Monday, September 8, 2014

Gateaux and ale

Sir Walter Scott

Speaking of great food in literature (see the previous blog entry: Speed-Reading), I have already shared Colin Thubron's gastronomic waverings over Chinese python (Number 63 With Rice)… but no one does it better than Sir Walter Scott, and Scott was also the first to point out that we use Anglo-Saxon names for animals on the farm and still alive, but French names once they reach the table: calf becomes veal, pig becomes pork, bull becomes beef, sheep becomes mutton, deer becomes venison, snail becomes escargot, beer becomes wine, melted chocolate becomes mousse, and uncouth face-stuffing turns surprisingly quickly into bourgeois grande bouffe. 

Among the Waverley tales are literally scores of menus, described in minute detail, of which my favourite is his account of a proper Highland breakfast:

   “Waverley found Miss Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barley-meal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above all other countries. A mess of oatmeal porridge, flanked by a silver jug, which held an equal mixture of cream and buttermilk, was placed for the Baron’s share of this repast.”

Lots more examples can be found at

Virginia Woolf was probably anorexic, though they didn’t have the term in her days. This did not stop her "salivating copiously", to use Samuel Beckett's mouth-watering phrase, in "To the Lighthouse":

   “…an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine . . . ‘It is a triumph,’ said Mr. Banks, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked.” 

And then there is the decidedly non-kosher Bloomsday breakfast in Joyce's "Ulysses":

   “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

All of which you can cook and prepare yourself, following the very recipe that Joyce would have known and loved, by visiting TheOldFoodie at

He also provides details and recipes of other of Bloom's favourite repasts at

The plum-pudding on the Christmas table offered as a redemptive gift by Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit is the one best remembered from that great literary cartoonist, perhaps because his other exemplar of food with a bad conscience belongs to Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations", the cake that was still on the table all those years later when Pip was dragged into the Ariadne web of the gruesome Estella; leading one to wish to rename that novel Great Expectorations:

    “As I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it . . . ‘I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.’ ‘It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!'”

I could, and would happily go on, for there are thousands of these lyrical accounts of menus carnivorous and vegetarian, of appetisers as well as desserts, of fish as well as fowl, but my lunchtime snack is ready (crèpes in blé noir, one with melted Brie and Parma ham, the other with some of those fruits de mer illustrated above, lightly fried in a Bechamel sauce)... so instead I am pleased to recommend you to read Dinah Fried's delectable "Fictitious Dishes", which catalogues innumerable of them; a work that no self-respecting kitchen library should be without. Heidi's burnt toast and the Mad Hatter's Tea-Party are too good to be missed; the plate of cheese and pickle with toast in "Catcher in the Rye" is simply "phony", but as I can't offer you any of my lunch, why don't you try an avocado stuffed with cottage cheese, tomato and chives, in the style of Sylvia Plath's "The Bell-Jar". 

B'tei avon, as we say in Hebrew. Bon appetit in French. Apparently the Anglo-Saxons don't have an equivalent expression.

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