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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dumas1 dumas images

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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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Jack London: Bacon and Tomato Baked Risotto

On any cookbook shelf, stashed between the glossy covers and the celebrity chefs, there are always a few oddities. Maybe it’s the book you picked up from the giveaway pile at the library. Maybe it’s the gift your friend got you as a tragic joke. But my favorite finds in any collection are the community cookbooks: those spiral bound, DIY collections that bring together the favorite recipes of a group of friends.

Today it’s all about Kickstarter, but community cookbooks used to be a key fundraising tool: Throw in a few bucks for a cause, and you’d get enough recipes to last you the month (plus a tempting window into your neighbors’ kitchens). And one of the first groups to make use of the idea was the women’s suffrage movement. For the suffragettes, creating a cookbook was not only a savvy business move, it also helped counter women’s fears that voting was too radical, too masculine. Donating to a political cause can seem a little daunting. But buying a cookbook? That’s just good taste.

So where does a man’s man like Jack London fit in? Ever the outdoorsman, London was building a sustainable ranch in California when he met the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a vocal supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The two shared an interest in socialism, and soon London began to appear at Gilman’s suffrage rallies. When the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania was seeking recipes for The Suffrage Cook Book in 1915, London pitched in with a few of his “especial ‘tried’ favorites.”

London died a year after the cookbook’s publication, three years before women’s suffrage became a reality in 1920. Whether he was genuinely interested in the cause is up for debate – pushing for a ban on alcohol, he noted that when “the ladies get the ballot, they are going to vote for prohibition.” But to readers of the cookbook, London wasn’t a prohibition crusader, or even a big-name author. He was just a fellow activist – who happened to make a mean risotto.

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