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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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Pudding Cake with Roasted Pears

Although it’s conspicuously absent from biology classes and science textbooks, I’m convinced that certain humans (myself included) have developed a rare but necessary extension of the digestive system: the “dessert stomach.” How else to explain our ability to be simultaneously completely full of dinner, but so ready for the final course? Friends with actual medical training tell me it’s all psychological, but I’m going with the two-stomach theory.

After all, the evidence goes back hundreds of years, to the New England table of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When you look at the dinner party guest lists now, they read like a survey of American literature—Emerson, Thoreau and a young Louisa May Alcott might be spotted, digging in—but the food was just as important as the company. “Should we be the more ethereal, if we did not eat?” he wondered in a letter. “I have a most human and earthly appetite.”

Even after those elaborate meals, though, Hawthorne could always find a little extra room when the main courses were cleared. Writing to his son after a particularly overwhelming feast, he admitted, “I had hardly any appetite left.” Nevertheless, “I did manage to eat some currant pudding, and a Banbury cake, and a Victoria cake, and a slice of beautiful Spanish musk-melon, and some plums.” If Hawthorne came to your Thanksgiving, he’d be the guy “testing” every kind of pie on offer (and don’t forget the ice cream).

Fruit was a frequent after-dinner treat, and Hawthorne doted on the orchards on his land (“What is a garden without its currant-bushes and fruit-trees?” he wrote). But, as anyone with a dessert stomach can attest, fruit alone isn’t nearly enough. After his daily walk through the grounds, Hawthorne would eat “a pint bowl of thick chocolate (not cocoa, but the old-fashioned chocolate) crumbed full of bread.” When fruit was in season, he’d add it to the mix—a stealth move to combine two desserts in one.

Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifle recipe hawthorne images

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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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Alice Munro: Rosemary Bread Pudding

Alice Munro - Rosemary Bread Pudding

Last week, when Alice Munro found out she had won the Nobel Prize in literature, she was in bed. The prize committee had tried to reach her earlier by phone but ended up just leaving a voicemail, so it was Munro’s daughter who, hearing the announcement, ran to wake up her mom. That somehow seems fitting for Munro, whose stories revolve around intimate moments of domesticity. If Hemingway is a moveable feast, Munro is breakfast in bed.

Her writing is not only steeped in the household world; it also was created there. Munro’s desk is her dining room table, where she’s penned most of her work over the past few decades. As her interviewer at The Paris Review notes, “The dining room is lined floor to ceiling with books; on one side a small table holds a manual typewriter.” When she cooks in the neighboring kitchen, her work is never far away. Is it any wonder the two are connected in her stories, as in life?

Besides writing, cooking was the other constant in Munro’s own domestic drama. In her mostly autobiographical collection The View from Castle Rockshe recalls packing her father’s lunch in the morning, a regular chore: “three thick sandwiches of fried meat and ketchup. The meat was cottage roll ends or baloney, the cheapest meat you could buy.” Later, when she was married, Munro’s stories would continue to take a back seat to food prep. She told the Review, “I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework.”

Although Munro still cooks (one of her interviewers watched her prepare a meal, which made ample use of the Canadian countryside’s fresh herbs), she now often chooses to leave the kitchen to others. She regularly asks reporters to meet at her favorite restaurant in the nearby town of Gogerich, Ontario—Bailey’s Fine Dining—where she has a usual table (corner) and a usual drink (white wine, sauvignon blanc preferred, multiple pours encouraged).

Until just a few days before the award announcement, Haruki Murakami, known for his hulking postmodern novels, was said to be the front-runner for the Nobel. It’s hard to imagine a writer further than Munro. Her subjects are often described as “quiet” or “domestic” and (given that they’re short stories) “small.”

Munro herself sometimes doubted their impact; she told the New Yorker last year, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel.” But the major recognition of her work helps us all remember what a “small” story can do—how an intimate revelation at the dining room table can hold as much truth as an epic; how a perfect fried baloney sandwich can sometimes hit the spot more than any six-course meal.

Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Jamaica Kincaid: Cheddar-Leek Corn Pudding

Jamaica Kincaid: Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding

I’ve always been encouraged by late bloomers, since I long harbored the secret, desperate hope I might be one of them. I read Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” in a seventh-grade English class, at an age when I could already feel the potential endings of my own story narrowing down to a handful of plots. Others seemed to have already found their own talents by then: had spent years on the soccer field or in the art studio, drafting a rough outline of their futures. I still remember a classmate telling me I should forget about being a journalist, since I hadn’t written a single article for the school paper yet. For aspiring late bloomers, middle school is the absolute worst.

