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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Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Cheesecake

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Swirl Cheesecake

This week, the internet has been embroiled in debate about “literary elitism,” but that same highbrow disdain for lowbrow tastes isn’t just confined to the world of words. Whether it’s a bodice-ripping romance or a doughnut dripping with sugary glaze, certain books and dishes are repeatedly (and unfairly) condemned to a lower status on our shared cultural hierarchy. It’s time to redeem the “guilty pleasure.”

For many readers, Stephen King (subject of yet another internet debate) is one of those authors we regard with divided hearts: someone we love to read, but only when no one else is watching. We don’t discuss The Shining in book club or self-consciously read our first edition of It on the subway, hoping someone will notice. It seems natural that King himself would dismiss the entire idea of “high” versus “low.” But, as it turns out, even he buys into the guilty pleasure principle—at least where food is concerned.

After his wife, Tabitha, lost her senses of taste and smell, King became the de facto cook of the house, learning to bake his own bread and devising his own signature dish (baked salmon with brown sugar glaze). But despite his kitchen credentials, King is still sheepish about some of his go-to meals. “My eating habits are horrible,” he wrote on Twitter, as if to anticipate his culinary critics. “Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is that.”

The same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defense of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.” King’s alternative, coating a trout fillet with lemon, olive oil and basil before zapping it for a few minutes, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s microwaved, yes, but much more virtuous than the helmet-size bowl of cheesy pasta I make on lazy nights, telling myself I am, technically, “cooking.”

King’s favorite food, about which he clearly feels no embarrassment, has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” Although two slices is his preferred dessert (according to a menu of his ideal meal), King’s taste for cheesecake isn’t limited to post-dinner; he also will have a piece before sitting down to write. “Cheesecake is brain food,” he says, a joking justification for a dessert that doesn’t need any excuse.

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

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Anton Chekhov: Blini Stack with Honey Orange Filling

Anton Chekhov: Crepe Cake with Orange Honey Filling

One month from now, I’m going on a “big trip” – the kind of major vacation you typically put off until the time is right, or the airfare goes down, or your parents hit a major anniversary (which is eventually what happened). There are lots of plans in the works, for luggage, visas, appropriate clothing … which can all be dealt with later. Right now, I’m busy deciding what to eat.

For a dedicated eater, travel plans are really just food plans in disguise. So you can imagine how disappointed Anton Chekhov was by his trip to Siberia, where after a long grueling journey, he found that the food was only aspiring to edibility. Siberian cuisine “is not for the European stomach,” he wrote in 1890, a situation intensified by the notable lack of health codes. “One old lady wiped a teaspoon on her hindside before handing it to me,” he balked.

Chekhov’s put-downs during his Siberian stay have become legendary (“Tomsk is a very dull town. … The inhabitants are very dull, too”), sparking a long and bitter feud between the playwright and his hosts. But he saved his most cutting remarks for the cuisine. For an all-time gastronomic low, he described a dish of duck stomachs, which “haven’t been entirely cleaned of their contents and so, when you bite into them, cause you to think your mouth and your rectum have changed places.” Suddenly, all my worst kitchen failures are looking positively delicious in comparison.

But there was one bright spot on Chekhov’s trip: the baked goods. The residents of Tomsk baked “the most delicious bread … delicious also are the pies and pancakes, the fritters and dinner rolls.” Blinis are a Siberian specialty, and Chekhov marveled at their remarkable thinness. I imagine him bingeing on entire dinners of fritters and blinis, retreating into the culinary safety of carbs. As someone who regularly asks for bread basket refills, this sounds like a perfectly enjoyable solution.

Chekhov immortalizes his love for blinis in the short story “On Mortality,” which opens with a diner “quivering with impatience, await[ing] the moment the blini would appear.” When a stack emerges from the kitchen, they are “crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter.” A whole lot sexier than duck stomachs, in other words, and maybe even worth a trip. 

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Salman Rushdie: Lamb Korma

You can’t escape food when reading Salman Rushdie. Start looking and suddenly it’s everywhere: Pyarelal’s saffron pulao in Shalimar the Clown, Sisodia’s feast in The Satanic Verses, the grandmother’s pantry in Midnight’s Children.

It’s the same with the real Rushdie; he’s a man surrounded by food. His marriage to Top Chef and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi is an obvious connection. But so is his involvement with At Vermilion, the Manhattan restaurant that once offered a tasting menu devoted to his work (complete with autographed novel to take home, goodie bag style). You think you’re reading an article about the fatwa and boom —out of the blue, it links to the author’s recipe for curry. Food just follows him.

Why Rushdie decided to give Parade magazine his korma recipe, I’ll never know (it doesn’t quite jibe with other articles on offer: “Fire Up the Griddle! Pancakes for Every Meal of the Day”). But his description of the family history behind the dish (it’s his son’s favorite as well) reminds me why food plays such a crucial role in his novels: Community comes together over a good meal.

Korma was a favorite dish in Midnight’s Children, too, but in a less heartwarming, more threatening context. “This, whatsitsname, is a very heavy pot,” that grandmother says, “and if just once I catch you in here, whatsitsname, I’ll push your head into it, add some dahi, and make, whatsitsname, a korma.” I decided to go with Rushdie’s version of the recipe instead – more lamb, less dismemberment.

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