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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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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J.D. Salinger: Roast Beef with Dijon Herb Rub

I have never been someone who is good at eating alone. I’m sure there are people who pull it off beautifully: pulling up a stool at a bar, trading witty banter with the wait staff, exuding total contentedness with their own internal world while sipping a martini. But not me. I can only imagine eating alone in the saddest possible way: hunched over in a booth, its plastic coating sticking to the back of my legs, while I shovel a plate of pasta into my mouth and my tears mingle with the condensation on a plastic cup of Mr. Pibb.

It’s not that I don’t like being alone. Some things—museums, books—benefit from a little solitude. But food, to me, is meant to be shared. It’s why I love Thanksgiving, and why J.D. Salinger has always fascinated me. There are days when being a recluse sounds pretty appealing (I’m looking at you, mandatory “networking” events). But how often can you make yourself a lonely salad for dinner?

It wasn’t like that, really; not like Salinger shut himself up in the attic, getting food delivered via dumbwaiter. His family ate meals together, and you could catch him stopping by Howard Johnson’s or Burger King (his fast food of choice). Every Saturday, he even joined the queue for the legendary suppers served by the First Congregational Church in Hartland, Vermont. But you could always pick him out in a crowd. That guy sitting by the pies, writing in a spiral notebook, alone in a sea of people? That was Salinger.

Where he did like some company was at the movies; his daughter, Margaret, called watching Hitchcock films together “our shared world.” But once things got sappy, he was done. “Christ, all you and your mother want to see are sentimental pictures about Thanksgiving and puppy dogs,” he told Margaret. Maybe that’s why he preferred dining alone – because eating together brings out all these emotions in us. I’m sure I’ll be having some serious feelings this Thanksgiving. I wish the same for you – you know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Salman Rushdie: Lamb Korma

You can’t escape food when reading Salman Rushdie. Start looking and suddenly it’s everywhere: Pyarelal’s saffron pulao in Shalimar the Clown, Sisodia’s feast in The Satanic Verses, the grandmother’s pantry in Midnight’s Children.

It’s the same with the real Rushdie; he’s a man surrounded by food. His marriage to Top Chef and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi is an obvious connection. But so is his involvement with At Vermilion, the Manhattan restaurant that once offered a tasting menu devoted to his work (complete with autographed novel to take home, goodie bag style). You think you’re reading an article about the fatwa and boom —out of the blue, it links to the author’s recipe for curry. Food just follows him.

Why Rushdie decided to give Parade magazine his korma recipe, I’ll never know (it doesn’t quite jibe with other articles on offer: “Fire Up the Griddle! Pancakes for Every Meal of the Day”). But his description of the family history behind the dish (it’s his son’s favorite as well) reminds me why food plays such a crucial role in his novels: Community comes together over a good meal.

Korma was a favorite dish in Midnight’s Children, too, but in a less heartwarming, more threatening context. “This, whatsitsname, is a very heavy pot,” that grandmother says, “and if just once I catch you in here, whatsitsname, I’ll push your head into it, add some dahi, and make, whatsitsname, a korma.” I decided to go with Rushdie’s version of the recipe instead – more lamb, less dismemberment.

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