The Cocktail Hour: Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver: Bloody Mary

It’s been well established that writing and drinking go together, but not all pairings are as elegant as Oscar Wilde and champagne or as cosmopolitan as E.B. White and his martinis. Some concoctions are born less out of delectability than out of necessity: specifically, a need to get epically sloshed, then somehow wake up the next day ready (or at least able) to work. Raymond Carver was an expert in both.

“I know you like to drink, and I like to drink, but I never met a guy who likes to drink like Ray likes to drink,” Carver’s peers would gossip among themselves. Getting drunk didn’t require any glamorous cocktails for Carver; a fifth of vodka in the morning and a fifth in the afternoon was what he preferred to do the job.

He was known for out-boozing even his fellow writers—no strangers to the bottle—including John Cheever, a colleague at the University of Iowa. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver wrote. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Their students became the responsible ones, cooking dinner for the duo to ensure they got down a few bites of solid food.

But although they shared a fondness for late-night partying, the two friends differed on their approach to another writerly affliction: the hangover. Cheever preferred to nurse his with a deliciously greasy sandwich, but Carver took a “hair of the dog” approach. “Most mornings, Ray woke everyone by calling out ‘Hot doughnuts! Steaming hot cups of coffee!'” his biographer claims. “But when they got to the kitchen, ‘heart starter’ Bloody Marys were the main offering.” In other words, Bloody Marys aren’t just a typical Carver drink; they are a full Carver meal—with just enough nutritional value to qualify as breakfast.

Bloody Marys also played a role in one of the biggest moments in Carver’s career. When the publisher of McGraw-Hill called to invite him to lunch, Carver wasn’t in the most … professional of mindsets: “I was drunk and hungover both,” he wrote. But he made it on time and downed two Bloodys before learning the news: McGraw was offering him his first advance, for a novel he hadn’t even written yet. He immediately celebrated with an ideal Carver lunch: a double vodka on the rocks, a couple of cocktail shrimp on the side.

Raymond Carver bloody mary 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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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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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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George Orwell: Treacle Tart

George Orwell - Treacle Tart

Imagine this: It’s a Sunday night, the end of a long weekend full of gift shopping, cookie baking, and fun-but-exhausting holiday merrymaking. You can’t possibly cook now, you decide, and turn to your trusty takeout-menu drawer. What are you in the mood for, though? Thai? Italian? Indian? Ethiopian?

If there’s one thing I bet you didn’t say, it’s “British.” Despite the U.K.’s recent restaurant renaissance, its meals have been a culinary punchline for nearly a century, ever since World War I hobbled the country’s food culture. George Orwell summed up its characteristics rather bluntly: “simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous.”

Orwell was obviously never one to hide his feelings about food; his travel writings slam chefs everywhere from France to Burma. You’d think he’d be a little kinder to his home cuisine, but he savages everything from fish and chips (“definitely nasty, and has been an enemy of home cookery”) to rice puddings (“the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence”) to pretty much any kind of vegetable (“usually smothered in a tasteless white sauce”).

But Orwell did reserve some praise for what was, in his mind, Britain’s crowning culinary glory: “sweet dishes and confectionery—cakes, puddings, jams, biscuits.” Best of all were the Christmas treats: plum pudding, and treacle tart, “a delicious dish … hardly to be found in other countries.”

So how could a food lover like Orwell explain the U.K.’s mediocre showing in the kitchen? As he tells it, it’s because the best English cooking isn’t at a charming bistro or fancy restaurant, but is made at home, where foreigners don’t have access. That may be bad news for tourists—but it’s a moment for home cooks to shine. When we’re baking scones or Yorkshire puddings, Orwell says, we can be chefs of our own making.

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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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