Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding

Edith Wharton Christmas Pudding Recipe

Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:

  1. Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
  2. Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
  3. Mix well.

The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.

Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.

The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”

At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.

Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”

Edith Wharton's Christmas Pudding Recipe

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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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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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Jean-Paul Sartre: Halva with Almonds

Food often tops our list of guilty pleasures, but it’s hard to think of famous writers indulging in the gratuitous and occasionally sordid ways we do. When I was in college, part of my late-night routine was to buy a huge bag of Tostitos with lime, eat the whole thing while writing a paper and—in one final profligacy—scrape the fake citrus-flavored salt out of the corners of the bag. Trying to imagine Camus doing that just feels wrong.

But there’s probably a kernel of truth to it, if Jean-Paul Sartre’s letters are anything to go by. Sartre had his cravings too, and while he was fighting with the French army during World War II, his letters to Simone de Beauvoir repeatedly mention the same thing. He demands halva.

In between discussions of Weltanschauung and his work on Being and Nothingness, Sartre can’t stop talking about halva. “Don’t forget,” he reminds de Beauvoir in 1939, when asking her to send two boxes. Then, in a following letter: disaster. “I was in an excellent mood today, and then I got your books (the Romains) but no halva. Is there another package?”

But when Sartre does receive halva, multiple times over the next few years, his joy is palpable. “The halva arrived in good order … Thank you very much, my little sweet. We ate the whole box at lunch.” And later: “I gave the halva to Pieter, who carried on about it so, that I bawled him out. At this very moment he’s eating a big chunk with great satisfaction.”

The letters between Sartre and de Beauvoir are also incredibly beautiful. But Sartre’s sweet tooth makes him just a bit more relatable. Existentialists: They’re just like us.

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