Thursday, April 12, 2007
Real food from fictional recipes.
by Adam Gopnik April 9, 2007
Recently, there was an exchange in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement about the presence, and the propriety, of recipes in novels, and we intend to settle the questions that have arisen there in the American way, right now, and for good. There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.
Most books that have food in them, including the classic nineteenth-century novels, have the first kind of food. In one Trollope novel after another, three meals a day, the parsons and politicians eat chops or steaks or mutton, but the dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures: “Mr. Peregrine greatly enjoyed his chop” or “For Dr. Patterson, even the usual satisfaction he took in his beefsteak and porter was somewhat diminished by this thought”—such food provides space for a moment of reflection. The dishes are the Styrofoam peanuts in the packaging of classic narrative. There are moments in Trollope when what a character drinks matters—claret good or bad, porter or port—but his food is, in every sense, at the service of his story.
Next come the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too. Proust seems so full of food—crushed strawberries and madeleines, tisanes and champagne—that entire recipe books have been extracted from his texts. But he’s not a greedy writer; that his people are eating lobster or veal matters to how they feel about who they are, but we are not meant to leave the page hungry. Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else. (It’s what social novelists, even mystically minded ones, always do: J. D. Salinger doesn’t like food, either, but the fact that his characters are eating snails or Swiss-cheese sandwiches tells so much about them that it must be noted, and felt, like every other detail.)
Then, there are writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths. Ian Fleming is obsessed with food; gluttony, even more than lust, is the electric current of his hero’s adventures. Newcomers to James Bond, imagining him to be the roughneck he has once again become in movies, will be startled to see how much time Bond spends, in “Casino Royale” and the other early Bonds, giving advice to his girls and his spy superiors on what to eat, with the author hovering over his shoulder as he examines the menu: the problem with caviar, Bond announces, is getting enough toast (not true); English cooking is the best in the world when it’s good (certainly not true then); and rosé champagne goes perfectly with stone crabs (very true). His creator, one feels as the excitement builds, is not just itemizing the food, waiter-like, but actually sitting at the table and sharing it with him.
And then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan. Sometimes entire recipes are included in the text, a practice that links Kurt Vonnegut’s “Deadeye Dick” to Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn,” novels about the inadvertent mayhem that a man can inflict on a woman; in “Heartburn,” the recipes serve both as a joke about what a food writer writing a novel would write and as a joke on novel-writing itself by someone who anticipates that she will not be treated as a “real” novelist.
These days, we have long cooking sequences in Ian McEwan; endless recipes in James Hamilton-Paterson; menus analyzed at length in John Lanchester; and detailed culinary scenes involving Robert B. Parker’s bruiser of a detective, Spenser. Cooking is to our literature what sex was to the writing of the sixties and seventies, the thing worth stopping the story for to share, so to speak, with the reader.
Not long ago, I attempted to mimic some cooking as it is done in a number of relatively recent novels. I began, foolishly, with several recipes from Günter Grass’s Nobel Prize-provoking “The Flounder,” the epic allegory of German history told through the endlessly repeated parable of an evil fish, a gullible man, a virtuous woman, and a lot of potatoes. The talking Flounder, being both the evil daemon and the central consciousness of the piece, has a natural class interest in flounder’s not being eaten, so there is a shortage of fish recipes in “The Flounder.” (I was tempted by a detailed description of how to make stewed tripe, but who in my gang would eat stewed tripe?) There is one nice moment, though, when the eternal talking Flounder, who “knew all the recipes that had been used for cooking his fellows,” mentions simmering the fish with white wine and capers. Well, from his mouth to our plate: I did just that, with a nice fillet from Citarella, and, as suggested, added some sorrel. Then, learning in a later section what could be done with potatoes and mustard—the potato, with its false promise of cheap nutrition for all, is, I suppose, meant to represent the false hope of the Enlightenment in Germany, but the mustard surely could represent the saving genius of the Bavarian rococo—I made a gratin with mustard to accompany it. It was fine, though it reminded me of why it is that, at a moment when Spanish cooking is everywhere sanctified and even English cooking, for the first time, canonized, not many people are making a case that German cooking is much more than fish and potatoes and sauerbraten. Eating Günter Grass’s flounder was actually like reading one of his novels: nutritious, but a little pale and starchy.
