The Cocktail Hour: Carson McCullers

Sherry Tea Cocktail Hot Toddy Recipe

If you’ve ever lived with roommates, you know that the kitchen can be a dangerous place—and not because of the sharp objects. Battles in the tiny kitchens of New York are usually fought on a more passive-aggressive level, tearing apart even the closest of friends: skirmishes over fridge space, scuffles over stolen food, brawls about dishwashing duty.

That’s what happened in Brooklyn in 1940, when a motley crew moved into a dilapidated brownstone at 7 Middagh Street: poet W.H. Auden; playwright Jane Bowles; her husband, Paul; and Carson McCullers, whose debut novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was the blockbuster book of the summer. Add composer Benjamin Britten and burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee, and you had a very eclectic roster of roommates—none of whom was particularly interested in doing the dishes.

Which isn’t to say they didn’t create enough of them. McCullers was the de facto chef of the house, though her signature dishes left a little to be desired. According to a biography by Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely Hunter, McCullers’ specialties included “canned green pea soup enlivened with small chunks of wieners, and a unique dish which she labeled ‘spuds Carson,’ made with creamed potatoes, ripe olives, minced onions, and grated cheese.” Recipes were something McCullers “preferred to talk about, to envision the results rather than to actually cook them.” In other words, she improvised.

Instead, McCullers devoted the majority of her attention—and budget—to drinking. While living with her first husband, Reeves McCullers, she splurged on gallons of sherry, while dinners consisted mainly of eggs, bread and milk. By the time she moved to Middagh Street, McCullers still didn’t have recipes for actual meals, but she did have her signature drink down: a mix of hot tea and sherry, which she called “sonnie boy” and kept in a trusty thermos. She and the thermos were soon inseparable (there’s a picture of the two of them in The Lonely Hunter, with McCullers looking much happier than she did with the husband).

McCullers’ dubious skill in the kitchen was matched by her disregard for cleaning it. She would often forget about things on the stove, and return to find dinner burnt to a crisp, stuck to the pan. Visitors noted that “many of her pans, with remnants of charred food in them, were in soak on the kitchen floor.” This didn’t go over too well with the roommates—particularly Auden, the den mother of the group, who was in charge of both mealtimes (breakfast at 9 a.m. sharp.) and toilet paper patrol (one square per flush).

In his 1941 poem “New Year Letter,” Auden praises the merits of routine, work hours and regular meals. He doesn’t mention clean dishes, but you have to wonder if living with McCullers prompted the rant. Does a clean house really inspire creativity? Or is the cleaning just a distraction from inspiration itself? It’s an ongoing roommate debate—and if you live with a writer, one that might just be immortalized in verse, for future generations to read.

Carson McCullers - Cocktail Hour

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Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Note: I’ve never had a guest post on P&S belore, but when Aimee Gasston told me about the unpublished recipes she found in Katherine Mansfield’s papers, I couldn’t wait to have her share one here. Plus, I’ll clearly take any opportunity to trot out my ramekins (I’m a sucker for individual-size desserts). Enjoy, and many thanks to Aimee. 

Another Note: If you’re reading this via Google Reader, there are alternatives to get P&S updates after Reader shuts down tomorrow. Plus, you can always find what’s up on Facebook. Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming. 

It’s lucky that Katherine Mansfield, maybe the key innovator of modernist short fiction, had such a hearty appetite, without which her prose would be far less rich. Virginia Woolf described Mansfield as having the finest senses of her generation – so when I heard about newly discovered food-related material of hers acquired by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, I couldn’t wait to get a look at it.

Plump as a child, Mansfield would be made gaunt by tuberculosis in adulthood, but her hunger for worldly pleasures remained constant throughout her truncated life. Her personal writing is full of daydreams involving food, which she vividly described in letters and journals as she traveled Europe in search of health.

Switzerland was a particular disappointment, as she wrote in a letter to the artist Anne Estelle Rice in 1921: “Curse them. And the FOOD. It’s got no nerves. You know what I mean? It seems to lie down and wait for you; the very steaks are meek.  […]  As to the purée de pommes de terre, you feel inclined to call it ‘uncle.'”

Despite her love of eating, cooking wasn’t the most pressing of Mansfield’s priorities due to her poor health and a fierce dedication to her work. In her excellent biography A Secret Life, Claire Tomalin describes Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry’s juvenile culinary tendencies: “Like children, they lived mostly on the junk food of the day, meat pies and the cheapest possible restaurants; Katherine had no time or wish to cook.”

Instead, Mansfield’s cooking would take place largely on the page. Besides the spirited culinary rhymes that she penned amid her account books (including an unpublished poem called “An Escapade Undertaken by a Green Raspberry and a Kidney Bean”), her short fiction was always embroiled with the messy materiality of life, with prose you cannot only see, hear, touch and smell, but really taste.

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Mansfield Orange Souffle Recipe

mansfield1

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The Cocktail Hour: Robert Penn Warren

grapefruit gin punch cocktail recipe

“I had a birthday – only a few days ago – and am now thirty-eight,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1943. I’ve had birthdays on the brain, having also celebrated one recently. It wasn’t a big, round number, but it was a perfect square, the mathematics of which somehow seem especially daunting. It’s that age when we’re expected to put away childish things and start careers, find ourselves, tie the knot, settle down, paint the nursery, take out a mortgage. Instead of doing those things, I started this blog.

Clearly, a cocktail was in order. Luckily, Warren had just the thing.

Although it doesn’t have the universal significance of a 30th or a 40th, Warren’s 38th birthday was actually a very noteworthy one: It meant he could no longer be drafted into World War II. To celebrate, Warren threw “a gentlemen’s party with a particularly insidious punch” and invited his colleagues from the University of Minnesota, where he directed the creative writing program. If you think tenured professors don’t know how to party, think again: The revelry lasted almost seven hours, and they went through four gallons of punch.

If Warren’s parties were anything like his letters, they would have been a wickedly good time. Biding his time before At Heaven’s Gate to be published, he was full of writerly gossip, from who was a hack to who just got thrown in prison. He hates on the Chicago Tribune (“the world’s stinkingest paper but pays well”) and gives begrudging praise to The Nation (“doesn’t pay well but … is respectable”). August Strindberg and William Somerset Maugham? “Pure horse droppings.”

I can only imagine what bons mots Warren, on a little too much punch, might have dropped at his birthday shindig. He claimed that “high aesthetical conversation raged until a late hour,” but later dropped the act and just admitted the discussion was “more noise than wit, but the noise sounded like wit at the time.” It’s easy to take yourself too seriously as major birthdays loom, which might be why so many grown-ups have such dull parties. But Warren shows it doesn’t have to be that way. Just mix a group of good friends, a lot of noisy laughter, plus a glass of something delicious to wash it all down.

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Robert Penn Warren grapefruit gin punch

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