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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Jean-Paul Sartre: Halva with Almonds

Food often tops our list of guilty pleasures, but it’s hard to think of famous writers indulging in the gratuitous and occasionally sordid ways we do. When I was in college, part of my late-night routine was to buy a huge bag of Tostitos with lime, eat the whole thing while writing a paper and—in one final profligacy—scrape the fake citrus-flavored salt out of the corners of the bag. Trying to imagine Camus doing that just feels wrong.

But there’s probably a kernel of truth to it, if Jean-Paul Sartre’s letters are anything to go by. Sartre had his cravings too, and while he was fighting with the French army during World War II, his letters to Simone de Beauvoir repeatedly mention the same thing. He demands halva.

In between discussions of Weltanschauung and his work on Being and Nothingness, Sartre can’t stop talking about halva. “Don’t forget,” he reminds de Beauvoir in 1939, when asking her to send two boxes. Then, in a following letter: disaster. “I was in an excellent mood today, and then I got your books (the Romains) but no halva. Is there another package?”

But when Sartre does receive halva, multiple times over the next few years, his joy is palpable. “The halva arrived in good order … Thank you very much, my little sweet. We ate the whole box at lunch.” And later: “I gave the halva to Pieter, who carried on about it so, that I bawled him out. At this very moment he’s eating a big chunk with great satisfaction.”

The letters between Sartre and de Beauvoir are also incredibly beautiful. But Sartre’s sweet tooth makes him just a bit more relatable. Existentialists: They’re just like us.

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