Great masters are not meant to offer small plates. My eye fell next on “School Days,” one of Robert B. Parker’s excellent Spenser mysteries. Where John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Spenser’s daddy in the genre, would occasionally throw an inch-thick T-bone on the grill of the Busted Flush, Spenser produces entire dishes, and we read about them bit by bit. (Nero Wolfe had a personal chef, and ate a lot, but it was mostly in the “the great detective dined on quenelles de brochet” line.) In “School Days,” Spenser, with his beloved Susan away at a psych seminar, and only the dog for company, makes a dish of cranberry beans, diced steak, and fresh corn, dressed with olive oil and cider vinegar.
The beans alone establish Spenser’s credibility as a cook. “I shelled the beans from their long, red-and-cream pods and dropped them in boiling water and turned down the heat and let them simmer,” he tells us. A devotion to shell beans, I have noticed, divides even amateur cooks from non-cooks more absolutely than any other food, and they are, into the bargain, a perfect model of writing. Like sentences, shell beans are a great deal more trouble to produce than anyone who isn’t producing them knows. You have to shell the beans, slipping open the pods with your thumbnail and then tugging the beautiful little prismatic buttons from their moorings—a process that, like writing, always takes much longer than you think it will. And then even the best shell beans, cleaned and simmered, are like sentences in that nobody actually appreciates them as much as they deserve to be appreciated. Shell beans are several steps more delicious, lighter and finer, than dried beans, much less canned beans; but the sad truth is that nobody really cares beans about beans, and not many eaters can tell the fresh kind from the dried, or even the canned.
I carried on with the recipe: Spenser takes a small steak from the refrigerator and dices it, sautés it, and then mixes it with the beans. I did this, and, honestly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Maybe I didn’t do it right—there is a certain lack of specificity about what kind of steak he’s using and just how long he keeps it in the pan—but I found that my steak dried out when it was diced and cooked, and, anyway, didn’t have enough salty punch to play off against the floury blandness of the beans. Sausage, not steak, is what’s called for here. As for the corn, well, even off-season corn is pretty tasty mixed with oil and vinegar, and makes a good combo with the shell beans. It’s a nice dish, worth interrupting the murders for.
Still, you have to wonder how well the food fits in the book. The purpose of the scene, after all, is not to teach a recipe but to paint a mood—to show the lonely Spenser as somehow more modern, broader in interests and resources, than lonely city detectives in fiction often are. What the reader recalls, though, is not the setting but the dish. Should the food come off the page onto the plate quite so readily, overwhelming the atmosphere, and does this indicate that there is something subtly off, non-functional, about the presence of elaborate food-making in fiction?
Rising to a higher level of culinary ambition, I went on to make, the following night, a fish-stew recipe, a kind of English bouillabaisse, from Ian McEwan’s superb “Saturday”: Henry Perowne, the central character, a neurosurgeon, cooks this elaborate dish as he watches television and broods on “monstrous and spectacular scenes.” Henry, though confessedly inexpert, is a convincing home cook; he admits that he belongs to the chuck-it-in school, the hearty school of throwing ingredients together in a pot—he likes the “relative imprecision and lack of discipline.” In the passage I was following, he makes a tomato-and-fish stock for his stew, and, at the same time, starts prepping the rest. He “empties several dried red chillies from a pot and crushes them between his hands and lets the flakes fall with their seeds into the onions and garlic,” before adding “pinches of saffron, some bay leaves, orange-peel gratings, oregano, five anchovy fillets, two tins of peeled tomatoes.” Then he takes some mussels from a string bag, throws those, with the skeletons of three skates, into a stockpot, and tips some Sancerre into the tomato sauce. Meanwhile, he readies monkfish, slicing tails into chunks, a few more mussels, and, finally, some clams and prawns. All the while, he is watching on a mostly muted television the run-up to the Iraq war—marchers in London, Colin Powell at the U.N.—and brooding on life in our time.
