Carson McCullers, The great eaters of Georgia (Review)

Carson McCullers, 1959

Carson McCullers, 1959 (photographed by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers of my Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week posts will probably guess why I’ve chosen to write about this story: it’s by an appealing American writer and it’s about food. However, it’s quite different from the other food stories. Firstly, while it’s called “the great eaters” it’s more of a little memoir essay albeit structured around food, and secondly, it was published posthumously in 2005. McCullers was born in 1917 (on Feb 19 in fact, so this month in the centenary of her birth) and died in 1967. “The great eaters of Georgia” was written, LOA’s notes say, in 1954 but was not published, because …

It’s a complex situation, which the Wikipedia article section on her personal life fills in, but the significant thing for us is that she had returned (fled) to the US from Paris in 1953, because her husband had tried to encourage her to commit suicide with him. Soon after her return, he succeeded in taking his life. Now, this is relevant because LOA tells us that McCullers had been offered money by Holiday magazine for a piece on Georgia, but, according to McCullers’ biographer Josyane Savigneau, the magazine rejected the article because they were “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.”

I guess that’s fair enough for a holiday-oriented magazine, but for readers more interested in McCullers than in Georgia – sorry, Georgia – it’s great that the piece didn’t disappear. Like many people, I’ve read and/or seen The heart is a lonely hunter and The member of the wedding – but in my case so long ago that my main memory is not of the plots but of melancholy and loneliness, the sorts of emotions that appealed to my teenage self!

But now, “The great eaters of Georgia”. It’s an intriguing piece that doesn’t perhaps quite cohere – certainly as a piece for a holiday magazine. For example, she mentions visiting various people. First is the controversial writer Lillian Smith, who openly confronted such issues as race and gender equality. McCullers writes:

Lill, like other Southerners, feels passionately about the problems of the Negro. Most Georgians do not agree with her, and often when her name is mentioned there is that strange area of silence.

This may not have been what Holiday was looking for, particularly when she adds that during her visit they “discussed Georgia politics”. Then she visits psychiatrist Dr Hervey Cleckley. She doesn’t share her discussions with him about her husband’s suicide – this I learnt from LOA – but they did talk

of the improvement in the understanding of racial problems and the migration from the rural cotton areas to the cities and towns.

Again perhaps not Holiday content? She says they also talked about Dr Crawford Long, a Georgian who was the first to use ether in an operation. You may wonder why this came up, but it resulted from their discussion of “ether parties”:

These odd-sounding affairs must have been like marijuana parties to the modern teenager but there was no social stigma attached, and my grandmother told me that, as a young lady, she often held ether parties for her young friends after they had ridden home from church and gathered for Sunday dinner.

Fascinating eh? Dr Long apparently noticed the numbing effect of ether (!) and thought it might work in surgery! I found this interesting because I have reviewed Sawako Ariyoshi’s The doctor’s wife, which fictionalises the story of Hanaoka Seishū who is believed to have been the first to use general anaesthesia in surgery – in 1804. Long carried out his first surgery in 1842.

Anyhow, I guess McCullers included this story of Long as an example of Georgian ingenuity? Again it may not have been what Holiday was looking for.

She was probably on firmer ground in her description of eating practices and food, because yes, she does talk about those too as the title suggests! I enjoyed little tidbits such as that in her mother’s day:

a child wore an asafetida bag around his neck to ward off colds and contagious diseases. Asafetida is the foulest-smelling substance. I suppose it makes good medical sense because one was not apt to go very near a person wearing an asafetida bag.

Hmmm, that’s not a food story though asafetida is used in cooking – and, anyhow, it’s adds a touch of humour.

She also talks about what great eaters (hence the title) Georgians are – at every meal:

Georgians eat big meals three times a day. I have never gotten over this orange-juice-and-coffee breakfast they have up North. A respectable Georgia breakfast means fish roe and grits or at least eggs or maybe country sausage.