Cooking seemed like yet another talent you had to discover young to possess. Kincaid’s “Girl” only added to that idea. It’s full of kitchen wisdom, passed down early: “Cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil,” “soak salt fish overnight before you cook it.” Considering the main things I learned about cooking as a kid were 1) knives are sharp and 2) stirring is fun, I didn’t think I had the detailed instructions that made a fledgling chef. But, as it turns out, they worked just fine—even for Jamaica Kincaid herself.

Unlike the character in her story, Kincaid didn’t master the techniques to cook fritters or salt fish. Her job at family dinner time was the same one I had growing up: setting the table, the lamest of all kitchen tasks (besides “making placecards,” the other chore that inevitably got assigned to me). It wasn’t until Kincaid became a mother herself that she started to take an interest in food, first exploring her garden and then returning to the kitchen, this time in a more active role.

“My husband gave me a hoe, a rake, a spade, and some flower seeds,” she writes in My Garden, an entire book detailing her midlife conversion to domesticity. A neighbor taught her “what the new shoots of peonies look like,” she writes: “That was how I came to recognize a maple, but not that its Latin name is Acer; Latin names came later, with resistance.” She discovered Edna Lewis’ seminal cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, and began devouring the recipes, passing on favorites like corn pudding and fried chicken to her own children.

Latin, I’m afraid, isn’t a talent that I’ve also picked up in adulthood. Yet as a relative latecomer to cooking, I’ve realized we have more control over how our stories unfold than we might think. Whenever people tell me they’re “not a chef” or even (perish the thought) “not a reader,” I remember how our talents are interconnected, our abilities and our confidence in them reinforcing one another, until we believe we truly can do anything. “Gardening is a form of reading,” Kincaid writes. “So is actually cooking.”

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Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding Recipe

Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding 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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Orange Honey Filling chekhov3

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D.H. Lawrence: Polenta with Sausage Ragù

D.H. Lawrence - Polenta with Sausage Ragu

One hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence was awaiting the publication of what would become his most famous (and most controversial) novel. Sons and Lovers celebrates its centennial this May—but in the weeks leading up to its release, Lawrence’s thoughts were elsewhere, in a little house across the Alps: “I want to go back to Italy,” he wrote.

Lawrence made his first trip to Italy while working on Sons and Lovers, and he felt an immediate connection. “I think I shall be happy there, and do some good work,” he said in 1912, just before settling near Lago di Garda, a few miles from Verona. Several months later, his writing was already moving along. “I do my novel well, I’m sure. It’s half done.”

But when taking a break from his desk, Lawrence was at work in the kitchen, which he praised in letters home. “There’s a great open fireplace, then two little things called fornelli – charcoal braziers – and we’ve got lots of lovely copper pans, so bright. Then I light the fornello and we cook. It’s an unending joy.” He found beauty in the smallest act of cooking—he loved his pots so much, he made sketches of them. Everything is just red earthenware, roughly glazed, and one can cook in them beautifully.”

For Lawrence, Italian cuisine meant a chance to experiment with ingredients of all kinds, from the quotidian to the obscure. “We eat spaghetti and risotto and so on all of our own making,” he wrote. “We eat quantities of soup … midday polenta made of maize flour boiled to a stiff porridge that one cuts in slices with a string … queer vegetables – cardi – like thistle stalks, very good – and heaps of fresh sardines.” He frowned upon the tendency of the locals to use too much oil, but had certain indulgences of his own: “Maggi and I grate pounds of cheese,” he admitted. 

If we’re lucky, we discover for ourselves what Lawrence found in Italy: that place that inspires all our creative pursuits, whether it’s at the desk or at the stove. The freedom and adventure he felt there, through, dissipated when he left Italy to go north. “I have suffered from the tightness, the domesticity of Germany. It is our domesticity which leads to our conformity, which chokes us.” Little did he know how non-conformist his new novel would be seen—a little reminder of Italy that lingered there. 

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Polenta with sausage and mushroom ragu recipe

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The Cocktail Hour: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe - Eggnog

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. That honor belongs to January. After a month of presents, family merriment, chocolate advent calendars and that great pine tree smell, we’re supposed to calmly accept the bleak grayness of winter for three more months?

This is where brandy comes in handy.

