need to pee).

All this might help explain why my nervousness when I heard about Pearl S. Buck’s Oriental Cookbook: A Rich and Variety Collection of the Best Dishes from All of Asia. As a friend said when I showed her the cover: “I am going to guess this book is a masterpiece of political incorrectness.” Not really a trip she wanted to take.

Awkward “O word” aside (it was less outré in 1974 than it is now), a book summarizing an entire continent’s cuisine in 300 pages seemed destined to be a cursory summary at best, uncomfortable generalization at worst. On the first page, though, Buck addressed my fears head-on. “It would take many books to describe Asian cookery,” she begins. “Nothing could be more different … than China and Japan, geographically and demographically, or in their cuisines.”

The daughter of American missionaries, Buck was five months old when she arrived in Huai’an, in Eastern China. She grew up preferring local food to the stuff her parents made; she’d secretly eat with the servants before joining her family for dinner, too full to dig into her second meal. Through her travels—first with her family, later with her husband—she came to discover the regional specialties that would become some of her all-time favorite dishes, including deep-fried Szechuan duck and Shanghai-style fried noodles.

When The Good Earth was published in 1931, Buck’s novel became America’s default portrait of Chinese culture; the best-selling book in the U.S. two years in a row, it won the Nobel Prize for “rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life.” But her cookbook transports readers in an even more immersive way: through their kitchens.

Before you can explore a new place, of course, you have to get to know the layout; Buck continues her role of culinary ambassador through her instructions to American cooks, which range from chopstick etiquette (“They are not at all difficult to use after one has had a little practice.”) to the “seven items essential to housekeeping” (oil, fuel, soy sauce, vinegar, rice, salt and tea … although MSG also makes her shortlist). Can’t find MSG at your local grocer? There’s a handy mail-order guide in the back of the book.

But beyond these small adjustments, Buck comforts her readers that “the Western kitchen is more than adequately adapted to the preparation of Chinese meals.” Although her novels present a culture half a world away, her cookbook suggests that it’s closer than we might think. There will be different tastes, and new techniques, but soon those surprising dishes will become familiar, and even comforting—just like those ones mom used to make.

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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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Ezra Pound: Spaghetti with Pancetta, Sage and Fried Egg

Exra Pound: Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg

Has it really been over a year since I’ve posted a pasta recipe? It seems impossible to believe since, for the first three-quarters of my life, dinner was always a delicious mess of noodles, covered with enough sauce and parmesan to make any Italian blush. Besides satisfying all my cravings (carbs, cheese, twirling things on a fork), spaghetti was also economical, making it my go-to dinner party dish in college. Dress it up with some fancy cured meats and call me the poor man’s Lidia Bastianich (emphasis on poor).

But that was only a blip in pasta’s long history of feeding starving scholars—including, at the turn of the 20th century, London’s literary elite. When Ezra Pound arrived in 1908, he fell in with a group of writers whose weekly meetings in Soho Square involved as much spaghetti as books. Organized by the poet T.E. Hulme at a local restaurant, the salon was so known for its pasta-and-wine menu that the poet Louis Zukofsky, working on an analysis of the Cantos for the literary crowd, told Pound, “This should make matters simpler for the spaghetti eaters.”

Pasta became art, and art became pasta. In his 1918 collection Pavannes and DivisionsPound criticized a sculpture called Figure Representing Aspiration with a reference to his diet. “I never saw aspiration looking like that,” he wrote. “But I have seen spaghetti piled on a plate and the form was decidedly similar. A great deal of ‘representational’ sculpture is, in form, not unlike plates of spaghetti.” He would know.

When Pound moved to Italy, the Soho habits stuck—both the spaghetti and the wine. He commiserated with his writer-friends back the States, who were suffering under the yolk of Prohibition.”I go for days, at times even weeks (not probably very plural) without likker,” he wrote to H.L. Mencken in 1928, “but shd. hate to feel I had to square the cop or the local J.P. every time I wanted to … have a little rosso with my spaghetti.”

Of course, Pound’s Italian fascism is more well-known than his Italian diet. But even after he was arrested for treason and shipped back to the U.S., his meals weren’t much different from his London salon days. “We always have pasta & some Green pea army soup in the house,” he wrote to his wife. Cheap, or literary? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipeSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg Recipe

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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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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.

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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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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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T.S. Eliot: Duck à l’Orange

T.S. Eliot - Duck a l'Orange

T.S. Eliot once asked his messenger boy what he would do with £5,000. “I’d have a good dinner,” the boy said. “Duckling and green peas, gooseberry tart and cream.” Having just moved to London, Eliot was impressed by the boy’s expensive taste. “Such is the society I move in in the city,” he wrote, where even 11-year-olds know their food. 

