Gustave Flaubert and George Sand: Potato and Gruyère Galette

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When asked “What famous writer would you invite to a dinner party?” famous wits like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain definitely come to mind. But even the fictional dinner cast of my dreams pales in comparison to a real-life guest list: George Sand’s house parties in Nohant, France, in the 1860s and 70s. Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin were a few of the mouths at Sand’s table. But one of her favorite guests was not only another giant of the arts, but her de facto gym buddy: Gustave Flaubert.

Although Sand loved to cook, she found herself with regular digestive problems, and kept trying different eating regimens in an attempt to find what would make her feel her best—an “elimination diet,” before they were cool. This included cutting out red meat, and occasionally trying vegetarianism. “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach,” she wrote Flaubert. Her approach to cutting out alcohol was more moderate: “I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.”

Flaubert followed his friend’s lead; after all, a diet’s always easier when someone else is suffering with you. Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert’s protege, observed, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate … finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Flaubert and Sand would collaborate on their meal planning through their correspondence, sharing tips with each other. “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee,” Sand wrote.

Not only did the two writers share diet strategies, they also encouraged each others’ fitness habits. “I have followed your counsel, dear master, I have EXERCISED!!! Am I not splendid; eh?” Flaubert bragged in a letter to Sand—the 19th-century equivalent of posting your daily step count on Fitbit.

Despite living 300 kilometers apart, Flaubert and Sand would visit each others’ cities specifically to eat together. “I shall make a great effort and shall leave at eight o’clock Sunday, so as to lunch with you,” Sand would write. “When you arrive in Paris, give me a rendezvous. And at that we shall make another to dine informally tete-a-tete,” Flaubert encouraged.

“I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. … What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”The best thing about getting healthy with friends is that, even if your weight never budges, you’ve still spent many hours sharing meals with someone you love.

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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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Ezra Pound: Spaghetti with Pancetta, Sage and Fried Egg

Exra Pound: Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg

Has it really been over a year since I’ve posted a pasta recipe? It seems impossible to believe since, for the first three-quarters of my life, dinner was always a delicious mess of noodles, covered with enough sauce and parmesan to make any Italian blush. Besides satisfying all my cravings (carbs, cheese, twirling things on a fork), spaghetti was also economical, making it my go-to dinner party dish in college. Dress it up with some fancy cured meats and call me the poor man’s Lidia Bastianich (emphasis on poor).

But that was only a blip in pasta’s long history of feeding starving scholars—including, at the turn of the 20th century, London’s literary elite. When Ezra Pound arrived in 1908, he fell in with a group of writers whose weekly meetings in Soho Square involved as much spaghetti as books. Organized by the poet T.E. Hulme at a local restaurant, the salon was so known for its pasta-and-wine menu that the poet Louis Zukofsky, working on an analysis of the Cantos for the literary crowd, told Pound, “This should make matters simpler for the spaghetti eaters.”

Pasta became art, and art became pasta. In his 1918 collection Pavannes and DivisionsPound criticized a sculpture called Figure Representing Aspiration with a reference to his diet. “I never saw aspiration looking like that,” he wrote. “But I have seen spaghetti piled on a plate and the form was decidedly similar. A great deal of ‘representational’ sculpture is, in form, not unlike plates of spaghetti.” He would know.

When Pound moved to Italy, the Soho habits stuck—both the spaghetti and the wine. He commiserated with his writer-friends back the States, who were suffering under the yolk of Prohibition.”I go for days, at times even weeks (not probably very plural) without likker,” he wrote to H.L. Mencken in 1928, “but shd. hate to feel I had to square the cop or the local J.P. every time I wanted to … have a little rosso with my spaghetti.”

Of course, Pound’s Italian fascism is more well-known than his Italian diet. But even after he was arrested for treason and shipped back to the U.S., his meals weren’t much different from his London salon days. “We always have pasta & some Green pea army soup in the house,” he wrote to his wife. Cheap, or literary? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipeSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg Recipe

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Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Friedrich Nietzsche: Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint

Whenever I’m trying to remember something important—a due date, a birthday, the name of a friend’s new baby (oops!)—I’m always amazed by the random information my brain has quietly absorbed instead, without my knowledge. Most, to my chagrin, is completely useless: ’90s song lyrics, all the presidents in order, the name of the cat from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. But also, without knowing how or when it happened, I unexpectedly learned to cook.

Between all the poetry, philosophy, and cultural theories, Friedrich Nietzsche’s brain wouldn’t seem to have much space for cooking skills either. Food in general often gave him more trouble than pleasure. Suffering from digestion problems, he hopped around Europe, from the French Riviera to the Italian coast, hoping the climate would restore his health. He avoided restaurants, where, he complained, “one is made accustomed to ‘overfeeding’; that is why I no longer like to eat in them.”