She remembers chewing sugarcane as a child, and the historic cultivation of chinaberry trees “to counteract miasma”. She mentions the razing of the home she was born in, and sneaks in a comment about the reduction in (though not removal of) poverty in her home-town, before returning to the subject of breakfasts. She talks of the Yankee vulgarity of referring to children as “kids”. And she tells us that fried chicken is probably Georgia’s best-known dish, closely followed by “field peas”. She surprised me by mentioning a dish I have in my recipe folders from my early recipe-gathering days, Country Captain. It’s a sort of curried chicken dish, and I didn’t realise it came from the American south.

She also tells us that “any discussion of Georgian food is incomplete without the mention of watermelon” and provides a loving description of the “special operation and procedure” it demands. Fruitcake, tupelo honey, and the smells of Savannah are also shared with us, before she comes to a little anecdote about a “town character”, a bachelor who prefers to eat alone. This is very “un-Georgian”, and she concludes her piece by saying that

Although we have our share of eccentrics, I know very few Georgians who do not love fellowship, good hunting, food, and laughter—who do not enjoy life.

All in all, it’s a fascinating article – for what it tells us about Georgian life and food but more, for the little insights we glean of her interests and her emotional state. A good read for anyone interested in McCullers.

Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) has also written a response to this story.

Note: My other LOA food stories are by John Duncan (“A Virginia barbecue“), Ana Menéndez (“Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings“), George G. Foster (“The eating-houses“) and George Augustus Sala (“The tyranny of pie“).

Carson McCullers
“The great eaters of Georgia”
First published: Oxford American, Spring 2005
Available: Online at the Library of America

George Augustus Sala, The tyranny of pie (Review)

When I decide to write about a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week it is usually because it’s by a favourite author (like Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, or Edith Wharton), or by an author I want to read but haven’t yet (like John Updike or Washington Irving) or on a topic that interests me (like the environment or race issues or food). You can guess from the post title, then, why I chose the story I’m writing about today!

I’ve covered a few LOA food stories: Scotsman John M. Duncan’s “A Virginia barbecue” (1823), American George G. Foster’s “The eating-houses” (1849), and Cuban-American Ana Menéndez’s “Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings” (2004). Two are about events and one about restaurants, though they all mention food too of course. Englishman George Augustus Sala’s piece, however, starts from the point of view of food – the pie, which, I’ve just realised, is appropriate for this American Thanksgiving weekend. Sala, like Virginia-barbecue-Duncan, was a traveller to America, so wrote his piece from the perspective of an outsider.

George Augustus Sala

Sala c. 1855-65, by Mathew Brady (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

But, who was this Sala? Aussies will be interested to know that it was he who coined the still-used description “Marvellous Melbourne” when he visited Australia in 1885. He was born in 1828, and is described in LOA’s notes as a “prolific and flamboyant journalist”. He “found fame” as an acolyte of Charles Dickens, and was a regular contributor to Dickens’ journal, Household Words (about which I’ve written before). However, LOA continues, it was public praise from William Makepeace Thackeray which really launched his career. Unfortunately, although Sala published much and earned good money from writing for The Daily Telegraph, he was a spendthrift who was also often drunk, and “died virtually penniless”.

Now, the piece. It comes from his second trip to the States. His first trip was in 1863 during the Civil War, and while he was critical of much he did like American humour. He wrote, says LOA, a three-book series of anthologies, Yankee Drolleries (1866–1870), which introduced British readers to established authors like Oliver Wendell Holmes (whom I wrote about recently) and the up-and-coming writer, Mark Twain.

During his second trip, which resulted in his book America revisited, he found an improved America. LOA quotes this:

The truth is, that in New York there is room enough for Everybody, whereas in London, huge as it is, there is not sufficient room for Anybody.

By the late 1870s, we’re told, Manhattan had become a popular travel destination for the European upper class.

