Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

h1

Playing salads

August 29, 2012

The fictional knives of Alice Thomas Ellis

It’s been far too long since I posted some fictional food on this site. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been introduced to a writer whom I know immediately will become one of my favourites – Alice Thomas Ellis. This was the nom de plume of the English writer and legendary editor Anna Haycraft, and I am indebted to my friend Tegan for lending me The Birds of The Air, which I absolutely loved. Tegan has written about Thomas Ellis in a riveting series of academic essays on literary influence, which I hope to see in widespread publication very soon.

Thomas Ellis is one of those sharp-eyed, caustic observers of the English middle classes, and wrote her thirteen novels from the late 1970s to the 1990s. She died in 2005, and I feel a little mortified that I’d never heard of her before now, because judging by the obituaries of the time she was very highly regarded.

(She reminds me a bit of another recent discovery of mine, Nina Bawden, whose children’s books are renowned but who also wrote brilliant fiction for adults  – coincidentally, the first Bawden book I read was titled The Birds On the Trees ).

Thomas Ellis, like Bawden, is one of those discoveries that thrills because you know there are so many more books to read – on finishing The Birds of the Air I went immediately to Google and discovered not only all the other novels but also, excitingly, that she wrote two books on cooking! Am tracking those down forthwith, but in the meantime am engrossed in Unexplained Laughter, which I ordered as an e-book (nothing quite like that instant gratification) and am loving.  The writing reflects the paradox of Thomas Ellis’s conservative Catholicism – a convert who spent six months as a nun, she famously loathed any progressive change to the church and described the Second Vatican Council (an attempt to modernise some of the most rigid teachings of the Church) as unleashing  a “tide of sewage”. Despite her books being filled with powerful female characters, she was apparently “bitterly opposed” to feminist influence in Catholicism. Go figure.

Tegan tells me that Thomas Ellis’ novels are “full of food” – and so far at least, she’s right. What I love about this extract, from Unexplained Laughter, is how spectacularly narky Thomas Ellis is – food here isn’t the sloshy-galoshy shorthand for sensuous pleasure it so often is in fiction: it’s a point of unspoken tension between two women, black and sharp. With the character of Lydia so immediately and richly unpleasant, I can only imagine the scorn with which Thomas Ellis would have greeted contemporary preoccupations with “likeability” of characters in fiction.

Lydia and Betty are staying at Lydia’s cottage in the Welsh countryside. Lydia has just been ditched by her unfaithful lover, and “had invited Betty to stay by accident, or rather by drunken mischance, at one of those fatal office parties.”  Now they’re trapped there together, with Lydia’s loathing of Betty growing more intense by the minute. But she “determined to be pleasant since the one thing more disagreeable than staying with someone you detested was staying with someone who detested you too. Dissembling was tiring but squabbling was disgusting. She would never be sufficiently intimate with Betty to quarrel with her.”

“The sun shone the next day, and Emyr arrived to connect the water pipes. Betty made him a cup of tea and sat among the cut lengths of gleaming copper and strong-toothed tools conducting a little chat, which afforded Lydia a moment’s amusement since Betty was adjusting her conversation to suit a person of low intelligence and the people of the valley were, on the whole, clever, devious and unusually literate. As Betty talked of the rain of the previous days the builder spoke briefly of water tables; as she deplored the unemployment of the Principality he gave a succinct resume of the economic situation; as, somewhat at a loss, she praised the sun for now shining, Emyr described in a few words how it would eventually burn itself out. The scene was rather like a bull-fight, with Betty, small-eyed, blundering hither and yon dazzled by the whisk of scarlet, the glancing slippers of the matador.

‘What do you want for lunch?’ enquired Lydia when Emyr, having demonstrated that the taps now functioned, had left.

‘I thought I’d make us my special salad,’ said Betty. ‘If you’ll wash the lettuce I’ll make my special dressing and we could pick some wild sorrel and chop it in at the last minute.’

‘Do you know, I’m not hungry,’ said Lydia, consideringly. There was something spinsterish in Betty’s plans for her salad, something intimate in her expectation that Lydia would collude with her, and something repellent in the prospect of two single women fussing over food in the kitchen. Lydia was damned if she’d play salads with Betty. She might never eat again until Betty had gone. She had real women friends: pretty, witty women more likely to speculate on a swift method of fermenting potato peel than slaver over wild sorrel. Why were none of them here? Because she hadn’t asked them, that’s why. She had chosen for herself the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes, and she denounced herself for a masochist. Do I, she asked herself, imagine that because I have lost a man I am in the same category as spotty Betty? Is it my Unconscious (of the existence of which I have informed doubts) that has dropped me in this plight? Because if so, I had better watch out. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk,’ she said.

