Lewis Carroll: Rosemary Olive Oil Crackers with Sea Salt

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

When you spend a lot of time talking about food, your friends begin to think you know something they don’t. That’s when the recommendation requests start coming in: for restaurants; recipes; the best thing to bring to a picnic, housewarming, boss’ birthday. This should be fun—flattering, even. But I must have read too much Lewis Carroll as a kid, because instead I feel myself becoming the Red Queen, my culinary commands spoiling someone else’s good time:

‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly, taking a little box out of her pocket. ‘Have a biscuit?’
Alice thought it would not be civil to say ‘No,’ though it wasn’t at all what she wanted. So she took it, and ate it as well as she could: and it was very dry; and she thought she had never been so nearly choked in all her life.

Reading Through the Looking Glass for the first time, I saw the Red Queen as everything I disliked about adults: brash, pushy, imposing her will on people less powerful than herself (Every teenage invocation to “Stop telling me what to do, Mom!” was directed partially at her.) As her creator, you’d think Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if we’re calling him by his real name) would have seen her as a warning. But instead, he was more like her than he’d probably care to admit.

For one, he was also really into biscuits. They formed the core of his diet; after a 9 a.m. breakfast, Dodgson would subsist almost entirely on them for the rest of the day, occasionally pairing them with a nip of sherry. Even when visitors asked him over for a meal, “he assured [them] that he never took anything in the middle of the day but a glass of wine and a biscuit.” He’d often bring his own wine too.

But, taste for biscuits aside, Dodgson also shared the Queen’s worst habit. He believed he knew best, especially where food was concerned. (Besides his Spartan diet, he was also a convert of “Whiteley exercisers,” a 19th-century training regimen bizarrely akin to today’s TRX.) In a classic Red Queen move, he imposed his habits on the children he cared for. According to his nephew, “When he took a certain one of them out with him to a friend’s house to dinner, he used to give the host or hostess a gentle warning, to the mixed amazement and indignation of the child, ‘Please be careful, because she eats a good deal too much.'”

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers Recipe

Rosemary Sea Salt Cracker Recipe

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James Joyce: Rigatoni Con Stracotto

James Joyce - Rigatoni con Stracatto

I read Ulysses in my first year of college, armed with a “European Literary Tradition” class syllabus and a book of annotations that was nearly as long as the novel itself. The details of Proteus and Stephen Dedalus didn’t stay with me in the least, but what remained was the overwhelming sense of loneliness I felt: People were always sadly eating kidneys in a pub, a kind of dual gastronomic punishment (first the solitude, then the kidneys). For a generation that’s been told we should never eat alone, Leopold Bloom’s day seems like a cautionary tale (an extremely elaborate one).

Restaurants can be a taunt to the solitary diner: You can’t even be alone with your loneliness when there’s a table of strangers at your elbow. And your pity party of one would have felt particularly grim if you were seated next to James Joyce’s party of ten. When the Joyces went out, they went as a pack—a boisterous one. Hemingway shared the gossip from Paris in his letters: “[Joyce] and all his family are starving but you can find the whole celtic crew of them every night in Michaud’s, where Binney and I can only afford to go about once a week.” I picture a modern-day Joyce dining out, making it rain euros while ordering bottle service.

Joyce’s enjoyment of food, unlike that of his withdrawn characters, was wrapped up in his enjoyment of others, and vice versa. Writing to his brother, Stanislaus, he requested both food and company: “a slice of corned beef and cabbage, a sizeable beefsteak prepared on a gridiron, and (excuse the hierarchy) an intelligent supra-burgher like yourself to share the meal.”

But Joyce’s favorite dining companion was his wife, Nora—who conveniently also did all the cooking. A day with the Joyces meant a day of eating, starting with hot chocolate at 9 a.m. “At midday we have lunch which we (or rather she) buys, cooks (soup, meat, potatoes and something else)…. At four o’clock we have chocolate and at eight o’clock dinner which Nora cooks.” If anyone tells you having multiple hot chocolates a day is wrong, direct them here. 