Sala, LOA also says “had a lot to say about American food. His comments range from despair and scorn to grudging, if infrequent, admiration”.  He apparently approved of New York, because its food and accommodation were “what Europeans usually consider to be refinement and comfort.” But on leaving New York, “you must expect nothing better than pork and beans and Indian pudding, or hog and hominy if you go South; the whole washed down by rough cider or molasses and water.” His short “The tyranny of pie” piece appears as a digression in his America revisited chapter about a train trip to Baltimore.

I’m sure you all know the phrase “as American as apple pie”. The Huffington Post provides some background to this in an article titled “Why are we ‘As American as Apple Pie’?” The pie was an English tradition, and brought to American by the Pilgrims, but by 1860, well before Sala’s second visit, the phrase was already in use. Novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, says Huffington’s Kimberly Kohatsu, that “the pie is an English tradition, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.”

It is partly this variety which captures Sala’s eye. He commences, though, by praising signs of “improvement and reform” in America – in

everything except Pie. The national manners have become softened—the men folk chew less, expectorate less, curse less; the newspapers are not half so scurrilous as our own; the Art idea is becoming rapidly developed; culture is made more and more manifest; even “intensity” in æsthetics is beginning to be heard of and Agnosticism and other “isms” too numerous to mention find exponents in “Society,” and the one absorbing and sickening topic of conversation is no longer the Almighty Dollar—but to the tyranny of Pie there is no surcease.

What is all this about we readers wonder? Soon he writes:

The day before we left New York one of the ripest scholars, the most influential journalists (on the Democratic side) the brightest wits and most genial companions in the States lunched with us. He would drink naught but Château Yquem; but he partook twice, and in amazing profusion of Pumpkin Pie.

Ah, I was thinking, he’s like me. He doesn’t like Pumpkin Pie, and wonders about the taste of this Château Yquem drinker … but, I was disappointed because, within a couple of sentences he writes:

The worst of this dreadful pie—be it of apple, of pumpkin, of mulberry, or of cranberry—is that it is so very nice. It is made delusively flat and thin, so that you can cut it into conveniently-sized triangular wedges, which slip down easily.

He then suggests that the pie is “as important a factor in American civilisation as the pot-au-feu does in France” but that England has nothing equivalent. The closest England has to a dish “by which we nationally stand or fall” is “the roast beef of Old England” but it is expensive and

there are hundreds of thousands of labouring English people who never taste roast beef from year’s end to year’s end—save when they happen to get into gaol or into the workhouse at Christmastide.

This is where his little piece ends. I did enjoy its cheeky humour, and this pointed conclusion.

George Augustus Sala
“The tyranny of pie”
First published in: America revisited: from the Bay of New York to the Gulf of Mexico, 1882.
Available: Online at the Library of America

Monday musings on Australian Literature: The Vagabond

Quite by accident – no, I tell a lie, it was through a link sent by a good friend (thanks Kate) – I came across “The Vagabond”, a mysterious journalist who wrote for Australian newspapers – primarily in Victoria – in the late 19th century. The link was for an article he wrote on sixpenny restaurants, but that article was published in the online journal Inside Story to coincide with the publication of The Vagabond papers (ed. Michael Cannon, Monash University Publishing, 2016).

So, who was this Vagabond? Well, for a start, he is significant enough to be included in the Australian National Biography (ADB), where he is listed under the name John Stanley James (1843-1896), born in Walsall, Staffordshire, England. If, however, you read contemporary obituaries for him, as I did before I found ADB’s entry, you would think he was Julian Thomas, born in Virginia, USA! If you continued to search Trove, though, you would find articles written the year after his death identifying him as John Stanley James. Apparently, as ADB tells it, he had a few fallings-out with his father, in England, and in 1872 went to the USA where he changed his name to Julian Thomas. He arrived in Sydney in 1875.

