John Cheever: Turkey Monte Cristo Sandwich

Whenever I need to make idle chatter, talking about meals is generally a safe, friendly topic – unless that meal is brunch. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that lunch and dinner are pretty universally well liked. And while the merits of breakfast have certainly been debated (despite being repeatedly chastised for not eating it, I somehow am still alive), brunch just gets people unusually riled up.  For the anti-brunch lobbyist, the idea of forking over $20 for a couple of eggs leaves a bad taste in the mouth that no bottomless-mimosa deal can wash away.

But even the most dedicated day drinkers can’t hold a candle to John Cheever, whose brunches consisted of “a secret slug of whiskey at eleven … two martinis at noon.” In his journals, Cheever’s infamous struggle with alcoholism plays out in the endless litany of gin and tonics, martinis, and nightcaps that make up his daily menu, starting well before noon. Food is an afterthought, usually appearing sandwich form. “I work until one, when I eat my sandwiches and take a rest,” Cheever wrote of his daily routine, a schedule that looks very virtuous when the drinks are edited out.

It wasn’t until Cheever moved to Los Angeles in 1960, to adapt D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl for the screen, that he began taking an interest in food – both as a way to stave off depression, and because it was all conveniently paid for by the studio. “I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of,” he told The Paris Review, “and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself.”

For Cheever, a native New Englander, Hollywood didn’t have much going for it, except where sandwiches were concerned. He recounts in his letters the discovery of a new sandwich, like a rare and exotic bird: “For lunch Carl had something called a Monte Christo sandwich. This is made of three slices of French toast, turkery [sic] meat between the toast, the top sprinkled with powdered sugar and the whole cut into three sections, each looking like a Napoleon. This is eaten with a knife and fork. And this is my only life in Hollywood note for today.” For a sandwich aficionado at the time, this was a moment of revelation. It is also, I hesitate to add, an ideal morning meal after a long night of drink.

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Charles Dickens: Apples à la Princesse

Thinking of Dickensian food conjures up two extremes – the stuffed goose and figgy pudding feast of A Christmas Carol and the sad gruel rations of Oliver Twist. During Dickens’ 200th birthday celebrations this month, there was a lot of talk of the former. Nobody seemed as excited about the gruel, but there are plenty of resources to help you make an authentic Victorian version that actually sounds kind of great (Favorite BBC quote: “We were hoping he’d make it far more disgusting.”)

Given the fame that Dickens achieved in his lifetime, he didn’t have to beg for second helpings. But one of his favorite dishes, baked apples, was quite simple, not to mention practical: He swore by their ability to prevent seasickness.

Dickens became a baked apple convert while sailing to Boston in 1867. They were served at every meal during the Atlantic crossing, and he always helped himself. “I am confident that they did wonders, not only at the time, but in stopping the imaginary pitching and rolling after the voyage is over,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth.

The magical apple diet clearly made an impression, and in 1881 Charles Dickens Jr. dedicated an entire cookery column to them in Household Words, a revived version of his father’s weekly magazine. Apples were getting cheaper and were beginning to be imported from abroad, so baked apples could be made by anyone, anytime. Perhaps thinking of his father, Dickens Jr. stressed the health benefits of the fruit. “It is unnecessary to say how valuable apples are as an article of diet.” Turns out, Dickens had been on the edge of a trend: The earliest version of our famous “An apple a day” saying was first published in Wales in 1866, just a year before his trip to the States.

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Louisa May Alcott: Apple Slump

If something called a “slump” doesn’t make you salivate, how about eating a “grunt”? No? Then Louisa May Alcott will have your helping. They’re two different names for the same homey New England dessert: a dumpling crust over a baked (or steamed) fruit base, which was said to make grunting noises as it cooked down.

Another name? Pandowdy. Still hungry?

But Alcott loved the dish so much that she nicknamed her house after it. Orchard House, where she lived for nearly 20 years, famously provided the setting for Little Women as well as the backdrop to many Alcott family adventures. With a 12-acre apple orchard, as well as neighbors including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was an idyllic place both to grow up and to bake.

Louisa’s parents, well-known transcendentalists, had tried and failed to start an agrarian commune called Fruitland (sadly not a fruit-based theme park) before buying Orchard House in 1857. So when Alcott and Hawthorne often referred to the new house as Apple Slump, it was both a fond reference to the favorite dessert as well as a wink at the prior collapse of Fruitland, a slump in its own right.

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