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 introduces us to his protagonist Tarquin Winot.

The Debt to Pleasure is structured by seasonal menus. Each quarter of the novel is 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. The menus are the subtext for Tarquin’s memories: it is soon clear that food, not human interaction, holds the power to provoke memory and emotion. In each dish, we find ourselves entering an increasingly uncomfortable world of snobbish obsession. On the virtues of salad cream, he quips:

at least had the virtue of tasting ‘like itself’ – -that’s to say, like the byproduct of an industrial accident.

and his brother’s school dinners:

We then sat down to a meal which Dante would have hesitated to invent.

(Having also been subjected to tray after tray of mysteriously mottled brown school dinners in England, I heartily sympathise).

As you may have gathered, finding a recipe for inspiration was not a problem. I finally came to the decision to eschew the other grander suggestions, in favour of the humble aioli. It’s the novel’s promise of the aioli recipe that singles it out. As the only recipe to which he makes reference multiple times, Tarquin dangles the promise in front of the reader like a gilded carrot. And it’s no wonder, providing as it does the most telling encounter between Tarquin and his brother (perhaps his most intimate relationship) in the novel.

My brother, who didn’t much like what he, with self-conscious unpretentiousness, called ‘foreign food’ (a category from which he excluded curry), was none the less an enthusiast for garlic, especially in the form of the aioli currently under discussion: ‘The nearest thing the French have to HP sauce’, I remember him saying, as he ladelled another dollop of the ambrosial confection onto his plate. […H]e would always insist on my constructing an aioli of the classic Provencal marque, with a cold poached piece of fish as the central dish (often, controversially, not salt cod) or a personal selection of boiled meats and an intelligent array of accompaniments ranged around like an edible honour guard (boiled eggs, asparagus spears, broccoli florets, peeled fava beans, carrots, haricots verts, warm new potatoes in their jackets – or, as the Italian expression has it, in their nightshirts – tomatoes, celery, beetroot, chickpeas and a half-pint or so of simmered escargots).

Subtext Aioli

2 egg yolks
4 cloves of garlic
480ml olive oil
1 lemon, juiced

I kept absolutely to the letter on this one. Just as Tarquin would have wanted:

[P]ut two egg yolks in a blender with four cloves of garlic and slowly whizz in a pint of olive oil (ail meaning garlic and oil being the term for olive oil in Provence’s attractively rough-and-ready, local dialect) and the juice of a lemon.

Consumed in large quantity, aioli can have a stifling effect, so any companion dishes should be light and invigorating: I myself prefer to serve only with a tossed green salad… The preferred libation is rosé wine.

I chose to serve the aioli the poached cod (poached in white wine and leeks) and the aforementioned “edible honour guard”: soft-boiled eggs, broccoli florets, carrots, beetroot, plum tomatoes, potatoes and celery.

Serves 2. But if your evening’s anything like Tarquin’s, you may need to finish it yourself.


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.

In Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, we witness the developing relationship between two newlyweds who soon realise that their destinies are worlds apart. It’s initially their prudishness that gets in the way of any kind of connection. Battling vainly against the oncoming wave of sexual liberty in the 60s, Edward and Florence (pre-marriage) prefer to stay within the safer social confines of the previous era.

Things only get worse when Edward meets Florence’s family . Despite Edward’s efforts in striving for the academic heights his wife and family have achieved, there’s no escaping the truth: that he is no match for them. On staying at Florence’s family home, he’s made to stay in the ‘small room':

One wall was covered in plain white-painted shelves of Loeb editions in Latin and Greek. Edward liked the association with such austere learning, though he knew he fooled no one by leaving out copies of Epictetus or Strabo on the bedside table.

Over the course of his stay, Edward is given further opportunities to fall  short of the family’s expectation. From tennis matches to his views on the history of thought, the unfortunate Edward finds himself caught up in a sea of upper-middle class presumptions. And he fares no better on the subject of food:

During that summer he ate for the first time a salad with a lemon and oil dressing and, at breakfast, yoghurt – a glamorous substance he knew only from a James Bond novel.  […] He encountered for the first time in his life muesli, olives, fresh black pepper, bread without butter, anchovies, undercooked lamb, cheese that was not cheddar, ratatouille, saucisson, bouillabaisse, entire meals without potatoes, and, most challenging of all, a fishy pink paste, tarama salata.

It was for personal reasons that I decided to make bouillabaisse, out of the list offered above. I admit myself to not particularly liking the French soup. I find it, in general, far too much, on the tomato and fish fronts. Honestly, Edward’s feelings about the exotic food set before him each mealtime entirely describes my own:

Many of these items tasted only faintly repellent, and similar to each other in some indefinable way, but he was determined not to appear unsophisticated.

I wanted, however, to like it. Deciding that I could here perhaps take on the role of Edward, I determined to tone down the otherwise overwhelming flavours by using cod (appealing thus to the English..) and swapping fish stock for vegetable, adding a couple of drops of fish sauce later if I felt it needed more of a kick. In reducing the number of tomatoes in favour of celery, the bouillabaisse that follows is a much lighter version of the French classic.

Bouillabaisse (for people who don’t really like bouillabaisse)

2 tbsp olive oil
10g salted butter
2 white onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 leek, sliced roughly
250g cod, thickly sliced
200g tilapia, thickly sliced
Fresh thyme, chopped
5 medium-large tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp tomato puree
3 bay leaves
500ml white wine
2L vegetable or fish stock
Fish sauce, to taste
200g king prawns

1. Heat the olive oil and butter together in a large pot. Add the onions and garlic, allowing them to sweat a little in the pot. Add the celery, fennel and leek and turn the heat to medium, allowing the mixture to soften for 15 minutes.
2. Add the cod, tilapia, thyme, tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaves. Mix once, then pour over the white wine. Turn the heat up if you need to do so – the white wine needs time to reduce.
3. Once the wine has reduced, add the stock (whichever you’ve decided to use). Bring to a boil and then simmer nicely for a good 50-60mins.
4. You may add fish sauce just before the soup is ready, to amp up the taste. Add salt and pepper, then strain the mixture into another pan, reserving the cooked fish for the soup bowls.
5. Bring the strained soup to a boil and then add the prawns, simmering for 5 minutes. Place the fish into individual soup bowls and ladle the soup broth over the top.

Serves 2-3.


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 the 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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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 for 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 at the outset 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 makes 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 one village’s requisite 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, who pretends to be a Circassian, though 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).

At the very outset of his sprawling novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon appeals to our senses 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)

Or: How to introduce a bear to Indian food.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the brown bear Baloo is admitted to the Wolves Council due 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 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 of life when she was 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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