According to John Barnes (ADB), his early articles, published in Melbourne’s The Argus, were

on ‘the social life and public institutions of Melbourne from a point of view unattainable to the majority’. The most substantial of the series were based on his first-hand reports of what it was like to be ‘inside’ certain institutions: to gather material, he spent a day in the Immigrants’ Home, was admitted to the Benevolent Asylum and worked as the porter at the Alfred Hospital, an attendant at lunatic asylums and dispenser-cum-dentist at Pentridge gaol. His accounts of these institutions combined intimate knowledge of their day-to-day working with a breadth of perspective gained from his knowledge of other societies. His shrewd observation, practical judgments and suggestions for reform reveal a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy.

One of the obituaries I found in Trove referred to these articles:

His series of articles for the “Argus” descriptive of life in the benevolent asylums, hospitals, and finally the Pentridge prison, created a furore which had never been eclipsed by any work of the kind done here since.

This obituarist described him as having “A clear, crisp, epigrammatic style”.

Another described him as having “a fluent pen, a versatile imagination, and an interesting manner of personal comment” and also mentioned, albeit more measuredly, his institutional pieces:

his earlier series of Vagabond papers wherein from personal experience he revealed some of the abuses in the administration of penal establishments, lunatic asylums and charitable institutions, attracted considerable attention.

John Barnes sums him up this way:

Outwardly egotistical and reckless, he had a generous and sympathetic nature. Probably his early life had helped to develop in him a keen feeling for those in need, a feeling expressed in his best work and commemorated after his death in a memorial erected by public subscription.

The process of raising money for, and the erection of this memorial, is also documented in Trove.

In 1878, he was sent to New Caledonia to report on a native uprising. Barnes writes that “he shocked readers with details of the brutality of the French colonial administration which he condemned strongly”. These reports, plus those on his experiences in the New Hebrides and New Guinea, were published in his book Cannibals and Convicts (1886). Although he travelled again – including to China, Japan, British Columbia and the South Seas – Barnes argues that it’s his early Victorian pieces and those in this book that represent his best work.

I’ll leave the story of his life there … you can read more at the ADB link above or look for his articles in Trove yourself. Instead, I’m going to end by discussing his article on the sixpenny restaurants, which was published in the Argus on 27 May 1876, his early (well-regarded) years in Victoria.

The sixpenny restaurant

Not only did I enjoy the article for itself, but it reminded me of one I discussed earlier this year, George G Foster’s “The eating-houses”. It was published in New York in 1849, and discusses various types of eating-houses, including sixpenny ones. The articles are different overall, but both provide a picture of an active eating-out scene in 19th century western countries. Fascinating.

So, the Vagabond’s article. Interestingly, the version published in Inside Story starts about two paragraphs into the original published in The Argus. These first two paragraphs make a political statement about Australia’s need for labour, and the Vagabond has a proposition:

I would have printed one million handbills, exactly similar to those which any day, from 12 till 2, you will have thrust into your hands in the principal streets of Melbourne, and the wonders of which will strike an English labourer or mechanic dumb. Imagine poor Hodge, who lives on bread and bacon, and whose only idea of spending six-pence is to purchase a quart of ale, reading from the bill of fare that a breakfast with a choice of 10 hot dishes of meat, bread and butter ad libitum, and “two or three cups of tea or coffee;” a dinner with choice of six soups, 12 kinds of meat, including such epicurean luxuries as “beef steak pudding” or “stuffed ox-heart;” and six puddings or pies, with tea, coffee, and bread and butter, as at breakfast, may be had in Melbourne for 6d. a meal. The supper (which he reads may be had “both before and after closing of the theatres,” pleasantly suggesting that it is the custom for his class to patronise those places of amusement) is even more bewildering” stewed rabbit, “haricot mutton,” “curries,” and some 15 other dishes, with salad, beet-root, and tomatoes. A land which can furnish such delights for 6d., must surely be the working man’s paradise (my emph).

This argument leads into the article proper, which starts by stating that “Most men have to suffer a perpetual combat between their tastes and their exchequer”.

