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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Lewis Carroll: Rosemary Olive Oil Crackers with Sea Salt

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

When you spend a lot of time talking about food, your friends begin to think you know something they don’t. That’s when the recommendation requests start coming in: for restaurants; recipes; the best thing to bring to a picnic, housewarming, boss’ birthday. This should be fun—flattering, even. But I must have read too much Lewis Carroll as a kid, because instead I feel myself becoming the Red Queen, my culinary commands spoiling someone else’s good time:

‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly, taking a little box out of her pocket. ‘Have a biscuit?’
Alice thought it would not be civil to say ‘No,’ though it wasn’t at all what she wanted. So she took it, and ate it as well as she could: and it was very dry; and she thought she had never been so nearly choked in all her life.

Reading Through the Looking Glass for the first time, I saw the Red Queen as everything I disliked about adults: brash, pushy, imposing her will on people less powerful than herself (Every teenage invocation to “Stop telling me what to do, Mom!” was directed partially at her.) As her creator, you’d think Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if we’re calling him by his real name) would have seen her as a warning. But instead, he was more like her than he’d probably care to admit.

For one, he was also really into biscuits. They formed the core of his diet; after a 9 a.m. breakfast, Dodgson would subsist almost entirely on them for the rest of the day, occasionally pairing them with a nip of sherry. Even when visitors asked him over for a meal, “he assured [them] that he never took anything in the middle of the day but a glass of wine and a biscuit.” He’d often bring his own wine too.

But, taste for biscuits aside, Dodgson also shared the Queen’s worst habit. He believed he knew best, especially where food was concerned. (Besides his Spartan diet, he was also a convert of “Whiteley exercisers,” a 19th-century training regimen bizarrely akin to today’s TRX.) In a classic Red Queen move, he imposed his habits on the children he cared for. According to his nephew, “When he took a certain one of them out with him to a friend’s house to dinner, he used to give the host or hostess a gentle warning, to the mixed amazement and indignation of the child, ‘Please be careful, because she eats a good deal too much.'”

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers Recipe

Rosemary Sea Salt Cracker Recipe

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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Pudding Cake with Roasted Pears

Although it’s conspicuously absent from biology classes and science textbooks, I’m convinced that certain humans (myself included) have developed a rare but necessary extension of the digestive system: the “dessert stomach.” How else to explain our ability to be simultaneously completely full of dinner, but so ready for the final course? Friends with actual medical training tell me it’s all psychological, but I’m going with the two-stomach theory.

After all, the evidence goes back hundreds of years, to the New England table of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When you look at the dinner party guest lists now, they read like a survey of American literature—Emerson, Thoreau and a young Louisa May Alcott might be spotted, digging in—but the food was just as important as the company. “Should we be the more ethereal, if we did not eat?” he wondered in a letter. “I have a most human and earthly appetite.”

Even after those elaborate meals, though, Hawthorne could always find a little extra room when the main courses were cleared. Writing to his son after a particularly overwhelming feast, he admitted, “I had hardly any appetite left.” Nevertheless, “I did manage to eat some currant pudding, and a Banbury cake, and a Victoria cake, and a slice of beautiful Spanish musk-melon, and some plums.” If Hawthorne came to your Thanksgiving, he’d be the guy “testing” every kind of pie on offer (and don’t forget the ice cream).

Fruit was a frequent after-dinner treat, and Hawthorne doted on the orchards on his land (“What is a garden without its currant-bushes and fruit-trees?” he wrote). But, as anyone with a dessert stomach can attest, fruit alone isn’t nearly enough. After his daily walk through the grounds, Hawthorne would eat “a pint bowl of thick chocolate (not cocoa, but the old-fashioned chocolate) crumbed full of bread.” When fruit was in season, he’d add it to the mix—a stealth move to combine two desserts in one.

Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifle recipe hawthorne images

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Alice Munro: Rosemary Bread Pudding

Alice Munro - Rosemary Bread Pudding

Last week, when Alice Munro found out she had won the Nobel Prize in literature, she was in bed. The prize committee had tried to reach her earlier by phone but ended up just leaving a voicemail, so it was Munro’s daughter who, hearing the announcement, ran to wake up her mom. That somehow seems fitting for Munro, whose stories revolve around intimate moments of domesticity. If Hemingway is a moveable feast, Munro is breakfast in bed.

Her writing is not only steeped in the household world; it also was created there. Munro’s desk is her dining room table, where she’s penned most of her work over the past few decades. As her interviewer at The Paris Review notes, “The dining room is lined floor to ceiling with books; on one side a small table holds a manual typewriter.” When she cooks in the neighboring kitchen, her work is never far away. Is it any wonder the two are connected in her stories, as in life?

Besides writing, cooking was the other constant in Munro’s own domestic drama. In her mostly autobiographical collection The View from Castle Rockshe recalls packing her father’s lunch in the morning, a regular chore: “three thick sandwiches of fried meat and ketchup. The meat was cottage roll ends or baloney, the cheapest meat you could buy.” Later, when she was married, Munro’s stories would continue to take a back seat to food prep. She told the Review, “I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework.”

