J.R.R. Tolkien: Marinated Mushroom Salad with Spiced Yogurt

JRR Tolkein: Marinated mushrooms salad with spiced yogurt

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to accept the incomplete. I’m usually soothed by the neatness of finality, of closure; I like dotted i’s, rounded edges, the calm you get from Inbox Zero. That tidiness inevitably extends to my reading life: I’ve only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts. One of those deserted books was The Hobbit. 

My resistance to Tolkien, I always believed, came from a general disdain for fantasy. Tolkien spent years creating his fictional universe: the phonology of Elvish, the cosmology of Middle Earth, foods that can fill you up with just one bite (a recipe that others have now spend their own years trying to recreate). Why take ages creating new worlds, I thought, when we have a perfectly good one to explore right here?

But while much of the food and drink in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has magical properties, the hobbits themselves subsist on a more down-to-earth diet—literally. Frodo is particularly fond of mushrooms, stealing them from his neighbors’ yards (a practice I wouldn’t advise unless you, like Bilbo, have 111 years of mushroom-picking experience to fall back on). “There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare,” Tolkien writes; you’d probably see a similar menu at your local gastropub.

You might think that someone who dreamed up a “vitality drink” that cures all pain might want to experiment with it himself, or at least go for some fancy tasting menus. Yet, Tolkien’s eating habits were much closer to Frodo’s stolen produce than the magical cuisine of the Elves. “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” he wrote in a letter. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).” Years later, the Brooklyn Tolkien Society would plan their menus around fresh mushrooms, in solidarity with both hobbits and their creator.

Mushrooms are seemingly the most modest of foods, growing nestled close to the earth, humble hobbit fare. But they’re also inherently magical: shape-shifters that absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked with them—or give you a nightmare or two, depending which ones you grab. Fantasy is similarly ambiguous, intentionally making it difficult for us to tell what is and what is not. So perhaps this is the year to finally sit down, reopen The Hobbit, and embrace its magic, in all its messiness.

Marinated mushroom salad with spiced yogurt recipe

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Norman Mailer: Green Bean Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

In his famous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, after headbutting Gore Vidal backstage, Norman Mailer humbly referred to himself as a “dizzying intellect.” I’ll leave that literary debate to his critics, but at least in the kitchen, Mailer was a thinker.

In his semi-recent memoir, Dwayne Raymond discusses his firsthand experience with the giant brain; he helped research Mailer’s last novel, The Castle in the Forest, but also served as confidant, tech support, chef, and guinea pig for some of Mailer’s more unique food creations.

Mailer theorized on food like a man obsessed. Occasionally this would manifest itself in more compulsive ways, like meticulously cutting a grapefruit in exactly nine sections. But you could see it more often in his pursuit of the culinary Shangri-La: a recipe that would maximize flavor, nutrition, and integrity of the ingredients all in one.

Not that these concoctions were necessarily successful. Case in point: a ghasty-sounding salad made of green beans and teriyaki-infused oatmeal (to lower cholesterol). Another “experimental” salad recipe involved the addition of Häagen-Dazs Raspberry Sorbet to a vinaigrette. “It didn’t occur to him that the whole concept was dreadful; that wasn’t the way his mind worked,” Raymond writes. “Norman believed that anything awful could be fixed if enough work was put into it.”

In that spirit, I decided to take on an awful-yet-fixable dish. Re-enter the green bean and oatmeal salad.

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