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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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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Ernest Hemingway: Bacon-Wrapped Trout with Corn Cakes

Were you expecting a stiff cocktail? Fresh marlin? Braised wildebeest? Ernest Hemingway has become such a legendary character, it’s hard to think of a recipe that could match his macho reputation. It’s clear that the man loved food; A Moveable Feast is one of the most sincere odes to eating I’ve ever read. But did Hemingway cook?

Whether on a Cuban beach or the African savanna, Hem was a fan of the good life – and that included making good food. “It is all right to talk about roughing it in the woods. But the real woodsman is the man who can be really comfortable in the bush,” he wrote in an essay on camping for the Toronto Star.  As a kid, Hemingway spent many summers hiking through Michigan, and his ideal meal was a freshly caught fish. But most of his fellow outdoorsmen didn’t know their way around a griddle. “The rock that wrecks most camping trips is cooking,” he griped. “The average tyro’s idea of cooking is to fry everything and fry it good and plenty.”

As a solution, he proposed a simple but satisfying meal for any campfire cook. Trout was a favorite for Michigan fishermen, but it can dry out easily. So Hemingway suggested cooking it in layers of bacon, whose fat bastes the fish as it renders. “If there is anything better than that combination the writer has yet to taste it in a lifetime devoted largely and studiously to eating.”

Of course, sometimes the hardest part of cooking isn’t preparing the meal itself – it’s waiting for it to be done. Hemingway saw that coming, too. He recommended whipping up a batch of pancakes to serve before the main course, to satisfy any unhappy campers.

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Sylvia Plath: Lemon Pudding Cakes

Is it taboo to write about baking and Sylvia Plath? When I told a friend what I was cooking this week, his face froze in a half-smile. “Oh, um, ha! But really, what are you making?” Another awkward reaction: “Well … be careful?”

I still feel like I’m tiptoeing around the elephant in the room every time I mention an oven. But, as for many a 1950s-era wife and mother, cooking and baking were large parts of Plath’s daily life, and not unwelcome ones. “How I love to cook!” she wrote in her journals – and apparently she was no slouch either. Ted Hughes praised his wife’s cooking in his letters: “Sylvia by the way is becoming the most superlative cook I’ve encountered.” To him, she was “a princess of cooks.”

We tend to think of cooking, and particularly baking, as a soothing, cathartic experience. But, as anyone who has put together a dinner party (much less run an actual bakery) can attest, it can lead to some very un-soothing thoughts. Did I beat the eggs enough? Shouldn’t it be rising more? What if I didn’t grease the ramekins enough and half of the cake sticks and then it breaks in half and the whole thing is ruined and then what will I do? THEN WHAT?

Plath seemed to have a similar dual reaction to her time in the kitchen; it was both a blessed release and a warning sign, a suffocating dead end. In 1957, after a day spent baking a pie, Plath worriedly wrote in her journal, “You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.” It’s an uncomfortable moment, a hint of things to come.

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Sylvia Plath Lemon Pudding Cake

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