Pearl S. Buck: Brown Bean Shrimp with Garlic Green Beans

Pearl S. Buck: Stir-Fried Shrimp and Garlic Green Beans

There’s an old familiar standard by which so many of our meals are measured: Is it as good as mom used to make? We tend to praise dishes that conjure up where we’ve come from—but what about the ones that take us where we’ve never been? If we don’t have any immediate plans to go floating down the Mekong or tooling around in Tuscany, food can be our quickest ticket: a sensory trip through another culture without the jet lag (or constantly needing to disturb the person in the aisle seat when you need to pee).

All this might help explain why my nervousness when I heard about Pearl S. Buck’s Oriental Cookbook: A Rich and Variety Collection of the Best Dishes from All of Asia. As a friend said when I showed her the cover: “I am going to guess this book is a masterpiece of political incorrectness.” Not really a trip she wanted to take.

Awkward “O word” aside (it was less outré in 1974 than it is now), a book summarizing an entire continent’s cuisine in 300 pages seemed destined to be a cursory summary at best, uncomfortable generalization at worst. On the first page, though, Buck addressed my fears head-on. “It would take many books to describe Asian cookery,” she begins. “Nothing could be more different … than China and Japan, geographically and demographically, or in their cuisines.”

The daughter of American missionaries, Buck was five months old when she arrived in Huai’an, in Eastern China. She grew up preferring local food to the stuff her parents made; she’d secretly eat with the servants before joining her family for dinner, too full to dig into her second meal. Through her travels—first with her family, later with her husband—she came to discover the regional specialties that would become some of her all-time favorite dishes, including deep-fried Szechuan duck and Shanghai-style fried noodles.

When The Good Earth was published in 1931, Buck’s novel became America’s default portrait of Chinese culture; the best-selling book in the U.S. two years in a row, it won the Nobel Prize for “rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life.” But her cookbook transports readers in an even more immersive way: through their kitchens.

Before you can explore a new place, of course, you have to get to know the layout; Buck continues her role of culinary ambassador through her instructions to American cooks, which range from chopstick etiquette (“They are not at all difficult to use after one has had a little practice.”) to the “seven items essential to housekeeping” (oil, fuel, soy sauce, vinegar, rice, salt and tea … although MSG also makes her shortlist). Can’t find MSG at your local grocer? There’s a handy mail-order guide in the back of the book.

But beyond these small adjustments, Buck comforts her readers that “the Western kitchen is more than adequately adapted to the preparation of Chinese meals.” Although her novels present a culture half a world away, her cookbook suggests that it’s closer than we might think. There will be different tastes, and new techniques, but soon those surprising dishes will become familiar, and even comforting—just like those ones mom used to make.

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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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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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Mary Shelley: Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

Mary Shelley - Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

With the polar vortex hitting New York and my Californian disregard for warm coats, it was bound to happen: I am sick. Not sick enough to be devastating, but just sick enough to be achy, whiny, and wishing for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup at all times. Instead of indulging myself, though, I took a cue from Mary Shelley, pulled on my pajamas, and made kale.

It’s tempting to think of kale as a marvel of modern marketing, engineered by the savvy people of Whole Foods to make us eat our vegetables. But the leafy green was one of the most common types of produce in Europe before it was outpaced by cabbage around 1600, and its popularity continued into the 18th century. For Shelley, kale wasn’t a trend, something to be massaged or blended into drinks. It wasn’t “healthy.” It was comforting.

Mary was the resident caregiver in her literary family; her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, wasn’t so good at looking after himself. “He could have lived on bread alone without repining,” his biographer Richard Henry Stoddard wrote. “Vegetables, and especially salads … were acceptable.” Mary was the one who made sure her husband was fed, not that he noticed much. She “used to send him something to eat into the room where he habitually studied; but the plate frequently remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day he might be heard asking, ‘Mary, have I dined?'”

Food has long been our chosen way of providing for those we love; when I was in college, my mom’s “care packages” were 5% socks, 95% cookies (a ratio I heartily approved of). Mary Shelley’s letters show just how far back the tradition goes. When her aunt Everina fell ill, Mary, far away in Rome, dispatched a friend to put together a care package of her own: “jelly, oranges, spongecakes and her favourite kale.” Kale became a frequent gift, an all-purpose treatment for what ails you.

A new batch of Shelley’s letters was recently discovered from when she herself was ill, with a brain tumor that would kill her a few years later. Percy was gone by then, as was Everina. The only person Mary had left to care for was herself, hopefully with her friends around her and some kale on the stove, cooking to heal the soul.