Eating wasn’t all that went on in the Joyce’s kitchen; if you read their infamously naughty correspondence, you might not want to eat off their dining table when you learn where it’s been. But their exploits prove what Joyce clearly already knew: The kitchen isn’t just a place for the stomach, but for the heart. As he writes to Nora, after a short absence, “I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking, and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

Rigatoni con Stracatto Recipe

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C.S. Lewis: Cinnamon Bourbon Rice Pudding

With Sartre and his halva addiction, Agatha Christie and her devotion to cream, and Wallace Stevens’ cookie obsession, writers seem to thrive on a sugar high. Halloween must be a very productive time of year, creatively speaking: too gloomy to go outdoors, and lots of candy at hand to fuel the creative spark. It makes you wonder how many Great American Novels could only have been written with a steady supply of cake, cookies, and caffeine.

But just as I was beginning to think that sweets were the secret to success, C.S. Lewis broke the mold. He is not only ambivalent toward candy – he actually refuses to eat it. To someone whose favorite part of Halloween is stocking up on half-price Reese’s the morning after (don’t judge), this is the most harrowing discovery of the season.

Lewis comes up with various excuses for avoiding sugary treats: “I’m getting terribly fat and have had to diet” or “I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe every few months!” He once wrote to a friend, who apologized for sending him stationery rather than sweets, “I must confess that I eat notepaper and envelopes, so your very kind gift may be described as being that of the edible variety.” Which is all to say what Lewis would ultimately admit: “I have not a sweet tooth.”

But his distaste for the insubstantial went further than food. Lewis also disdained literature that went down a little too easily. He cautioned a friend against detective novels, saying, “A little sense of labour is necessary to all perfect pleasures I think: just as (to my palate at least) there is no really delicious taste without a touch of astringency … The apple must not be too sweet.” Who would have thought the immortal creator of Narnia could wind up being the trick-or-treater your mother would love: He’ll leave the M&Ms, and ask for a Granny Smith instead.

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John Steinbeck: Pork Posole

John Steinbeck was a locavore before it was cool. No matter where he was writing from, his letters always mention the local produce. In California, he bought a cow so he could make his own butter and cheese. In England, he foraged for dandelion greens (“cook them slowly and for a long time with pieces of bacon”). In Sag Harbor, he reveled in the local seafood (“I figure I can always catch my dinner”).

But sometimes you come home after a long day, and you don’t want to knead your own bread, dry your own pasta, butcher your own goat. You just want to buy a whole baguette, put some brie on it, eat it all while watching The Wire on Netflix and call that dinner. “I like good food and good clothes, but faced with getting them I can’t round myself into a procuring unit,” Steinbeck wrote in a particularly lethargic mood. I imagine he said it on the sofa in sweatpants.

Often it’s the presence of other people that keeps me from nights of cheese sandwiches in front of the TV; cooking for company is just more fun! But when Steinbeck was alone on the road, he would forget the butter-churning and revert to the life of a single guy. Hence his recipe for posole, borrowed from his friend (and famed screenwriter) Jack Wagner: “a can of chili and a can of hominy.” Hello, bachelorville.

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What Would Faulkner Eat? Recreating the Favorite Recipes of Famous Authors

“Any healthy man can go without food for two days – but not without poetry.” – Charles Baudelaire
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” – George Bernard Shaw

Hemingway in Key West, with future dinner

When Shakespeare said music was the food of love, I think he was only half right. Sure, couples get choked up when a band starts playing their song, and after a breakup every sad song on the radio seems made just for you. But personally, I’m more likely to get misty-eyed when someone invites me over to make risotto, or when sharing a lobster roll at the end of a pier. And when agonizing over why it didn’t work out, you know we all eat ice cream. Why indulge in metaphor? Food is the food of love.

With apologies to Baudelaire, after two days of hunger I would turn in all my collected poems for a good meal. And I can think of a lot of authors who would probably do the same. This blog was inspired by them.

A love of good books often comes with a love of good food.  It’s in the many mouth-watering descriptions we encounter in novels, the wealth of new food memoirs, and the explosion of incredible food writing and blogging online. But it isn’t just today’s writers that have a personal obsession with food. We hear about it in Ted Hughes’ letters, see it in Emily Dickinson’s recipes, and imagine it in Hemingway’s cafés. And when I hear about the food that inspired them, I want to eat it too.

This blog will attempt to recreate the dishes that iconic authors discuss in their letters, diaries, essays, and fiction. In doing so, it will be part historical discussion, part food and recipe blog, part literary fangirling. Above all, I hope it will be delicious.