Aioli with Poached Fish and Vegetables (Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure)

A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture, or the psychology of an individual; it can be the sociology, psychology and biology of its creator and its audience and, of course, to their geographical location; it can be a way of knowledge, a path, an inspiration, a Tao, an ordering, a shaping, a manifestation, a talisman, an injunction, a memory, a fantasy, a consolation, an allusion, an illusion, an evasion, an assertion, a seduction, a prayer, a summoning, an incantation murmured under the breath as the torchlights sink lower and the forest looms taller and the wolves howl louder and the fire prepares for its submission to the encroaching dark.

And it’s from this deluge of highfalutin contemplation, that Lanchester allows his protagonist Tarquin Winot to emerge.

The Debt to Pleasure is structured by seasonal menus, with each quarter of the novel divided by a selection of foods typical of and appropriate to the individual season. Some of the best include recipes for blinis, Irish stew, queen of puddings (the first ever dish Tarquin learns to cook), bourride, peaches in red wine and a variety of curries. These menus and their accompanying recipes are the subtext for Tarquin’s memories: for our enigmatic protagonist it is food, not human interaction, that holds the power to provoke memory and emotion. In each dish, we find ourselves entering an increasingly uncomfortable world of Tarquin’s snobbish obsession.

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Bouillabaisse (McEwan’s On Chesil Beach)

Ruth giggled for minutes on end, until she had to leave the room, when he called a baguette a croissant.

There’s nothing like food – no more so than in post-war England – to set insurmountable divisions between classes.

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Chicken Salad Stuffed Tomato (Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned)

She was used to certain dishes, and she had a strong conviction that she could not possibly eat anything else.

Fussy eaters top my list of general grievances.* It’s the principle of it all. There’s something either childish or bland about possessing an enormous roster of things never tried but nevertheless apparently certain to be unappetising. In Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Gloria Gilbert is definitely the former. A self-righteous, prissy and opinionated snob, Gloria is any dinner host’s worst nightmare.

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Penne All’arrabbiata (Tonino Benacquista’s Holy Smoke)

With all its darkly satirical glimpses into wartime Italy by way of numerous mishaps with both the mafia and the Vatican, you might be tempted to call Holy Smoke a ‘comedy-noir’. Continue reading


Serle’s Eggs (Jane Austen’s Emma)

There’s something of a running joke in our household about “Serle’s Eggs”. As the Woodhouse’s cook in Jane Austen’s Emma, Serle serves up any number of (extra)ordinary dishes to the family’s aristocratic guests. Unfortunately for Serle, his patron has no desire to sample his culinary talents. During such house parties, Mr Woodhouse:

loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth, but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see any thing put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.

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rock cakes

No-Egg Lime Rock Cakes (L Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz)

In L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series, Dorothy Gale (who needs no introduction) encounters the Nome King Roquat on her quest to restore the rightful royal family of Ev to the throne. I must say as somewhat a disclaimer that this particular inspired recipe is a mishmash of L Frank Baum’s Oz series and the 1985 film Return to Oz. Though it is the film alone that suggests the Nome King dines on limestone, the books make it clear that the Nome King and his subterranean comrades live in mortal fear of eggs.

Eggs are poison to Nomes!

Roquat, on seeing Billina (Dorothy’s chicken companion)

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bird without wings

Circassian Chicken (Louis de Bernieres’s Birds Without Wings)

Birds Without Wings takes place over the course of the First World War and addresses a village’s singular burst into the ‘new world’. The village is thrown about in the storm of the outside world where the stronghold of the Ottoman Empire decays around the novel’s central characters.  A myriad of voices bird without wings 3alternate in cyclic succession around the fictional town of Eskibahçe in southwestern coastal Anatolia, which at the novel’s outset appears a microcosmic place of sympathetic (if not completely naive) unity between communities: Armenians, Greeks and Turks.

For this post I focus on a dish prepared both by and for the character of Leyla Hanim, the mistress of the town’s aga, Rustem Bey. For him, Leyla pretends to be a Circassian, although she is actually Greek. Going to the kitchens for assistance, Leyla works together with the cook to prepare a feast for Rustem Bey. The cook’s choice to make Circassian Chicken in homage to Leyla’s supposed Circassian roots gestures ironically towards her true identity.

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Banana-filled Croissants with Brandy-Banana Sauce (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow)

(Yes, it certainly was snowing when I made these).

Thomas Pynchon appeals to our senses at the very outset of his sprawling novel through the culinary talents of Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice. Unwitting gourmand for his messmates, Pirate whips up these “orgiastic” Banana Breakfasts courtesy of a prior agreement:

Pirate, driven to despair by the banana shortage, decided to build a glass hothouse on the roof, and persuade a friend who flew the Rio-to-Ascension-to-Fort-Lamy run to pinch him a sapling banana tree or two, in exchange for a German camera […].

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sweet tikki

Sweet Potato and Beetroot Tikkis in a Honey-Lime Sauce (Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book)

The_meeting_at_the_Council_RockOr: How to introduce a bear to Indian food.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the brown bear Baloo is admitted into the Wolves Council thanks to his singular diet:

Then the only other creature who is allowed at the Pack Council—Baloo, the sleepy brown bear who teaches the wolf cubs the Law of the Jungle: old Baloo, who can come and go where he pleases because he eats only nuts and roots and honey—rose upon his hind quarters and grunted.

Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

Why not make a Baloo-friendly dish with all his favourite things combined?

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midori's sigh

Dashimaki Eggs (Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood)

Or: How bras ruin a meal.

In Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, we learn how Japanese-style eggs have the power to cast one of its characters into sorrowful reminiscing over her troubled childhood. During a meal with the novel’s main character, Toru Watanabe, the lovely Midori takes a moment to remember the difficulties she experienced while growing up:

“When I was in the sixth-form, I had to have an egg fryer – a long, narrow pan for making this dashimaki-style fried egg we’re eating. I bought it with money I was supposed to use for a new bra. For three months I had to live with one bra. Can you believe it? … I’d walk around with tears pouring from my eyes. To think I was suffering this for an egg fryer!”

Midori in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood

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food to the letter

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