Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)

Henrick Ibsen - Honey-cake

Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns, and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.

Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of Norwegian constitution, bonfires of St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.”

As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, besides Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30, and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jaeger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.

Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jaeger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”

Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20pm to 2pm, and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Cafe. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.

This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Cafe closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his cafe chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Cafe, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.

IMG_2191

Ibsen Honeycake Recipe

Continue reading “Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)”

Advertisement

Victor Hugo: Venison with Balsamic Blackberry Glaze

Victor Hugo: Venison with Blackberry Balsamic Tarragon Glaze

Whether you’re reading a Russian classic or a Great American Novel, Big Books tend to make big demands: on your time, your concentration, your upper arm strength. Just cracking one open can seem daunting … until you imagine writing one. Reading Les Misérables might take me a few months. It took Victor Hugo 17 years to write the Big Book that became his most enduring work, one that was fueled by a seriously Big Appetite.

“The world and his waistcoat are not wide enough to contain the glory of Victor Hugo—or his corpulence,” Théophile Gautier joked, after his friend had become a national literary star. It’s hard to tell what about the author attracted more attention: his body of work or his bodily girth. Visitors to the Hugo family table remarked on the multiple cups of hot cocoa in the morning, the “enormous pieces of roast meat” in the evening. Most everything in the Hugo household was large, including Hugo himself.

Not only was Hugo’s hunger unstoppable, it was also indiscriminate. Anything that could be eaten whole, would be—even lobsters in the shell. (Why waste a perfectly good shell?). Even orange peels went down the hatch. A fellow author remembered, “At the end of the meal he dipped orange quarters into his wine and ate them with marked satisfaction. Everything about Victor Hugo was extraordinary, even his digestion.”

The problem with a ravenous appetite, though, is what happens when there’s nothing left to feed it. Hugo was famously forced to slim down during the 1870 Siege of Paris, when the Prussian army blockaded the capital and waited for the city’s residents to slowly starve. But Parisians never say die, especially where cuisine is concerned. Throughout the siege, restaurant menus still touted delicacies like begonias au jus and rat salami with sauce Robert.

With his taste for excess, Hugo took the restrictions particularly poorly. “Decidedly horse is not good for me,” he wrote, not that it stopped him (“I ate some”). Yet, while he sampled rat and other reject proteins most Parisians called dinner, his fame gave him special access to choicer meats. When the city zoo began to sacrifice its animals to the cause, Hugo’s kitchen got first dibs. “Yesterday we ate some stag; the day before we partook of bear; and the two days previous we fared on antelopes,” he wrote. Hemingway may have hunted elephant, but Hugo ate it first.

Venison with blackberry balsamic glaze

Recipe: Venison with blackberry tarragon glaze

Continue reading “Victor Hugo: Venison with Balsamic Blackberry Glaze”

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. 

* * *

Orange Honey Filling chekhov3

Continue reading “Anton Chekhov: Blini Stack with Honey Orange Filling”

The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

Learning about the drinking habits of your favorite children’s book author is both disconcerting and a little thrilling. It’s like that teenage realization, so obvious yet somehow inconceivable, that your parents likely were sloshed at some point during your early years and you didn’t even notice.

When you’re raised with Charlotte and Stuart Little, it’s harder to remember E.B. White’s other pursuits, ones that make him a more likely candidate to kick off a cocktail feature. Besides revising that English-major staple The Elements of Style, he was one of The New Yorker’s top contributors for an incredible 50 years. After a half-century in that crowd, you’re bound to pick up a few mixology tricks.

Writers are a notoriously well-soused bunch. But a martini probably has the most literary pedigree of any drink in the repertoire: the publishers’ three-martini lunch, Dorothy Parker’s poem, James Bond. White was one of its most vocal devotees, praising it as “the elixir of quietude. … Martinis, if anything, have a muting effect on the constant ringing in my ears.”

It’s still hard for me to picture White, martini glass in hand, writing the words I would later read with a flashlight under the covers. It’s easier to imagine him early on: just out of Cornell and working at an ad agency, looking for a newspaper job on his lunch breaks. “I wouldn’t mind going without the food if I could have a little luck with the jobs, but it’s damn hard to have neither success nor sandwiches at noon,” he wrote in 1921. When his first New Yorker piece was published, four years later, I envision him sitting down with a celebratory turkey club and pouring out a much-deserved drink.

* *  *

Continue reading “The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White”

Jean-Paul Sartre: Halva with Almonds

Food often tops our list of guilty pleasures, but it’s hard to think of famous writers indulging in the gratuitous and occasionally sordid ways we do. When I was in college, part of my late-night routine was to buy a huge bag of Tostitos with lime, eat the whole thing while writing a paper and—in one final profligacy—scrape the fake citrus-flavored salt out of the corners of the bag. Trying to imagine Camus doing that just feels wrong.

But there’s probably a kernel of truth to it, if Jean-Paul Sartre’s letters are anything to go by. Sartre had his cravings too, and while he was fighting with the French army during World War II, his letters to Simone de Beauvoir repeatedly mention the same thing. He demands halva.

In between discussions of Weltanschauung and his work on Being and Nothingness, Sartre can’t stop talking about halva. “Don’t forget,” he reminds de Beauvoir in 1939, when asking her to send two boxes. Then, in a following letter: disaster. “I was in an excellent mood today, and then I got your books (the Romains) but no halva. Is there another package?”

But when Sartre does receive halva, multiple times over the next few years, his joy is palpable. “The halva arrived in good order … Thank you very much, my little sweet. We ate the whole box at lunch.” And later: “I gave the halva to Pieter, who carried on about it so, that I bawled him out. At this very moment he’s eating a big chunk with great satisfaction.”

The letters between Sartre and de Beauvoir are also incredibly beautiful. But Sartre’s sweet tooth makes him just a bit more relatable. Existentialists: They’re just like us.

* * *

Continue reading “Jean-Paul Sartre: Halva with Almonds”