‘Perhaps it’ll give you an appetite,’ said Betty. 

As she walked, Lydia wondered whether perhaps Betty was lesbianly inclined and that this was why she found her presence so distasteful. After half a mile she had rejected this hypothesis and decided that it was merely because she was unattractive, the sort of person who, fifty years ago, would have worn rubber galoshes. Lydia did not castigate herself for so disliking a fellow-being, believing that it was sufficient merely to refrain from overt unkindness.”

From Unexplained Laughter, Alice Thomas Ellis, 1985 – published by Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson (ebook) 2012

Buy Alice Thomas Ellis books here.

h1

Cooking as conversation

April 27, 2012

I have just read Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen, a slender, amusing challenge to sludgy writing of all kinds. I read it in an evening and found it very bracing. It’s come at exactly the right time for me, as with my new book coming out I’ve been asked to write bits and pieces about cooking for various food mags and websites. Anxiety on the release of a new book always makes me feel rather timid just as you’re supposed to project lots of confidence, and as I think about what to write for these things I have felt myself teetering on the edge of a deep crater of magazine-speak about food. You know the kind of thing: “There’s nothing nicer than lunch made with seasonal produce, sharing good food with family and friends,” and so on. The sort of stuff that is accurate enough, yet utterly banal.

So when I visited the lovely people at Books for Cooks in Melbourne earlier this week (if you haven’t been here and you like to cook, you must! But beware – it is a seemingly endless rabbit warren of cookbook goodies, and they have an online store!) and found this handsome yellow volume I found myself clutching at it like a drowning woman. And I hope it’s going to save me from an infection of triteness, because it’s reminded me that all that is really needed for good writing is the truth. A dash of style helps, of course, but the very appealing thing to me about this book is Barnes’ confidence in his own cranky obstinacy. He’s hilariously uptight about recipe books and their instructions, attributing his pedantry to having grown up in a house where men had nothing to do with cooking, and the “late onset” of his own interest in it.

The result of all this…is that while I now cook with enthusiasm and pleasure, I do so with little sense of freedom or imagination. I need an exact shopping list and an avuncular cookbook. The idea of carefree marketing – waltzing off with wicker basket over the arm, relaxedly buying what the day has best to offer, and then contriving it into something which might or might not have been made before – will always be beyond me.

In the kitchen I am an anxious pedant. I adhere to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated. 

..

My wrath is also frequently turned against the cookbooks on which I rely so heavily. Still, this is one area where pedantry is both understandable and important: and the self-taught, anxious, page-scowling domestic cook is about as pedantic as you can get. But then, why should a cookbook be less precise than a manual of surgery? (Always assuming, as one nervously does, that manuals of surgery are indeed precise. Perhaps some of them sound just like cookbooks: ‘Sling a gout of anaesthetic down the tube, hack a chunk off the patient, watch the blood drizzle, have a beer with your mates, sew up the cavity…’) Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental.


What’s so appealing to me about this is my desire to argue with him throughout the book – a sure sign of engaging writing, don’t you think? But it comes from the fact that he seems to have given free rein to his true self – nitpicky, bossy, anxious and a little pooncy. Of course I have no idea what Julian Barnes’ true self is actually like, but a great energy bounces through this work that I feel it would be difficult to fake. And it leads to this feeling that one could really have a great conversation with this book – the opposite of boring public-relations talk of so much food writing, which is the equivalent of talking about the weather all evening at a dinner party. That kind of thing makes you want to dig your eyes out with a spoon, does it not? I think it comes from a desire to be liked –  always death to a piece of writing. 

Barnes also gives voice to lots of kitchen quandaries I have never seen written about before – like his passivity in the face of a surly butcher, for example, or the feelings of betrayal when a recipe’s instructions are belied by the photograph in the book (he has a particularly amusing beef with Nigel Slater). I loved it.

Another thing to love about this book is its brevity. I think it must be a collection of columns from the Guardian newspaper – anyone know? Regardless, each chapter is short and sweet and lively. Which has inspired me to rethink  this blog a bit – it seems to have morphed from a loose collection of short bits and bobs in the early days to a slightly more essayistic form lately. That has been enjoyable, but it means I keep putting off writing here because I feel I don’t have time to do it justice – and I miss it!