McEwan is obviously painting a picture of l’homme bourgeois as he is today, his hands filled with fish, his mind with intimations of terror. (McEwan really is serving this dish to his readers; a revised version of the recipe is right there on his Web site.) It’s a tribute to McEwan’s powers of persuasion that the scene would never work that way in reality. You can’t idly make a bouillabaisse while you brood on modern life any more than you can idly make a cassoulet; these are nerve-wracking concoctions. The mussels, which Henry drops into his stock straight from a string bag, need at a minimum to be spray-washed, and probably cleaned and checked for those obscene little beards they have. European mussels have fewer of these, it’s true—more like soul patches. (Later on, Henry scrubs the mussels, but he seems to be doing it absent-mindedly, and you can’t do it absent-mindedly.) The fish needs to be taken from its wrappings and washed; and then how fine do you chop the garlic, and are you sure the alcohol has boiled off from the wine? The “orange-peel gratings” are a story in themselves, since all the experts insist that you avoid getting any white pith in with them, and this is about as difficult as writing a villanelle. (It doesn’t actually matter much, but they say that it does.) Worse than that, having crushed a “handful” of those little dried peppers between your fingers means that you have to wash your hands instantly, with soap, since nothing is more common among home cooks, like Henry, than wiping a tear from your eye while chopping the onions, your hand still contaminated by hot pepper, with horrific results.
While you are doing all this, I was reminded as I did it, you are thinking about the bouillabaisse, not about life in our time. Or, rather, you are not thinking about the bouillabaisse, or about anything: you are making the bouillabaisse. And here, I suspect, lies the difficulty with using cooking as the stock for the stream-of-consciousness stew. It is that the act of cooking is an escape from consciousness—the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity. You can’t cook with the news on and still listen to it, any more than you can write with the news on and still listen to it. You can cook with music, or talk radio, on, and drift in and out. What you can’t do is think and cook, because cooking takes the place of thought. (You can daydream and cook, but you can’t advance a chain of sustained reflections.)
The recipes in these books are not, of course, meant to be cooked; they have literary purposes, and one of them is to represent the background of thought. Every age finds an activity that can take place while a character is meditating; the activity surrounds and halos the meditation. In Victorian fiction, it is walking; the character takes a long walk from Little Tipping to Old Stornsbury and, on the way, decides to propose, convert, escape, or run for office. But the walk as meditational setting and backdrop came to an end with Joyce and Woolf, who made whole walking books. In recent American fiction, driving was recessive enough to do the job; in Updike and Ann Beattie, characters in cars are always doing the kind of thinking that Pip and Phineas Finn used to do on walks. Driving and walking, however, do seem to be natural “background” actions. But you cannot have characters thinking while cooking; the activity is not a place for thought but in place of thought.
We need these devices in books, because we do not, in life, think our thoughts over time. Since our real mental life is made in tiny flashes in the midst of our routines, we have to stretch it out, taffy-like, in literature to cover a span of time worthy of it. If we accurately represented our mental life as it takes place—sudden impulses on the way to the washroom, a spasm of neurons unleashed over coffee—no one would believe it. Consciousness is not a stream but a still lock that suddenly drops into little waterfalls. The lengthy descriptions of cooking that we find in modern literature are a way of artfully representing, rather than actually reproducing, our mental life—a modelled illusion, rather than a snapshot of the thing.
So no matter how much cooking a novel contains, in the end it goes back to being a book, as all books will. Even cookbooks are finally more book than they are cook, and, more and more, we know it: for every novel that contains a recipe, there is now a recipe book meant to be read as a novel. When we read, in Alain Ducasse’s recent Culinary Encyclopedia, a recipe for Colonna-bacon-barded thrush breasts, with giblet canapés, on a porcini-mushroom marmalade, we know that we are not seriously expected to cook this; rather, we are to admire, over and over, the literary skill, the metaphysical poetry, required to bring these improbable things together. You and I are not about to cook thrush breasts with a porcini-mushroom marmalade—Alain Ducasse is not about to cook them, either—any more than we are about to throw ourselves under the train with Anna or sleep with Madame Bovary.
The secret consolation may be that it works the other way around as well. The space between imaginary food in books and real food is the space where reading happens. The people we encounter in novels are ultimately mere recipes, too—so many eyes, so many bright teeth, so many repeated tics and characterizing mannerisms—and we accept that we cannot perfectly reproduce them, either. Our mental picture of Henry Perowne, like our mental picture of Lady Glencora Palliser, is as hard-won as the bouillabaisse from “Saturday,” as vague in critical aspects and as likely to vary from maker to maker, from reader to reader. (The characters in Flaubert are like the recipes in Escoffier; we are surprised to see how much is left out.) We read about Cabourg in Proust, and are unprepared for what we find when we actually get there. The act of reading is always a matter of a task begun as much as of a message understood, something that begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own. ♦
Illustration: THIERRY GUITARD