Jack Kerouac: Crêpes Suzette

Jack Kerouac Crepes Suzette Recipe

When was the last time you memorized a phone number? It’s been years since I learned a new one—just as I haven’t made much of an effort to brush up on multiplication tables, important historical dates, or birthdays (sorry, friends). But despite relying on my phone/the internet/Facebook for the bulk of my knowledge, I still memorize recipes. Having few great dishes tucked away in the back of your mind is, to me, far more useful than remembering how many pounds are in a kilo. These are the meals that come through in a pinch: the pasta that can save any failed dinner party, or that soup that you swear can cure a friend’s post-breakup broken heart.

Because they’re often so simple, our back-pocket dishes don’t get a lot of attention. A lot has been written about Kerouac and apple pie for instance—the bulk of it by Kerouac himself in the semi-autobiographical On the Road. “That’s practically all I ate all the way across the country … I knew it was nutritious.” But when it was his turn to cook, you wouldn’t see Kerouac rolling out a pie crust. Instead, he fell back on an old family favorite: crêpes.

While he might seem like an author as American as, well, apple pie, Kerouac was raised in a French-Canadian family; he was more comfortable speaking French than English up until high school. He was also more comfortable eating French, delighting in his mother’s Breton specialties. Kerouac later bragged about his mother’s signature French-American cooking, decadent even during the Depression: “crêpes with maple syrup, sausage and chocolate milk; pork meatball stew with onions, carrots and potatoes.”

These were the dishes that Kerouac filed away in his mental recipe box, to draw upon upon when the situation called for a homemade meal. And what better situation than a sexy one? “Dark Eyes came to my house tonight,” Kerouac wrote in a 1947 diary entry. “We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. … I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.” A writer who cooks dinner and watches the royal wedding? I’m melting over here.

Kerouac used food to impress the ladies, but he also knew its healing potential. One of the founding members of the Beat movement, Helen Hinkle, remembers a fight breaking out between Neal Cassidy and William Burroughs. “Jack busied himself, started immediately to fill the vacuum … He asked to make crêpes suzettes. He had a recipe. Nothing was happening to he had to start saying something. he said, ‘Do you have flour and eggs?’.'” Clearly, Kerouac recognized the value of those back-pocket recipes. You never know when you’ll need to diffuse tension … through the power of French cooking.

Crepes Suzette recipe

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Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Cheesecake

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Swirl Cheesecake

This week, the internet has been embroiled in debate about “literary elitism,” but that same highbrow disdain for lowbrow tastes isn’t just confined to the world of words. Whether it’s a bodice-ripping romance or a doughnut dripping with sugary glaze, certain books and dishes are repeatedly (and unfairly) condemned to a lower status on our shared cultural hierarchy. It’s time to redeem the “guilty pleasure.”

For many readers, Stephen King (subject of yet another internet debate) is one of those authors we regard with divided hearts: someone we love to read, but only when no one else is watching. We don’t discuss The Shining in book club or self-consciously read our first edition of It on the subway, hoping someone will notice. It seems natural that King himself would dismiss the entire idea of “high” versus “low.” But, as it turns out, even he buys into the guilty pleasure principle—at least where food is concerned.

After his wife, Tabitha, lost her senses of taste and smell, King became the de facto cook of the house, learning to bake his own bread and devising his own signature dish (baked salmon with brown sugar glaze). But despite his kitchen credentials, King is still sheepish about some of his go-to meals. “My eating habits are horrible,” he wrote on Twitter, as if to anticipate his culinary critics. “Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is that.”

The same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defense of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.” King’s alternative, coating a trout fillet with lemon, olive oil and basil before zapping it for a few minutes, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s microwaved, yes, but much more virtuous than the helmet-size bowl of cheesy pasta I make on lazy nights, telling myself I am, technically, “cooking.”

King’s favorite food, about which he clearly feels no embarrassment, has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” Although two slices is his preferred dessert (according to a menu of his ideal meal), King’s taste for cheesecake isn’t limited to post-dinner; he also will have a piece before sitting down to write. “Cheesecake is brain food,” he says, a joking justification for a dessert that doesn’t need any excuse.