Vagabond describes his surprise at the quantity of food he can buy for 6d. at these sixpenny restaurants. It resulted in his doing a tour of cheap restaurants. He found they are pretty much alike – “the dishes tend to be stereotyped, and the cooking is much the same in all”. There can be, particularly in summer, “more flies in the dishes than refined prejudices might fancy”, and sausages, he writes, are such “bags of mystery” that the “enormous consumption” of them is “convincing proof that faith is strong in the colonies”. Love it!

Workers Cafe, Porto

Workers’ cafe, Porto, Portugal

After discussing the food in some detail, he then describes the establishments, making an interesting observation:

Sixpenny restaurants vary a good deal in style; there are some in the principal thoroughfares which shine with plate-glass, white linen, and pretty waiter girls. But all this extra display, and the cost of the handbills which are so freely circulated, cause perceptible diminution in the quantity or quality of the viands. The places where one really feeds best are the smaller restaurants, kept by married couples, who do the cooking themselves … These are chiefly patronised by working men.”

This brought to mind my experience as a traveller: we’ve often had the best meals in little ma-and-pa run restaurants, in worker-patronised restaurants. We tend not to frequent those places at home because they offer the sort of food we might cook ourselves but when we travel, these places can be the best for learning about local food and life.

But, I digress … Vagabond continues to discuss the experience of dining in cheap restaurants. He notes the “tricks” customers employ to obtain more food, and suggests dining after the rush makes it easier for diners to chat together. He then describes the patrons – and it’s a fascinating, multicultural bunch – before moving on to the staff, the waiters who “are refugees from all classes” and the cooks, most of whom began “with making damper”.

He concludes by mentioning that some taverns are setting themselves up as rivals to the sixpenny restaurants. They give “hot lunches with pint of ale, from 12 to 2 daily, for 6d”, but the food mostly comprises “a plate of corned beef and potatoes” and “you get altogether about half the amount of food you would at a sixpenny dinner”. However, these places are frequented by young clerks, who, he says, are too proud to be seen in a sixpenny restaurant. He concludes his article with:

It would be far better for them if they would put their dignity on one side, and take a dinner in a sixpenny restaurant, which up to this time I consider to be the most wonderful example of Victorian progress and prosperity which I have met with.

I can see what Barnes means by “a compassionate spirit behind his cultivated flamboyancy”. I could read more of Vagabond.


George G. Foster, The eating-houses (Review)

Some of you will know that Mr Gums and I love to eat out. So, when I saw a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week titled “The eating-houses” by one George G Foster appear in my in-box at the end of last year, I knew I had to read it. I just had to find the time to slip it in. I eventually did, and here I am.

The first thing to say about it is that those of us who thought our era of conspicuous dining-out was a new thing are wrong. Foster writes in the opening paragraph of his article that:

We once undertook to count these establishments in the lower part of the City, but got surfeited on the smell of fried grease before we got half through the first street, and were obliged to go home in a cab. We believe, however, that there can’t be less than a hundred of them within half a mile radius of the Exchange. They are too important a “slice” [see publication details below to understand this reference] of New York to be overlooked …

This reminded me of my return last year to the little suburban shopping centre of my teen years – Wahroonga, in Sydney. I looked across the street, from where I was standing, to the local supermarket on the corner and ran my eyes down from it to the other corner. Just a short distance. And it was wall-to-wall cafes with nary another business in between. That was just that little side of that street. There were a couple of cafes on my side, and around both corners, and across the other street as well. Amazeballs as the young would say! Clearly Mr Gums and I are not alone in our predilection for eating out.

Anyhow, back to Foster. You might have gathered from my excerpt that he was not much in favour of these establishments, and you’d be right. He satirises them, and their denizens, pretty mercilessly. He clearly thinks home-cooked meals are  better – “the fare is generally bad enough — not nearly equal to that which the cook at Home above Bleecker* saves for the beggars”. He ridicules their lack of style and taste:

It is really wonderful how men of refined tastes and pampered habits, who at home are as fastidious as luxury and a delicate appetite can make them, find it in their hearts—or stomachs either—to gorge such disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables, and to go about their business again under the fond delusion that they have dined.