So I declare a return, for the next little while anyway, to shorter posts, with or without recipes that may or may not have anything to do with the post itself. Like the one below for a sort of zucchini gratin.

And while we’re on the topic of conversation, I am booked in for lots of events to talk about Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, which seems to be trickling into bookshops now – official pub date is Monday. Two of the Sydney talks will be with two of the best cooks among my friends – Caro Baum, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – and Steph Clifford-Smith, at Newtown Library. We are going to have fun (even if I am rather daunted by sharing the stage with Proper Chefs at SWF – eek!) and we would love to see any of you there.

I’m not sure how much to blab about my book here … while it definitely is on-topic, I can understand if you resent me using this blog as a self-promotional tool so tell me if you hate the idea of me citing events and media stuff here? I won’t be offended, I promise. But just before you tell me to shut up I will put a link to the podcast of an interview I did with the charming Joe Gelonesi on ABC Classic FM last week, and another to a chat at the lovely cooking blog of YA novelist Sophie Masson, with whom I had a wonderful natter about food when we met at the Bellingen festival recently.

Zucchini ‘gratin’

Julian Barnes would hate this recipe because I’m not even giving quantities – take that, uptighty whitey Barnsey! This is a dish from an old magazine recipe that I used to have in my clippings folder, can’t remember where it came from, and have now lost. But I just put it together the other night from memory and it was perfectly nice, and very easy. You need:

  • zucchinis, sliced
  • a few dollops of sour cream
  • breadcrumbs, lumpy!
  • thyme, leaves picked – lots
  • Parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Toss your sliced zukes in some boiling water for a few minutes until just tender.
  2. Drain well and mix with the thyme and as much sour cream as you like – I like it quite sloppy – and season well.
  3. Put this in an oven-proof dish while in a separate bowl you mix up the breadcrumbs and Parmesan – however much you wish of each, but enough crumbs to cover the top of the zukes.
  4. Chuck the dish into a moderate oven and bake for around 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy.

We had this with roast chicken, some roasted fennel and carrots with chorizo bits. It was all very fine. 


h1

Amy Bloom’s fictional food

June 28, 2010

Don’t you find writing about food becomes awfully twee and tiresome much of the time?

All those clichés  about seasonal produce and sharing tables with family and friends, the delicious aroma of baking from the kitchen, blah blah blah. Or the slickly stupid language of shrine restaurant menus. Remind me to tell you one day of a friend’s visit to a most pretentious molecular gastronomy restaurant – not, I hasten to add, The Fat Duck, where we’ve eaten and which is an unforgettable experience of playful culinary genius, but one presided over by a rather less skilled chef. She said the wait staff behaved like members of a cult and the menu featured stuff like An Interim of Parsley Dust – hilarious.

Turning to food in fiction, it’s just as tricky. If you are as engaged and delighted by cooking and eating as we are, putting the spotlight on food in novels or short stories so often results in gushy, sentimental sop and nostalgic rosy glows. A writing teacher friend of mine, buried in marking one day years ago, sighed, “If I have to read about one more yiayia’s orchard I’m going to puke.”

I am well aware, dear readers, of my own shortcomings in this department, both fictional and non-. From now on I’m going to pretend Gay Bilson is looking over my shoulder when I write about food, for her stern, clear-eyed and unsentimental writing is inspiring.

For now, as an antidote to any food tosh you might have been reading lately, I want to show you how a really good fiction writer does it. I recently read Amy Bloom’s story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.  This is from ‘Between Here and There’.

Most of the mothers in our neighborhood were housewives, like my mother. But my mother was really a very good cook and a very accomplished hostess, even if the things she made and the way she entertained is not how I would have done it (red, white and blue frilled toothpicks in lamb sausage pigs-in-blankets on the Fourth of July, trays of deviled eggs and oeufs en gelée—with tiny tulips of chive and egg yolk decorating each oeuf—to celebrate spring). My mother worked hard at what she considered her job, with no thanks from us and no pay, aside from the right to stay home.