Yet, over the years, Nietzsche absorbed a love of cooking by learning the same way I did: through those around him. In Genoa, his landlady taught him to fry artichokes and whisk eggs for torta di carciofi, the local specialty. In Sorrento, in a villa surrounded by lemon trees, his housemaid showed him her secret to a perfect risotto, lovingly ladling out the stock as she stirred. Studying the techniques of his Italian housekeepers, Nietzsche was eager to become a teacher himself. He wrote to his mother: “I shall teach you later how to cook risotto—I know now.”

Nietzsche would later revise his opinion of restaurants, becoming a regular at several neighborhood trattorias, but he always reserved special praise for those dishes he learned himself; game recognize game. In a letter from Turin, he detailed his regular order: “minestra or risotto, a good portion of meat, vegetable and bread—all good … I eat here with the serenest disposition of soul and stomach.”

For most of us, cooking doesn’t happen intentionally; we don’t crack open a book to “Chapter 1: Let’s Talk About Knife Skills.” Instead, the path to the kitchen unwinds slowly, over a lifetime: “helping” sift the flour for a batch of cookie dough, learning to cut an onion without catching your fingers, trying to perfect the swirl on top of a meringue pie. It’s hard to remember each step we took. Instead it’s the guides we remember—be it a mother, grandmother, father or kindly landlady—for leading us along the way.

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Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Mint recipe

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Molasses Pumpkin Pie

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Molasses Pumpkin Pie

New Yorkers are rumored to be a cynical bunch—and, for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Moving here from California was like watching Annie Hall in reverse: shedding the golden optimism of the West Coast for the Woody Allen snarkiness of the East. Since sarcasm is my lingua franca, I usually fit right in … until November 1 rolls around. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, I’m an unrepentant sap.

“There is no season which so vividly recalls the endearments of home and so fully awakens the recollections of its blessings as the return of these annual holidays,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Thanksgiving Day, 1828. I might put it a little less floridly, but Longfellow and I agree on the main points. We love the family gatherings. We love the familiar traditions. And most of all, we love to eat.

“Talking about Thanksgiving Day puts me in mind of the Pioneers and ten thousand other things,” he wrote to his sister Anne. And those ten thousand things? They’re all food: “geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, roasted pork, plumb [sic] puddings, sour apples and molasses and pumpkin pies baked in milk pans.” Sure, the Pilgrims are important. But for Longfellow, pie is the priority.

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Longfellow was particularly proud of pumpkin pie’s New England roots. He summarily dismissed British holiday desserts, saying that their traditional mince pies were “far surpassed by the ‘New England peculiar’ baked pumpkin and pan-dowdy.” When observing Thanksgiving in Venice in 1828, he reassured his father that his dessert needs were being handled. “You must not think … that I am deprived of all your New England comforts. On the contrary: my good landlady has promised me baked-pumpkin and hasty-pudding for dinner to day!” Crisis averted.

But more than pie, Longfellow relished the holiday’s sense of community, and extended an invitation to supper for others who were far from home; Charles Dickens, on his second tour of America in 1867, spent Thanksgiving at the Longfellows’ table. The holidays, Longfellow wrote, were meant to “gather friends and relatives together, and call in from the thoroughfares of the world those that have been thrown out of the family circle, and jostled apart in the crowd.”

Although he was one of the most popular poets of his day, Longfellow’s work is now often criticized for being overly sentimental. You might say the same about his thoughts on Thanksgiving: “At such times,” he wrote, “the heart clings to home, as the dying man clings to life.” Sappy? Sure. But for this cynical New Yorker, ’tis the season for a bit of saccharine, in both our hearts and our desserts.

Molasses Pumpkin Pie from Scratch

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L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

More than leaving home or getting that first job, the defining moment of my adulthood was the realization that I could eat whatever I wanted, no longer restrained by the contents of my family’s pantry or my (nonexistent) allowance. “Growing up” meant learning to make your own menu, in a city of unlimited culinary options. And if you decided dinner will be a bag of discounted Snickers bars bought in a post-Halloween binge … that’s when you learned sometimes adults make bad decisions too.

This freedom, though, is temporary; it ends when you open your kitchen to others—a partner, a spouse, a family—and suddenly your meals are influenced by their presence. Someone else starts writing your menu. In the case of L. Frank Baum, that person was his wife, Maud.

Ten years after the stunning success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum made the down payment on a grand Hollywood estate, which he and Maud dubbed Ozcot. Visiting the Baum household was like entering the Emerald City itself: the elegance, the parties, the three-oven range. Baum was known to order 100 pounds of cheese for a single soiree. Maud’s niece Matilda later remarked that those evenings “represented to me something that I knew nothing about, I was thrilled with the things they did, their food … everything.”

But while Baum chaired the party-planning committee, Maud ran the family kitchen with the efficiency of a train conductor. According to L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, the Baums ate three square meals a day, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. (fruit, eggs, potatoes, “four to five cups of strong coffee with sugar and heavy cream”) and ending with a hearty dinner (“typically a thick cream soup, roast meat with gravy, potatoes and vegetables, and a rich dessert”).