Although Munro still cooks (one of her interviewers watched her prepare a meal, which made ample use of the Canadian countryside’s fresh herbs), she now often chooses to leave the kitchen to others. She regularly asks reporters to meet at her favorite restaurant in the nearby town of Gogerich, Ontario—Bailey’s Fine Dining—where she has a usual table (corner) and a usual drink (white wine, sauvignon blanc preferred, multiple pours encouraged).

Until just a few days before the award announcement, Haruki Murakami, known for his hulking postmodern novels, was said to be the front-runner for the Nobel. It’s hard to imagine a writer further than Munro. Her subjects are often described as “quiet” or “domestic” and (given that they’re short stories) “small.”

Munro herself sometimes doubted their impact; she told the New Yorker last year, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel.” But the major recognition of her work helps us all remember what a “small” story can do—how an intimate revelation at the dining room table can hold as much truth as an epic; how a perfect fried baloney sandwich can sometimes hit the spot more than any six-course meal.

Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Note: I’ve never had a guest post on P&S belore, but when Aimee Gasston told me about the unpublished recipes she found in Katherine Mansfield’s papers, I couldn’t wait to have her share one here. Plus, I’ll clearly take any opportunity to trot out my ramekins (I’m a sucker for individual-size desserts). Enjoy, and many thanks to Aimee. 

Another Note: If you’re reading this via Google Reader, there are alternatives to get P&S updates after Reader shuts down tomorrow. Plus, you can always find what’s up on Facebook. Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming. 

It’s lucky that Katherine Mansfield, maybe the key innovator of modernist short fiction, had such a hearty appetite, without which her prose would be far less rich. Virginia Woolf described Mansfield as having the finest senses of her generation – so when I heard about newly discovered food-related material of hers acquired by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, I couldn’t wait to get a look at it.

Plump as a child, Mansfield would be made gaunt by tuberculosis in adulthood, but her hunger for worldly pleasures remained constant throughout her truncated life. Her personal writing is full of daydreams involving food, which she vividly described in letters and journals as she traveled Europe in search of health.

Switzerland was a particular disappointment, as she wrote in a letter to the artist Anne Estelle Rice in 1921: “Curse them. And the FOOD. It’s got no nerves. You know what I mean? It seems to lie down and wait for you; the very steaks are meek.  […]  As to the purée de pommes de terre, you feel inclined to call it ‘uncle.'”

Despite her love of eating, cooking wasn’t the most pressing of Mansfield’s priorities due to her poor health and a fierce dedication to her work. In her excellent biography A Secret Life, Claire Tomalin describes Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry’s juvenile culinary tendencies: “Like children, they lived mostly on the junk food of the day, meat pies and the cheapest possible restaurants; Katherine had no time or wish to cook.”

Instead, Mansfield’s cooking would take place largely on the page. Besides the spirited culinary rhymes that she penned amid her account books (including an unpublished poem called “An Escapade Undertaken by a Green Raspberry and a Kidney Bean”), her short fiction was always embroiled with the messy materiality of life, with prose you cannot only see, hear, touch and smell, but really taste.

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Mansfield Orange Souffle Recipe

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Jane Austen: Brown Butter Bread Pudding Tarts

Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake

Even when you love to cook, there are those times when it would be nice to have just a little help: when you promised to make something for the office potluck but forgot to go shopping; when that dinner party you’re hosting sneaks up on you; when your in-laws you dearly want to impress are in town and all you have in the pantry are the three jars of peanut butter you bought before Hurricane Sandy.

Wouldn’t it be easier to live in Jane Austen’s world, where you could hand off such tasks to a very capable cook? Remember poor Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who, when asking which of the Bennets had prepared the meal, “was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity… that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.”

Like Elizabeth Bennet, Austen wouldn’t be caught dead with a roasting pan—but she did know her way around one. After all, she wrote her novels in the middle of the drawing room, constantly interrupted by household demands. “I carry about the keys of the wine and closet, and twice since I began this letter have had orders to give in the kitchen,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra. Maybe that’s why her novels are full of meals: she couldn’t write a few sentences without being asked to approve a dinner menu.

Austen was in charge of sourcing ingredients, preferring to grow fresh produce on the property. “What kind of kitchen garden is there?” she writes anxiously when her family is contemplating a move to Chawton. “I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden.” She also oversaw what was to be planted, and where. “The Border under the Terrace Wall is clearing away to receive Currants & Gooseberry bushes, & a spot is found very proper for Raspberries,” she reports.

Then there was the entertaining: a long parade of tea parties and dinner chats, so elegant in books but exhausting in the offing. After one particularly tiring evening, Austen wrote to her sister, “When you receive this, our guests will be all gone or going; and I shall be left … to ease the mind of the torments of rice pudding and apple dumplings, and probably regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.” Of course, she could always blame the cook if things didn’t work out. But that’s the upside to doing all the cooking yourself: When it’s good, you get to take all the credit.