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James Joyce: Rigatoni Con Stracotto

James Joyce - Rigatoni con Stracatto

I read Ulysses in my first year of college, armed with a “European Literary Tradition” class syllabus and a book of annotations that was nearly as long as the novel itself. The details of Proteus and Stephen Dedalus didn’t stay with me in the least, but what remained was the overwhelming sense of loneliness I felt: People were always sadly eating kidneys in a pub, a kind of dual gastronomic punishment (first the solitude, then the kidneys). For a generation that’s been told we should never eat alone, Leopold Bloom’s day seems like a cautionary tale (an extremely elaborate one).

Restaurants can be a taunt to the solitary diner: You can’t even be alone with your loneliness when there’s a table of strangers at your elbow. And your pity party of one would have felt particularly grim if you were seated next to James Joyce’s party of ten. When the Joyces went out, they went as a pack—a boisterous one. Hemingway shared the gossip from Paris in his letters: “[Joyce] and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s, where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.” I picture a modern-day Joyce dining out, making it rain euros while ordering bottle service.

Joyce’s enjoyment of food, unlike that of his withdrawn characters, was wrapped up in his enjoyment of others, and vice versa. Writing to his brother, Stanislaus, he requested both food and company: “a slice of corned beef and cabbage, a sizeable beefsteak prepared on a gridiron, and (excuse the hierarchy) an intelligent supra-burgher like yourself to share the meal.”

But Joyce’s favorite dining companion was his wife, Nora—who conveniently also did all the cooking. A day with the Joyces meant a day of eating, starting with hot chocolate at 9 a.m. “At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she) buys, cooks (soup, meat, potatoes and something else)…. At four o’clock we have chocolate and at eight o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.” If anyone tells you having multiple hot chocolates a day is wrong, direct them here. 

Eating wasn’t all that went on in the Joyce’s kitchen; if you read their infamously naughty correspondence, you might not want to eat off their dining table when you learn where it’s been. But their exploits prove what Joyce clearly already knew: The kitchen isn’t just a place for the stomach, but for the heart. As he writes to Nora, after a short absence, “I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

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Alexandre Dumas: Purple Potato Salad with Spring Onion Pesto

Alexandre Dumas - Potato Salad with Spring Onion Pesto

After you decide you want to be a writer, the problem becomes what to write about. Every subject seems to come with a prepackaged identity: the introspective memoirist, the philosophizing critic. And then there’s “food writing,” a term so broad, it’s practically identity-free (Wikipedia’s list of food writers mentions both the Greek scholar Athenaeus and Martha Stewart, two people who, I imagine, would have very little to discuss at a dinner party).

The one thing that does seem to unite “food writing” is the widely held belief that it is frivolous, somehow “less than.” A book I read recently described someone as “too good a writer to be a food writer,” and while I’d heard versions of that before, it gnawed at me all the same. It didn’t belong there, in this book I otherwise liked.

Alexandre Dumas was fighting the same attitude when he made his food-writing debutDumas had already established his identity in the literary world: The Count of Monte Cristo was only, you know, the most popular book in all of Europe. So he had his reputation on the line when he decided to write about food – and he knew it.

His food book, he argued, would be different, combining “both scientific knowledge and an element of wit,” and would “perhaps deserve to be read by men of serious character.” In other words, it wasn’t just for that cookbook-reading riffraff. The result is a strange little encyclopedia, written of two minds: half food worshiper, half food apologist. The one thing Dumas can say for sure is that he just really loves potatoes.

The unexpected star of the book, potatoes take up an entire section in From Absinthe to Zest, as “a most excellent vegetable.” He details their historical significance: During the French Revolution, the royal gardens were torn up to make way for them. He also makes grand claims about their health benefits: “The alacrity with which one observes children eating baked potatoes, and feeling all the better for them, proves that they suit all dispositions.” I’m not sure about that evidence—considering the alacrity with which I ate Twix bars at that age—but he seems convinced enough.

Dumas’ main gripe is that while the potato was embraced by the masses, “absurd prejudices prevented it from being duly appreciated for a long time” by the upper classes. “Many people thought it a dangerous foodstuff, or at least a coarse one.” Dumas took it upon himself to change prejudices toward the potato … and began changing prejudices toward food writing at the same time. Now it’s up to us to finish the job.

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Franz Kafka: Potato Mushroom Soup

Franz Kafka - Potato Mushroom Soup

Another year, another fad diet. Every January, we’re told to go Paleo, go South Beach, go Atkins. It’s a culinary labyrinth that has existed for centuries—and Franz Kafka was an early captive.

Kafka famously followed a strict vegetarian regime; in an anecdote from friend and biographer Max Brod, Kafka proudly discussed his diet choices with a fish in the Berlin aquarium, saying, “Now at least I can look at you in peace. I don’t eat you anymore.” But if you think Kafka eschewed meat for moral reasons, think again. It was all a fad.