Five minutes before the start of a cocktail party or bridge night, my father would make himself comfortable on the living room couch, dropping cigar ash on the navy-blue velvet cushions, or he’d stand in the kitchen in his underwear, reading the newspaper while my mother and I put out platters and laid hors d’oeuvres around him. Sometimes, he’d sit down at the kitchen table and open the newspaper wide, lowering it almost to the tabletop, so we’d have to move the serving dishes to the counter. One July Fourth, when I was about twelve and Andy was ten, my father picked up an angel on horseback as my mother was carrying the tray past him. “What is this, shit on a stick,” he said, and knocked the whole plate out of her hands, and then there we were, my mother and Andy and me, scrabbling to grab the hot, damp, oily little things from under the sideboard and out of the ficus plants. My father picked up a couple and put them in my mother’s apron pocket, saying, “You kids crack me up.” He was still chuckling when the doorbell rang and my mother went back into the kitchen and Andy and I went to our rooms, and he was still smiling when he opened the door for Mr and Mrs Rachlin, who were always the first.

Now that’s writing.


h1

Food & friendship: on Crossing to Safety

February 1, 2010

‘The expression of a civilised cuisine’

It’s been a while since I posted any fictional food, and this morning trawling through my bookshelves for readerlyinspiration I found Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. This novel (introduced to me, incidentally, by the Parsnip Princess) is One of Those Books – it will remain one of my favourites for ever, I think. It’s about a lifelong friendship between two couples, and the dominance of one charismatic, exceptional, difficult woman over all four individuals. Very little has been written about this kind of complex, meandering, intense friendship, so the subject in itself is a fine thing. But the finest thing is the writing. I love this book.

Here are new arrivals Larry and Sally going to Sid and Charity Lang’s place for the first time.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event – a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull and made moons of us and fixed us in orbit around themselves.

What the disorderly crave above everything else is order, what the dislocated aspire to is location. Reading my way out of disaster in the Berkeley library, I had run into Henry Adams. ‘Chaos,’ he told me, ‘is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.’ No-one had ever put my life to me with such precision, and when I read the passage to Sally, she heard it in the same way I did. Because of her mother’s uncertain profession, early divorce, and early death, she had first been dragged around and farmed out, and later deposited in the care of overburdened relatives. I had lost my security, she had never had any. Both of us were peculiarly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.

Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagerness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world.

In its details, that dinner party was not greatly different from hundreds we have enjoyed since. We drank, largely and with a recklessness born of inexperience. We ate, and well, but who remembers what? Chicken kiev, saltimbocca, escallope de veau, whatever it was, it was the expression of a civilised cuisine, as far above our usual fare as manna is above a baked potato. A pretty table was part of it, too – flowers, wine in fragile glasses, silver whose weight was a satisfaction in the hand. But the heart of it was the two people who had prepared the occasion, apparently just to show their enthusiasm for Sally and me.


h1

A case of the busies

November 6, 2009

Brothers & Sisters coverI’m sad to say I have done barely any cooking this week and think it unlikely to be doing much in the week or so; I’m afraid it may be rather quiet round here for a little while.

This week I have had the busies, with lots of  promotion in progress for our new book Brothers & Sisters – preparing for the forthcoming panel at the Newtown Festival this Sunday, then the Sydney launch on Tuesday, another in the Blue Mountains on Thursday, plus the odd interview like this one here with Radio National’s The Book Show earlier this week.

Now this is clearly a load of completely shameless self-promotion, but I figured if you can’t do it on your own blog …

However, I have lots to talk about soon from devils on horseback to the contrast between dried & fresh herbs and when to use which – not to mention a revisit of my spud farm (Jamie, I’m in trouble …) and the herb garden finally coming along  – so please don’t go away! See you back here for actual foodie natterings very soon …

h1

Food as loneliness (in London still)

October 28, 2009

londonAm excited this week, because our anthology, Brothers & Sisters, is finally out, in the shops, published, released into the wild. The launch is in a couple of weeks – I would love all howtoshuckanoyster friends to come along, so if you are in Sydney and available on the evening of Tuesday 10 November, let me know!

It’s so much easier to be vocal about and proud of a book I’ve edited than one I’ve written – quite a joyful experience, quite  unlike the usual nauseous tremor that accompanies the release of a novel, and that ghastly fear every time you see a newspaper that within its pages you are being evaluated, judged, pilloried or – better, but still weird – foolishly praised … This time, though, I am so confident about the quality of the book because of the skill and talent of the writers within its pages, that I feel nothing but happiness that the stories and essays about siblings are finally reaching their readers.

I am also thrilled because I’ve wanted for ages to post my friend Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s brilliant passages about loneliness from her story, Trouble, but have been resisting until the book is actually available.

