J.R.R. Tolkien: Marinated Mushroom Salad with Spiced Yogurt

JRR Tolkein: Marinated mushrooms salad with spiced yogurt

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to accept the incomplete. I’m usually soothed by the neatness of finality, of closure; I like dotted i’s, rounded edges, the calm you get from Inbox Zero. That tidiness inevitably extends to my reading life: I’ve only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts. One of those deserted books was The Hobbit. 

My resistance to Tolkien, I always believed, came from a general disdain for fantasy. Tolkien spent years creating his fictional universe: the phonology of Elvish, the cosmology of Middle Earth, foods that can fill you up with just one bite (a recipe that others have now spend their own years trying to recreate). Why take ages creating new worlds, I thought, when we have a perfectly good one to explore right here?

But while much of the food and drink in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has magical properties, the hobbits themselves subsist on a more down-to-earth diet—literally. Frodo is particularly fond of mushrooms, stealing them from his neighbors’ yards (a practice I wouldn’t advise unless you, like Bilbo, have 111 years of mushroom-picking experience to fall back on). “There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare,” Tolkien writes; you’d probably see a similar menu at your local gastropub.

You might think that someone who dreamed up a “vitality drink” that cures all pain might want to experiment with it himself, or at least go for some fancy tasting menus. Yet, Tolkien’s eating habits were much closer to Frodo’s stolen produce than the magical cuisine of the Elves. “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” he wrote in a letter. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).” Years later, the Brooklyn Tolkien Society would plan their menus around fresh mushrooms, in solidarity with both hobbits and their creator.

Mushrooms are seemingly the most modest of foods, growing nestled close to the earth, humble hobbit fare. But they’re also inherently magical: shape-shifters that absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked with them—or give you a nightmare or two, depending which ones you grab. Fantasy is similarly ambiguous, intentionally making it difficult for us to tell what is and what is not. So perhaps this is the year to finally sit down, reopen The Hobbit, and embrace its magic, in all its messiness.

Marinated mushroom salad with spiced yogurt recipe

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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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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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