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

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T.S. Eliot: Duck à l’Orange

T.S. Eliot - Duck a l'Orange

T.S. Eliot once asked his messenger boy what he would do with £5,000. “I’d have a good dinner,” the boy said. “Duckling and green peas, gooseberry tart and cream.” Having just moved to London, Eliot was impressed by the boy’s expensive taste. “Such is the society I move in in the city,” he wrote, where even 11-year-olds know their food. 

In 1916, Eliot’s own dinners were much less extravagant. Having accepted a humble teaching post that included most meals, he was shocked at food prices in the city: “Living is going up. Eggs are three pence,” he wrote. Rather than suffer the costs of dining out, Eliot and his wife, Vivien, preferred to invite friends over—keeping budget in mind. “We had five people to lunch, the most ambitious attempt we have ever made,” Eliot wrote to his mother. “It is easier to have people to lunch than to dinner, of course, because of the impossibility of serving meat; at lunch fish and spaghetti suffice.”

But as his success grew, Eliot’s tastes became increasingly refined, just like that young messenger’s. “I like good food,” he wrote to publisher Geoffrey Faber in 1927. “I remember a dinner in Bordeaux, two or three dinners in Paris, a certain wine in Fontevrault, and shall never forget them.” He recalled, with particular relish, a dinner in Paris held by the journal Action Française. “A private room in one of the best restaurants – fifteen people – and the most exquisite dinner I have ever tasted,” he wrote. “I remember the canard aux oranges with permanent pleasure.”

It’s harder to make my Christmas list every year—that is, to think of physical, wrappable “things.” I still want, but the wanting is less immediate, less tangible. That’s why, with Eliot in mind, I’m hoping for experiences this year: learning to make the perfect pasta dough, trying my first Guatemalan food, cooking a meal without worrying about dishes afterward. They won’t gather dust, they’ll never need recharging, and I can always keep them with me. As Eliot wrote, “The pleasures of dining well are not transitory, but abide forever.”

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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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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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Agatha Christie: Fig and Orange Scones with Devonshire Cream

Certain foods defy any attempt at portion control. Think chocolate chips, or those disturbingly addictive pretzel pieces that must be flavored with some kind of stimulant in addition to the honey mustard. I have such a Cheez-It obsession that, studying abroad in Paris and unable to find them in any grocery, I ordered three boxes online in a hunger-fueled panic. My host mother – who, in typical French fashion, served perfectly portioned meals on an adorable tea tray – brought the package to my room with a look of pure horror. I guiltily ate a whole box as soon as her back was turned.

But Agatha Christie clearly felt no such shame when it came to her food addiction: She loved cream, and all of Devon county knew it. “Agatha was very fond of food – she was passionate about cream,” the local vicar’s daughter remembered. “She would have it by the cupful. She would have a cup of cream by her typewriter.” Even Christie’s fictional characters couldn’t escape the obsession. Miss Marple is similarly famed for her love of cream, and even the picky Hercule Poirot partakes.

Christie made minor attempts to curb her appetite, to no avail. “She used to drink cream from a huge cup with ‘Don’t be greedy’ written on the side, an injunction she never showed any sign of obeying,” her grandson Mathew recalled. Frankly, I think that anyone who has a designated cream-sipping cup is fighting a losing battle with willpower, but I’m the one with a personal bag of chocolate chips in the pantry, so who am I to judge?

There was only one person who had control over Christie’s dessert intake: her butler. George Gowler oversaw the elaborate two-hour dinner parties at Greenway, Christie’s country estate. But instead of letting her choose the menu for the final course, Gowler would randomly assign everyone a different plate of fruit – a game of dessert roulette – allowing guests to choose their favorite dish only once a week. Christie’s favorite was fresh figs, which you can still sample from the trees she grew at Greenway. But beware if you encounter them in one of her mysteries: One unlucky lady who indulges in Syrup of Figs gets poisoned for her trouble. Safer to stick with the cream instead.

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