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Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake Recipe

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Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies

Among all children’s authors I loved growing up, Beatrix Potter always seemed the most wholesome by far. My favorite books were the eyebrow raisers: the delicious nastiness of Roald Dahl, the nightmarish worlds of Maurice Sendak. Even The Velveteen Rabbit gets borderline traumatizing. When the only person you truly love gets scarlet fever, and all your friends are burned, you can finally become “real” if you cry? That’s more drama than a episode of Dawson’s Creek.

I remembered Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher as cuddly and innocent in comparison, but on a recent visit to the Morgan Library, I realized I had it all wrong: Potter had a not-so-secret dark side. Not a book goes by without some cute animal about to be skinned, drowned in a sack, or baked in a pie. Potter began her original draft of The Tale of Mr. Tod, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” Her editor nixed it; turns out, readers wanted those goody goody books.

Still, a few less-than-goody bits made it into print. One of my favorite Potter characters is Cecily Parsley, an adorable rabbit who moonlights as a beer brewer. Potter’s illustrations show Cecily soaking some barley in front of comically large barrels marked “XX.” It’s impossible to imagine other favorite children’s characters doing the same: Anne of Green Gables opening up a distillery, or the Goodnight Moon mouse tippling on some homemade hooch.

Did Potter take a cue from Cecily and start her own homebrews? Probably not. She did cook; at her beloved Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lakes District, she planted an herb and vegetable garden that Peter Rabbit would have loved to pillage. Much of her produce came from those gardens, but not all her recipes were virtuous. When Potter’s family recipe book went up for auction this fall, hiding in her gingerbread was a good dose of ale—a little bit of naughty in the midst of all that sugar, spice, and everything nice.

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Ralph Ellison: Molasses Cornbread

There’s a scene in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man that has become one of the most famous food passages in history. The unnamed narrator, passing a sweet-potato vendor on the road, is transported back to his childhood in the South, happily recalling meals of fried chicken and chitterlings – foods that soon became too racially charged for him to enjoy. But in this moment, the narrator is changed: He gets three orders of potato, newly determined to eat what he likes without shame. “I yam what I am,” he shouts, transformed (and if your mind went straight to Popeye, just remember what a dramatic effect food had on him).

Food unexpectedly changed the course of Ellison’s life: When he started studying music at the Tuskegee Institute, he also began working long hours in the dining hall, in order to pay off his tuition. You could find him on the early shift – 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. – baking cornbread and pouring bowls of molasses for the breakfast service. And after graduation, it was cooking – not music – that landed Ellison a job. Failing to score a coveted spot as a trumpeter in a military band, he instead found work as a cook on a Liberty ship, turning out versions of the Southern staples he learned at Tuskegee: cornbread, biscuits and fried pies.

It wasn’t until Ellison began traveling abroad, away from the Southern dishes that had defined his early years, that he realized how they had worked their way into his being. Living in Rome in 1956, Ellison wrote to his friend and fellow writer Albert Murray, “I got no way to get any corn bread … no sweet potatoes or yellow yams, a biscuit is unheard of – they think it means a cookie in this town – and their greens don’t taste like greens.”

Today fried chicken and stewed greens have gained gourmet cred – collard green risotto is totally a thing – but there will always be foods that feature guilt as a main ingredient. The phrase “you are what you eat” has become a grim warning, baking shame into things that ought to be enjoyed in moderation. We focus so much on the physical effects of our diet, it’s easy to forget that food can change us in other ways – ones that don’t involve calories or celery sticks but instead affect our minds and hearts: sweet potatoes for comfort, ice cream for renewal, chocolate for joy.

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Elizabeth Bishop: The Brownie Recipe

Baking, especially baking bread, is one of those activities that is perennially nerdy-cool, like knitting or discussing artisan teas. If you’ve ever talked with rhapsodic satisfaction about your sourdough starter, you’re a part of it. But you’re not the first.

Elizabeth Bishop was one of the earliest to recognize the proto-hipster qualities of baking from scratch, after the 1920s inventions of Betty Crocker mixes and Wonder Bread made it unnecessary. “My part-time work at present seems to be baking bread,” she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1960, adding presciently, “it sounds food-faddish I’m afraid.”

Although she was always an occasional baker, making treats for cake sales and birthdays, it wasn’t until landing in Brazil in 1951 that Bishop made it a habit. Her trip, which began as a travel fellowship, turned into a 15-year stay, and she soon became a very popular neighbor thanks to one of her signature recipes: brownies.

The earliest published recipes for brownies appeared in Chicago and New England the early 1900s, but according to Bishop they hadn’t made it to South America by the 1950s. Her version was an instant hit. “Since Brazilians are mad about anything chocolate … I have been requested to bring along 4 dozen brownies (something I’ve introduced to Brazil) and a large chocolate cake,” she writes to Lowell in the fall of 1957. “You see how innocent our lives are here—just making money and eating sweets.”

There’s an intimacy about baking, which might be why I always like to celebrate Valentine’s Day with homemade desserts. But reading from the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell is just as romantic to me – no bodice-ripping, but plenty of wit, flirtation, and the kind of tenderness that bespeaks a very deep love.

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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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