“Franz’s attitude toward the ‘natural health methods’ … was one of intense interest,” wrote Brod, and vegetarianism was only one of the trends that held Kafka in thrall. He was also a convert to “fletcherizing,” a British craze from the turn of the 20th century that advocated chewing each bite of food 32 times before swallowing. I saw the same thing on an episode of Sex and the City 100 years later, proving that some diets really never die.

Plus, meat is just so embarrassing when it gets stuck in your teeth, am I right? “Meat is the one thing that is so stringy that it can be removed only with great difficulty,” Kafka wrote disgustedly, “and even then not at once and not completely.” It’s a comment that could just as well have come from the title character in “A Hunger Artist,” who fasts because he can’t find food that he likes.

But Kafka relished his meals, particularly strawberries and cherries (which he would take several minutes just to smell before eating). “How he took such pleasure in eating a banana!” sighed his lover Dora Diamant. Brod agreed: “Although he was a teetotaler and a vegetarian, he knew how to appreciate the pleasures of beer, wine and meat.” Kafka would “take a sniff of drinks sometimes and praise their wonderful aroma.”

Kafka and Diamant dreamed of traveling to Israel together and opening a restaurant: she in the kitchen, he in the front. They never specified in their letters what type of restaurant it might be. But I wouldn’t go there for the steak.

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Potato Mushroom Soup (Bramboracka) Recipe

 

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Raymond Chandler: Swordfish Siciliana

What to cook for Raymond Chandler on his birthday? If he’s known for anything vaguely digestible today, it’s Terry Lennox’s gin gimlet recipe from The Big Sleep: “half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” Sometimes that can be the basis of a whole birthday dinner menu, but it’s usually unintentional (and ill-advised, if my “popcorn and whiskey” birthday was any indication).

But it turns out Chandler had more than a few recipes up his sleeve – maybe even a cookbook’s worth. While working on The Long Goodbye in La Jolla, California, he wrote to editor Dale Warren with another surprising proposal. “Somebody really ought to write a cookbook and put in all the things that the regular cookbooks leave out, the things which, if you’re a beginner, the cookbooks don’t tell you,” he said. “Also, any decent cookbook should have a few special recipes, a touch of the unique. And this I could easily supply.”

Seen through his letters, Chandler becomes the Mark Bittman of La Jolla. He’s minimalist in his approach to food (his recipe for pork chops: “Cook them in their own fat, they bring everything with them that is necessary except salt and pepper.”). But he’s also deeply critical of Americans’ slide into non-cooking, 50 years ahead of the curve. He scorns his neighbor’s dependence on “a deep freeze unit in his garage where he keeps enough food for six months … Most of the other food he eats comes ready-prepared and half-chewed.” If you think that’s harsh, Chandler goes on: “I sometimes wonder what we are here for. Certainly not to use our minds.” It’s a relief he wasn’t around to see the rise of the Hot Pocket.

Chandler would have turned 124 today; I’ll celebrate my own birthday later this week. No popcorn and whiskey for me this time around. We’re older now, and wiser. We use our minds. We plan our menus. And there won’t be anything frozen or ready-made, although there may well be a gimlet or two.

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Gabriel García Márquez: Lobster Tail with Spaghetti and Bread Crumbs

In the pantheon of great literary friendships – Kerouac and Ginsberg, Emerson and Thoreau – Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro isn’t a wildly popular pair. What does the master of magical realism have to chat about with the Cuban president? And who said Castro is literary, anyway?

Well … Márquez did. “It may not be widely known that Fidel is a very cultured man,” he told Playboy. “When we’re together, we talk a great deal about literature.” And when they met for the first time in 1977, Castro and Márquez discovered another shared bond: They were both seafood fiends. What began as a diplomatic exchange about Angola turned into a lengthy conversation about lobster recipes. The same thing happens when my family starts talking politics at the table; we end up retreating to a common ground and asking what’s for dessert.

It was the beginning of a culinary kinship. Over the next few years, they rhapsodized over shrimp. Their dinner menus were odes to the sea. When a Cuban chef who frequently cooked for the high-powered pair published a book, he included the recipes he associated with them: turtle soup for Castro, and lobster for Gabo.

Although Castro’s fondness for spaghetti threatened to eclipse his shellfish infatuation (“Fidel is still doing spaghetti,” Márquez sighed in an article in 1985), he knew what he wanted where seafood was concerned. “It’s best not to boil shrimp and lobsters, because the boiling water weakens the substance and flavor and makes the meat a little bit tough. I like to broil them in the oven or grill them. … For condiments, just butter garlic and lemon. Good food is simple food.”

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