Trouble is narrated by a young woman who’s moved to London with her sister Emma, and the narrator’s loneliness as she watches the more confident Emma embrace the big new world they find themselves in while she herself is struggling to find her feet. They share a plush apartment belonging to some family friends, but Emma is out a lot – at her groovy architect’s job, or with her new boyfriend – while the narrator stays home, watching out the window at the city, feeling fat and out of place, halfheartedly looking for a job and trying to ward off  London’s cold, rainy misery.  It’s a beautiful story about growing up, about loneliness and desire, and finding your own way in a world far from home. Here are a couple of bits I particularly wanted to share.

Emma’s office was only a few tube stops from our flat, and I met her for lunch sometimes, but mostly I sat at home, too weary to struggle along in the fine bubbles of her wake. I couldn’t get warm. It was only September, and the flat was centrally heated, but I was doing nothing except sitting at the table in our white kitchen, whose window overlooked Vauxhall Bridge Road. Sometimes I ate porridge oats, dry, from a bowl. There was something solid and sustaining about them. You could make porridge in your own mouth, mashing the oats into a warm paste with teeth and saliva. I could eat two or three bowls at once. I looked in the newspaper for work. Sometimes I had baths to try to ease the cold ache in my sides and legs.

Eventually she gets a job in a department store.

After a month or so I gave up eating in the cafeteria at work, no longer exercised by the horrible fascination over the other staff’s eating habits. At first I had just sat and watched as slender, clear-faced girls collected trays of lasagne and chips, bowls of chocolate pudding, and Diet Cokes. Everything came with chips. London was the only place I had been where you were offered chips with Chinese food. Not even Parkes, not even Dubbo had food like that.

It was partly the food, but partly also that I didn’t like people to see me eating. Later on I would wonder why I’d thought myself so fat – I was merely plump, a word I hated nearly as much as chubby – but back then there seemed to be no doubt about it. Whenever I could, now, I went over the road to Harrods to buy my lunch. In the food hall you could get a mango, or a bag of dates or figs. I always tried to get outside if it was sunny, but often enough I spent my whole lunch break in the food hall, sneaking figs from a paper bag while I stood in front of the bread display, or the butchery. Everything was beautiful in the food hall – the tiled floors, the columned rooms, the elaborate plaster ceilings. There were no windows, but the lighting was generous and warm. There was nowhere to sit, but I sat all day at work anyway, and there were always enough people to prevent me from feeling conspicuous as I walked around.

One lunchtime I was waiting at the fruit counter when someone beside me said, ‘Hey.’ I looked up. The voice belonged to Tony, our floor manager. I had never spoken to him before. He was a tall, skinny man who always wore the same loose-fitting suit. He had a walkie-talkie clipped to his trousers and thick, slicked-back hair. Sometimes I saw him conferring with the white-shirted security men. I don’t think he liked Rory, he rarely came into our section. But I saw him in the distance sometimes, talking to an outraged customer. Women in particular became angry very easily, and it was his job to soothe them and make them want to come back.

He had a gentle Cockney voice and quite a large mouth. He grinned at me. ‘Hungry?’ he said.

I blushed and blushed.

‘Seen you in here before. This lady was first,’ he said to the woman behind the counter.

‘No, you go,’  I said, stepping back so fast I trod on someone’s toes. ‘I was just looking.’


h1

More writing on food

September 21, 2009

My thanks to my friend Eileen, for alerting me to this meaty segment on writing about food from ABC Radio National’s Book Show. More surprising than I had expected, it’s a nice energetic discussion on fictional, poetic and other writerly food between Stephanie Alexander (whose new book The Kitchen Garden Companion I absolutely lust after), John Newton and Gay Bilson with Ramona Koval.

Gay Bilson is particularly literate, erudite and thoughtful. She’s a very interesting woman, I think, given her stepping away from her massive success as a restaurateur (Berowra Waters Inn, etc) into a more reflective, quieter and far more ascetic sort of life these days. As a result of this interview I shall be seeking out her own books, Plenty and On Digestion. She also writes for The Monthly, and has a strangely moving piece in this month’s issue about organ donation which begins by evoking mushroom harvesting. She is intriguing, I reckon.

The beloved MFK Fisher comes in for a surprisingly acerbic serve from both Gay Bilson, who says Fisher’s writing is self-regarding and “makes my toes curl” and Stephanie, who calls her writing mannered and says she gets the feeling of indigestion from Fisher! A good lively, highly literate discussion all round, liberally sprinkled with food quotes from Sybil Bedford, Hemingway, Ian McEwan, Henry James, Lawrence Durrell, Anita Brookner, Frank Moorhouse and invoking The Magic Pudding, Enid Blyton and lots more.

Download it or listen online here.