He categorises the three main styles of eating-houses – satirically referencing the great Swedish botanist and taxonomist Linnæus – and satirises the diners. He describes a journalist ordering “rosegoose”: “when goose leaps suddenly in front of a poet of the Press, who ordered it probably through a commendable preference for a brother of the quill”.

At the cheap Sweenyorum “sixpenny eating-house” style of place, you only get a spoken menu which, he says, “does away with lying in print, to which bills of fare as well as newspapers are too much addicted”. Still, beware here, he advises, of added extras, or your sixpenny cut will suddenly be “seven shillin'”! Just order “a small plate of roast beef mixed, (this means mashed turnips and potatoes in equal quantities)”, add some bread perhaps, and a glass of free water. Then you will “pay one shilling for the whole, and go about your business like a refreshed and sensible man”.

He briefly mentions the cake and coffee shops which are open all night, and therefore frequented by journalists, firemen, and the like. He reserves special praise for the latter:

They are generally far more moderate than politicians and less noisy than gentlemen. At the first tingle of the fire-bell they leap like crouching greyhounds, and are in an instant darting through the street towards their respective engine-houses—whence they emerge dragging their ponderous machines behind them, ready to work like Titans all night and all day, exposing themselves to every peril of life and limb, and performing incredible feats of daring strength, to save the property of people who know nothing about them, care nothing for them, and perhaps will scarcely take the trouble to thank them.

Oh dear – I do hope their “plate of biscuits with a lump of butter in the belly for three cents, and a cup of coffee for as much more” provided them with enough sustenance! And did you note the reference to politicians?

His final paragraph is reserved for the “expensive and aristocratic restaurant of which Delmonico’s is the only complete specimen in the United States”. I was rather intrigued by this because he argues that, at a place like this, you will get

a dinner which is not merely a quantity of food deposited in the stomach, but is in every sense and to all the senses a great work of art.

“A great work of art” is how many of our top chefs like to see their food today. Paying large sums for food like this seems, in one sense, insensitive. And yet, does art have to last forever, or can it be enjoyed in the moment before we move on? I’m still pondering this.

The interesting thing is, as LOA’s notes tell us, that Foster’s “preference for high-society haunts like Delmonico’s ultimately caused his downfall”. He was imprisoned for forging cheques, and spent 9 months in prison the year before he died. His obituary in the New York Times described him as

a remarkable example of the worthlessness of a brilliant talent unguided by a moral purpose, or a decent regard for the proprieties of civilized society.

Do consider reading this article. It’s short and entertaining – and is a fascinating piece of 19th century social history.

George G. Foster
“The eating-houses”
First published: In New York in slices, by an Experience Carver, 1849.
Available: Online at the Library of America

* A residential area of New York.

Dinah Fried, Fictitious dishes (Review)

Dinah Fried, Fictitious dishes

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Regular readers here know that I recently spent a few weeks in North America – mostly in Toronto, bookended by a few days in Southern California. We spent our last day with a friend I “met” many years ago through online reading groups. We actually met Trudy for the first time in 2008, so this was our second meeting. She is a fun, generous person, and upon our arrival at her pretty cottage, she proceeded to shower us with gifts targeting our interests and activities. One of these was Dinah Fried’s Fictitious dishes which she chose because of our “sophisticated palate and enthusiastic approach to dining” – as well as, of course, my love of reading. I’m not so sure about the sophisticated bit, but we do love our food!

