J.R.R. Tolkien: Marinated Mushroom Salad with Spiced Yogurt

JRR Tolkein: Marinated mushrooms salad with spiced yogurt

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to accept the incomplete. I’m usually soothed by the neatness of finality, of closure; I like dotted i’s, rounded edges, the calm you get from Inbox Zero. That tidiness inevitably extends to my reading life: I’ve only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts. One of those deserted books was The Hobbit. 

My resistance to Tolkien, I always believed, came from a general disdain for fantasy. Tolkien spent years creating his fictional universe: the phonology of Elvish, the cosmology of Middle Earth, foods that can fill you up with just one bite (a recipe that others have now spend their own years trying to recreate). Why take ages creating new worlds, I thought, when we have a perfectly good one to explore right here?

But while much of the food and drink in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has magical properties, the hobbits themselves subsist on a more down-to-earth diet—literally. Frodo is particularly fond of mushrooms, stealing them from his neighbors’ yards (a practice I wouldn’t advise unless you, like Bilbo, have 111 years of mushroom-picking experience to fall back on). “There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare,” Tolkien writes; you’d probably see a similar menu at your local gastropub.

You might think that someone who dreamed up a “vitality drink” that cures all pain might want to experiment with it himself, or at least go for some fancy tasting menus. Yet, Tolkien’s eating habits were much closer to Frodo’s stolen produce than the magical cuisine of the Elves. “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” he wrote in a letter. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).” Years later, the Brooklyn Tolkien Society would plan their menus around fresh mushrooms, in solidarity with both hobbits and their creator.

Mushrooms are seemingly the most modest of foods, growing nestled close to the earth, humble hobbit fare. But they’re also inherently magical: shape-shifters that absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked with them—or give you a nightmare or two, depending which ones you grab. Fantasy is similarly ambiguous, intentionally making it difficult for us to tell what is and what is not. So perhaps this is the year to finally sit down, reopen The Hobbit, and embrace its magic, in all its messiness.

Marinated mushroom salad with spiced yogurt recipe

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Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

Ray Bradbury: Pappa al Pomodoro

In 1946, two 20-somethings met in a bookstore: he, an aspiring writer; she, the bookseller who sold him a copy of Best American Short Stories. “He carried a briefcase and wore a trenchcoat on a clear day, so I was immediately suspicious,” she recalled. Instead of stealing paperbacks, he invited her to lunch. But when Ray Bradbury married Maggie McClure a year later, he had only $8 in the bank. Suddenly, stealing books didn’t seem so implausible—and any future lunches would have to be done on the cheap.

Luckily, Bradbury’s tastes had always tended toward the economical. As a kid, he followed a strict (if not exactly spartan) diet of hamburgers, egg sandwiches and tomato soup. Eventually he expanded his dietary repertoire (“How many years I wasted not trying different foods, when they were so good,” he later told his family). But his love of tomato soup endured … not least because it fit his meager budget.

In their $30-a-month apartment in Venice, California, Bradbury cooked for Maggie in classic newlywed style—cracking open a can. “I did my writing at home, cleaned the house, and usually prepared dinner for us. It was usually Campbell’s soup,” he wrote. On special occasions, he would head to Clifton’s Cafeteria, a local haunt that attracted the starving-artist crowd by insisting that no one would be turned away hungry. Bradbury quickly became a fixture at the restaurant, holding regular meetings of the Science Fiction Society or just arriving alone, slurping his soup in the corner booth while drinking bottomless glasses of complimentary limeade.

Yet, even as Bradbury’s fame and bank account grew, he remained loyal to his favorite dish, ordering cans of soup by the case. “At one time, I had planned to have my ashes put into a Campbell’s tomato soup can and then have it planted on Mars,” he told Playboy in 1996, half a century after that first fateful date with Maggie. Through years of Campbell’s and cafeterias, she was the only woman he ever dated. In love, and in lunch, Bradbury’s taste never changed.

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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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Franz Kafka: Potato Mushroom Soup

Franz Kafka - Potato Mushroom Soup

Another year, another fad diet. Every January, we’re told to go Paleo, go South Beach, go Atkins. It’s a culinary labyrinth that has existed for centuries—and Franz Kafka was an early captive.

Kafka famously followed a strict vegetarian regime; in an anecdote from friend and biographer Max Brod, Kafka proudly discussed his diet choices with a fish in the Berlin aquarium, saying, “Now at least I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore.” But if you think Kafka eschewed meat for moral reasons, think again. It was all a fad.

“Franz’s attitude toward the ‘natural health methods’ … was one of intense interest,” wrote Brod, and vegetarianism was only one of the trends that held Kafka in thrall. He was also a convert to “fletcherizing,” a British craze from the turn of the 20th century that advocated chewing each bite of food 32 times before swallowing. I saw the same thing on an episode of Sex and the City 100 years later, proving that some diets really never die.