In 1916, Eliot’s own dinners were much less extravagant. Having accepted a humble teaching post that included most meals, he was shocked at food prices in the city: “Living is going up. Eggs are three pence,” he wrote. Rather than suffer the costs of dining out, Eliot and his wife, Vivien, preferred to invite friends over—keeping budget in mind. “We had five people to lunch, the most ambitious attempt we have ever made,” Eliot wrote to his mother. “It is easier to have people to lunch than to dinner, of course, because of the impossibility of serving meat; at lunch fish and spaghetti suffice.”

But as his success grew, Eliot’s tastes became increasingly refined, just like that young messenger’s. “I like good food,” he wrote to publisher Geoffrey Faber in 1927. “I remember a dinner in Bordeaux, two or three dinners in Paris, a certain wine in Fontevrault, and shall never forget them.” He recalled, with particular relish, a dinner in Paris held by the journal Action Française. “A private room in one of the best restaurants – fifteen people – and the most exquisite dinner I have ever tasted,” he wrote. “I remember the canard aux oranges with permanent pleasure.”

It’s harder to make my Christmas list every year—that is, to think of physical, wrappable “things.” I still want, but the wanting is less immediate, less tangible. That’s why, with Eliot in mind, I’m hoping for experiences this year: learning to make the perfect pasta dough, trying my first Guatemalan food, cooking a meal without worrying about dishes afterward. They won’t gather dust, they’ll never need recharging, and I can always keep them with me. As Eliot wrote, “The pleasures of dining well are not transitory, but abide forever.”

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Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

As a Californian living in New York City, I’ve learned there are two things that lead to inevitable disappointment: walking without an umbrella in the summer, and Mexican food. I know you’re trying, New York. It’s cute. But whenever I bring East Coast friends to visit the hole-in-the-wall taco shop of my childhood, the scales fall from their eyes. It’s like they’re finally seeing the world in living color, when all they’ve ever known was that weird “Kelvin” filter on Instagram.

I can only imagine that Thomas Pynchon felt the same way when he first tried the real deal in his late 20s. Growing up on Long Island and studying at Cornell, Pynchon fled New York for the West Coast in 1960. After spending a few years in Seattle working for Boeing, he headed south toward California and Mexico … where he famously went silent, gaining a reputation as a literary recluse, refusing to have his picture taken or to speak with the media. What was he doing out there? We may never know entirely. But one thing’s for sure: He was eating.

Mexican food slowly began appearing in Pynchon’s novels, starting in The Crying of Lot 49 and cropping up in nearly every book since: the San Gabriel taco stand in Gravity’s Rainbow, Tajo Carajo in Vineland, and the delightful Lupita’s in Against the Day, where customers “fill their lunch pails or paper sacks with chicken tortas, venison tamales, Lupita’s widely-known brain tacos, [and] bottles of home-brewed beer.”

Over time, Pynchon’s descriptions of food become more lavish, loving, even tinged with danger. Inherent Vice features a whopping meal that includes “enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tostadas, and tamales for two called El Atomico, whose entry on the menu carried a footnote disclaiming legal responsibility.” Following the same trend, I can only expect Pynchon’s new book, Bleeding Edge, will feature a crime scene involving an unusually spicy torta.

Why was Mexican food so pervasive in Pynchon’s work? Let’s just say he had done plenty of “research” on the subject. In his friends’ memories, he was always seeking his next meal, “wearing an old red hunting-jacket and sunglasses, doting on Mexican food at a taco stand.” Throughout the late 60s and 70s, Pynchon became a regular at El Tarasco in Manhattan Beach (it’s still open today, if you want to follow in his culinary footsteps). Neighbors would frequently spot him chowing down—the notorious hermit, lured into public by a burrito.

It’s easy to think of food in simple nutritional terms: energy in, energy out. But that doesn’t account for its remarkable ability to revive us in other ways. We each have certain dishes that make us feel more like ourselves. Richard Fariña, Pynchon’s close friend from college, recalls the two of them buying tacos and beer in California, “Pynchon coming to life with the tacos, not having had any Mexican food in a couple of weeks.” On mornings when you’re not yet ready to face the day, head to the kitchen and see what inspires you. Sometimes, all it takes to re-enter the world is a really good meal.

Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos RecipeSlow Cooker Braised Chicken Tacos

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