Such regular mealtimes can sound like paradise to anyone who’s ever stared at the fridge, too tired to whip something up after work. But with it came a mandate: Don’t question Maud’s kitchen authority. Baum learned the hard way when he bought a box of jelly doughnuts for breakfast one morning. As punishment for meddling in the menu planning, Maud served the leftover doughnuts every morning for the next week, until they were so stale that Baum tried to bury them in the yard rather than face them again.

Thinking about Baum hiding the offending doughnuts in his napkin, it’s easy to see him as a grown-up child, living in a world where dinner is always served on time, where appetites are never spoiled. It’s a world that is startlingly like Oz, where (in Ozma of Oz) even the King has to be cautioned “not to eat too much cake late at night, or he would be ill.”

Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce Recipe

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Anton Chekhov: Blini Stack with Honey Orange Filling

Anton Chekhov: Crepe Cake with Orange Honey Filling

One month from now, I’m going on a “big trip” – the kind of major vacation you typically put off until the time is right, or the airfare goes down, or your parents hit a major anniversary (which is eventually what happened). There are lots of plans in the works, for luggage, visas, appropriate clothing … which can all be dealt with later. Right now, I’m busy deciding what to eat.

For a dedicated eater, travel plans are really just food plans in disguise. So you can imagine how disappointed Anton Chekhov was by his trip to Siberia, where after a long grueling journey, he found that the food was only aspiring to edibility. Siberian cuisine “is not for the European stomach,” he wrote in 1890, a situation intensified by the notable lack of health codes. “One old lady wiped a teaspoon on her hindside before handing it to me,” he balked.

Chekhov’s put-downs during his Siberian stay have become legendary (“Tomsk is a very dull town. … The inhabitants are very dull, too”), sparking a long and bitter feud between the playwright and his hosts. But he saved his most cutting remarks for the cuisine. For an all-time gastronomic low, he described a dish of duck stomachs, which “haven’t been entirely cleaned of their contents and so, when you bite into them, cause you to think your mouth and your rectum have changed places.” Suddenly, all my worst kitchen failures are looking positively delicious in comparison.

But there was one bright spot on Chekhov’s trip: the baked goods. The residents of Tomsk baked “the most delicious bread … delicious also are the pies and pancakes, the fritters and dinner rolls.” Blinis are a Siberian specialty, and Chekhov marveled at their remarkable thinness. I imagine him bingeing on entire dinners of fritters and blinis, retreating into the culinary safety of carbs. As someone who regularly asks for bread basket refills, this sounds like a perfectly enjoyable solution.

Chekhov immortalizes his love for blinis in the short story “On Mortality,” which opens with a diner “quivering with impatience, await[ing] the moment the blini would appear.” When a stack emerges from the kitchen, they are “crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter.” A whole lot sexier than duck stomachs, in other words, and maybe even worth a trip. 

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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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Agatha Christie: Fig and Orange Scones with Devonshire Cream

Certain foods defy any attempt at portion control. Think chocolate chips, or those disturbingly addictive pretzel pieces that must be flavored with some kind of stimulant in addition to the honey mustard. I have such a Cheez-It obsession that, studying abroad in Paris and unable to find them in any grocery, I ordered three boxes online in a hunger-fueled panic. My host mother – who, in typical French fashion, served perfectly portioned meals on an adorable tea tray – brought the package to my room with a look of pure horror. I guiltily ate a whole box as soon as her back was turned.

But Agatha Christie clearly felt no such shame when it came to her food addiction: She loved cream, and all of Devon county knew it. “Agatha was very fond of food – she was passionate about cream,” the local vicar’s daughter remembered. “She would have it by the cupful. She would have a cup of cream by her typewriter.” Even Christie’s fictional characters couldn’t escape the obsession. Miss Marple is similarly famed for her love of cream, and even the picky Hercule Poirot partakes.

Christie made minor attempts to curb her appetite, to no avail. “She used to drink cream from a huge cup with ‘Don’t be greedy’ written on the side, an injunction she never showed any sign of obeying,” her grandson Mathew recalled. Frankly, I think that anyone who has a designated cream-sipping cup is fighting a losing battle with willpower, but I’m the one with a personal bag of chocolate chips in the pantry, so who am I to judge?

There was only one person who had control over Christie’s dessert intake: her butler. George Gowler oversaw the elaborate two-hour dinner parties at Greenway, Christie’s country estate. But instead of letting her choose the menu for the final course, Gowler would randomly assign everyone a different plate of fruit – a game of dessert roulette – allowing guests to choose their favorite dish only once a week. Christie’s favorite was fresh figs, which you can still sample from the trees she grew at Greenway. But beware if you encounter them in one of her mysteries: One unlucky lady who indulges in Syrup of Figs gets poisoned for her trouble. Safer to stick with the cream instead.

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