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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Raymond Chandler: Swordfish Siciliana

What to cook for Raymond Chandler on his birthday? If he’s known for anything vaguely digestible today, it’s Terry Lennox’s gin gimlet recipe from The Big Sleep: “half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” Sometimes that can be the basis of a whole birthday dinner menu, but it’s usually unintentional (and ill-advised, if my “popcorn and whiskey” birthday was any indication).

But it turns out Chandler had more than a few recipes up his sleeve – maybe even a cookbook’s worth. While working on The Long Goodbye in La Jolla, California, he wrote to editor Dale Warren with another surprising proposal. “Somebody really ought to write a cookbook and put in all the things that the regular cookbooks leave out, the things which, if you’re a beginner, the cookbooks don’t tell you,” he said. “Also, any decent cookbook should have a few special recipes, a touch of the unique. And this I could easily supply.”

Seen through his letters, Chandler becomes the Mark Bittman of La Jolla. He’s minimalist in his approach to food (his recipe for pork chops: “Cook them in their own fat, they bring everything with them that is necessary except salt and pepper.”). But he’s also deeply critical of Americans’ slide into non-cooking, 50 years ahead of the curve. He scorns his neighbor’s dependence on “a deep freeze unit in his garage where he keeps enough food for six months … Most of the other food he eats comes ready-prepared and half-chewed.” If you think that’s harsh, Chandler goes on: “I sometimes wonder what we are here for. Certainly not to use our minds.” It’s a relief he wasn’t around to see the rise of the Hot Pocket.

Chandler would have turned 124 today; I’ll celebrate my own birthday later this week. No popcorn and whiskey for me this time around. We’re older now, and wiser. We use our minds. We plan our menus. And there won’t be anything frozen or ready-made, although there may well be a gimlet or two.

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