Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)

Henrick Ibsen - Honey-cake

Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns, and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.

Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of Norwegian constitution, bonfires of St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.”

As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, besides Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30, and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jaeger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.

Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jaeger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”

Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20pm to 2pm, and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Cafe. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.

This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Cafe closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his cafe chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Cafe, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.

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Ibsen Honeycake Recipe

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Ralph Ellison: Molasses Cornbread

There’s a scene in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man that has become one of the most famous food passages in history. The unnamed narrator, passing a sweet-potato vendor on the road, is transported back to his childhood in the South, happily recalling meals of fried chicken and chitterlings – foods that soon became too racially charged for him to enjoy. But in this moment, the narrator is changed: He gets three orders of potato, newly determined to eat what he likes without shame. “I yam what I am,” he shouts, transformed (and if your mind went straight to Popeye, just remember what a dramatic effect food had on him).

Food unexpectedly changed the course of Ellison’s life: When he started studying music at the Tuskegee Institute, he also began working long hours in the dining hall, in order to pay off his tuition. You could find him on the early shift – 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. – baking cornbread and pouring bowls of molasses for the breakfast service. And after graduation, it was cooking – not music – that landed Ellison a job. Failing to score a coveted spot as a trumpeter in a military band, he instead found work as a cook on a Liberty ship, turning out versions of the Southern staples he learned at Tuskegee: cornbread, biscuits and fried pies.

It wasn’t until Ellison began traveling abroad, away from the Southern dishes that had defined his early years, that he realized how they had worked their way into his being. Living in Rome in 1956, Ellison wrote to his friend and fellow writer Albert Murray, “I got no way to get any corn bread … no sweet potatoes or yellow yams, a biscuit is unheard of – they think it means a cookie in this town – and their greens don’t taste like greens.”

Today fried chicken and stewed greens have gained gourmet cred – collard green risotto is totally a thing – but there will always be foods that feature guilt as a main ingredient. The phrase “you are what you eat” has become a grim warning, baking shame into things that ought to be enjoyed in moderation. We focus so much on the physical effects of our diet, it’s easy to forget that food can change us in other ways – ones that don’t involve calories or celery sticks but instead affect our minds and hearts: sweet potatoes for comfort, ice cream for renewal, chocolate for joy.

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