Plus, meat is just so embarrassing when it gets stuck in your teeth, am I right? “Meat is the one thing that is so stringy that it can be removed only with great difficulty,” Kafka wrote disgustedly, “and even then not at once and not completely.” It’s a comment that could just as well have come from the title character in “A Hunger Artist,” who fasts because he can’t find food that he likes.

But Kafka relished his meals, particularly strawberries and cherries (which he would take several minutes just to smell before eating). “How he took such pleasure in eating a banana!” sighed his lover Dora Diamant. Brod agreed: “Although he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian, he knew how to appreciate the pleasures of beer, wine and meat.” Kafka would “take a sniff of drinks sometimes and praise their wonderful aroma.”

Kafka and Diamant dreamed of traveling to Israel together and opening a restaurant: she in the kitchen, he in the front. They never specified in their letters what type of restaurant it might be. But I wouldn’t go there for the steak.

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Potato Mushroom Soup (Bramboracka) Recipe

 

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John Steinbeck: Pork Posole

John Steinbeck was a locavore before it was cool. No matter where he was writing from, his letters always mention the local produce. In California, he bought a cow so he could make his own butter and cheese. In England, he foraged for dandelion greens (“cook them slowly and for a long time with pieces of bacon”). In Sag Harbor, he reveled in the local seafood (“I figure I can always catch my dinner”).

But sometimes you come home after a long day, and you don’t want to knead your own bread, dry your own pasta, butcher your own goat. You just want to buy a whole baguette, put some brie on it, eat it all while watching The Wire on Netflix and call that dinner. “I like good food and good clothes, but faced with getting them I can’t round myself into a procuring unit,” Steinbeck wrote in a particularly lethargic mood. I imagine he said it on the sofa in sweatpants.

Often it’s the presence of other people that keeps me from nights of cheese sandwiches in front of the TV; cooking for company is just more fun! But when Steinbeck was alone on the road, he would forget the butter-churning and revert to the life of a single guy. Hence his recipe for posole, borrowed from his friend (and famed screenwriter) Jack Wagner: “a can of chili and a can of hominy.” Hello, bachelorville.

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Zora Neale Hurston: Chicken Consommé

“So, what’s your backup plan?”

Everyone who lusts after a job in some creative field runs into this inevitable question. When I was 10, I told my mother I was destined for Broadway. When pressed for a possible fallback, I shrugged and said I could always go into journalism. She has worried about me ever since.

In the fall of 1931, Zora Neale Hurston was working on several projects, all of them artsy and none of them lucrative: short stories, concerts, book proposals. Recently divorced and without a steady income, she was being supported by her godmother, the philanthropist and New York socialite Charlotte Osgoode Mason. Mason and my mother would have had a lot to talk about. “I know that you worry about my future,” Hurston wrote to her godmother. “Therefore, if I had a paying business—which after all could not take up a great deal of my time,—I’d cease to be a problem.”

That’s how she came up with her backup plan to become “New York’s Chicken Specialist.”

Like any good start-up entrepreneur, Hurston did her research. She surveyed the local competition: “I have been sampling the chicken soups already on the market and find not one really fine one.” She outlined the business model: Ever practical, she would use all parts of the bird. The bones would be for soup. The chicken breasts, “they’d be my salad material. The other part of the chicken would emerge as a la king.”

But despite her concessions toward her godmother and her own pragmatism, Hurston never wavered in her assurance about her real talent. “I firmly believe that I shall succeed as a writer, but the time element is important,” she wrote to Mason. “Besides I like to cook.”

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Norman Mailer: Green Bean Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

In his famous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, after headbutting Gore Vidal backstage, Norman Mailer humbly referred to himself as a “dizzying intellect.” I’ll leave that literary debate to his critics, but at least in the kitchen, Mailer was a thinker.

In his semi-recent memoir, Dwayne Raymond discusses his firsthand experience with the giant brain; he helped research Mailer’s last novel, The Castle in the Forest, but also served as confidant, tech support, chef, and guinea pig for some of Mailer’s more unique food creations.

Mailer theorized on food like a man obsessed. Occasionally this would manifest itself in more compulsive ways, like meticulously cutting a grapefruit in exactly nine sections. But you could see it more often in his pursuit of the culinary Shangri-La: a recipe that would maximize flavor, nutrition, and integrity of the ingredients all in one.

Not that these concoctions were necessarily successful. Case in point: a ghasty-sounding salad made of green beans and teriyaki-infused oatmeal (to lower cholesterol). Another “experimental” salad recipe involved the addition of Häagen-Dazs Raspberry Sorbet to a vinaigrette. “It didn’t occur to him that the whole concept was dreadful; that wasn’t the way his mind worked,” Raymond writes. “Norman believed that anything awful could be fixed if enough work was put into it.”

In that spirit, I decided to take on an awful-yet-fixable dish. Re-enter the green bean and oatmeal salad.

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