Getting a bit tipsy has long been a preferred cure for dreary days. For Edgar Allan Poe, a student at the University of Virginia in the 1820s, drinking apple toddies and eggnog was the extracurricular activity of choice (definitely better than marching band). According to his biographer James Albert Harrison, “a sensitive youth, … surrounded by the social circle that thought convivial drinking and card-playing ‘at Homes’ indispensable to remaining at all in polite society, would easily fall in with the habits of his ‘set,’ and perhaps cultivate them with passion or excess.” In other words, Poe was a lush, but it wasn’t his fault. He just went to a party school.

Poe’s taste for brandy, in particular, became legendary after he left Virginia and entered West Point in 1830. His roommate there, Thomas W. Gibson, recalled that Poe was “seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy. … He had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”

The reputation followed Poe for the rest of his life, and it was long assumed that his taste for drink was what killed him. Modern doctors believe he actually died of rabies; according to Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, Poe “may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man … but by the time he died at 40 he almost always avoided it.” Still, until just two years ago, a masked man would stop by Poe’s grave on the writer’s birthday, leaving a bottle of cognac on his tombstone for a toast in the afterlife.

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Brandy, EAP's favorite

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C.S. Lewis: Cinnamon Bourbon Rice Pudding

With Sartre and his halva addiction, Agatha Christie and her devotion to cream, and Wallace Stevens’ cookie obsession, writers seem to thrive on a sugar high. Halloween must be a very productive time of year, creatively speaking: too gloomy to go outdoors, and lots of candy at hand to fuel the creative spark. It makes you wonder how many Great American Novels could only have been written with a steady supply of cake, cookies, and caffeine.

But just as I was beginning to think that sweets were the secret to success, C.S. Lewis broke the mold. He is not only ambivalent toward candy – he actually refuses to eat it. To someone whose favorite part of Halloween is stocking up on half-price Reese’s the morning after (don’t judge), this is the most harrowing discovery of the season.

Lewis comes up with various excuses for avoiding sugary treats: “I’m getting terribly fat and have had to diet” or “I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe every few months!” He once wrote to a friend, who apologized for sending him stationery rather than sweets, “I must confess that I eat notepaper and envelopes, so your very kind gift may be described as being that of the edible variety.” Which is all to say what Lewis would ultimately admit: “I have not a sweet tooth.”

But his distaste for the insubstantial went further than food. Lewis also disdained literature that went down a little too easily. He cautioned a friend against detective novels, saying, “A little sense of labour is necessary to all perfect pleasures I think: just as (to my palate at least) there is no really delicious taste without a touch of astringency … The apple must not be too sweet.” Who would have thought the immortal creator of Narnia could wind up being the trick-or-treater your mother would love: He’ll leave the M&Ms, and ask for a Granny Smith instead.

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John Cheever: Turkey Monte Cristo Sandwich

Whenever I need to make idle chatter, talking about meals is generally a safe, friendly topic – unless that meal is brunch. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that lunch and dinner are pretty universally well liked. And while the merits of breakfast have certainly been debated (despite being repeatedly chastised for not eating it, I somehow am still alive), brunch just gets people unusually riled up.  For the anti-brunch lobbyist, the idea of forking over $20 for a couple of eggs leaves a bad taste in the mouth that no bottomless-mimosa deal can wash away.

But even the most dedicated day drinkers can’t hold a candle to John Cheever, whose brunches consisted of “a secret slug of whiskey at eleven … two martinis at noon.” In his journals, Cheever’s infamous struggle with alcoholism plays out in the endless litany of gin and tonics, martinis, and nightcaps that make up his daily menu, starting well before noon. Food is an afterthought, usually appearing sandwich form. “I work until one, when I eat my sandwiches and take a rest,” Cheever wrote of his daily routine, a schedule that looks very virtuous when the drinks are edited out.

It wasn’t until Cheever moved to Los Angeles in 1960, to adapt D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl for the screen, that he began taking an interest in food – both as a way to stave off depression, and because it was all conveniently paid for by the studio. “I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of,” he told The Paris Review, “and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself.”

For Cheever, a native New Englander, Hollywood didn’t have much going for it, except where sandwiches were concerned. He recounts in his letters the discovery of a new sandwich, like a rare and exotic bird: “For lunch Carl had something called a Monte Christo sandwich. This is made of three slices of French toast, turkery [sic] meat between the toast, the top sprinkled with powdered sugar and the whole cut into three sections, each looking like a Napoleon. This is eaten with a knife and fork. And this is my only life in Hollywood note for today.” For a sandwich aficionado at the time, this was a moment of revelation. It is also, I hesitate to add, an ideal morning meal after a long night of drink.

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