Dinah Fried’s book, subtitled “an album of literature’s most memorable meals”, is one of those delightful little books for readers to get their teeth into. (Ha!) As you read it you think, of course, about your favourite meals and foods in books. (You know what I’ll be asking you at the end of this post, then, don’t you?). In her introduction, Fried mentions some of her favourites, starting with one of my own, Heidi (by Johanna Spyri). Fried mentions the golden cheesy toast that Heidi’s grandfather serves her in their home in the mountains, but I also remember the white bread rolls that so astonished Heidi when she lived in the town with Clara. Who doesn’t like cheese on toast and perfect bread rolls!

The book contains an eclectic and sometimes surprising collection of “fictitious dishes” in both adult and children’s books that range from European classics like Kafka’s Metamorphosis to modern American Pulitzer prize winners like Cormac McCarthy’s The road. This latter, involving a can of pears, reminded me of the cans of peaches* in Adam Johnson’s The orphan master’s son (my review). In other words, the book can send you off on little journeys of your own! There are 50 or so dishes, and each is presented as a two-page spread. On the left is the title of the book, the quote, and some tidbits of information inspired by the book and/or the food items chosen. On the right is Fried’s photo of the food, lovingly prepared and carefully laid out. In her introduction, she talks briefly about food preparation and the work involved in sourcing just the right props. It is good fun looking at the photos and thinking about her design choices. She is, after all, a designer, a graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design. As with any book of this ilk, some designs worked better for me than others, but I enjoyed looking at them all.

Most intriguing to me, though, were the little pieces of information. They include:

  • the history of various food items, like freeze-dried potatoes, for Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona;
  • notes about the books, such as prizes won or an interesting point about their publication; and
  • comments on the authors, such as their inspiration for the work or their relationship to the food.

There’s no real pattern to these. Some books have four or five points, and others only two, but they are fun to read. She does provide a list of references at the back, along with a list of the books chosen and the editions she used for the quotes. I do have one bone to pick with her (oh dear!), and that’s regarding her comment on, you’ve probably guessed it, Jane Austen! Food appears quite frequently in Austen’s novels, and particularly in Emma, which features a hypochondriacal father keen to ensure everyone eats as plainly and boringly as he does. It also features a picnic, a strawberry gathering party (from which Fried takes her quote), and balls and dinners. My quibble relates to Fried’s comment that “Despite proposals, Austen never married, setting her apart from many of her novels’ characters, who are husband hunters”. To describe Austen’s heroines so baldly as “husband hunters” badly misses Austen’s point. Her heroines were prepared not to marry (as Austen didn’t) if they couldn’t marry for love. Austen knew the importance of money to women’s security, but her heroines also wanted to love and respect the man they married.

But now, to the fun bit. One of my favourite bookish references to food comes from Virginia Woolf’s A room of one’s own. I’m sure you know to what I refer! However, as Fried’s book is devoted to fiction, I’ll share one of my favourite fictitious dishes (one that wasn’t included by Fried). It comes from Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost and refers to a brown leather lunchbox:

It did open, and inside was a space for sandwiches, a little porcelain box for cold meat or fried chicken, another for salad, a glass with a lid which screwed on, held by a ring in a corner, for custard or jelly, a flask for tea or milk, a beautiful little knife , fork and spoon fastened in holders, and a place for a napkin.

Not only did I adore the idea of this gorgeous little box, but the love and generosity behind it in the story speaks to the most important thing about food in our lives – the making of and sharing it with those we love. Now, over to you … what are your favourite fictitious dishes?

Dinah Fried
Fictitious dishes: An album of literature’s most memorable meals
New York: Harper Design, 2014

* They play an important role in the lives of the main characters, but to explain it would be to spoil!

Ana Menéndez, Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings

I love food and I enjoy reading about food. I particularly enjoy reading about food – and food traditions – from other cultures. And so, when Ana Menéndez’s story popped up on the Library of America last month I made a note to read it. The last piece of food writing that I read from LOA, John Duncan’s “A Virginia barbecue”, was also an example of travel writing. This piece, though, could also be described as immigrant literature: in it Menéndez describes her Cuban family’s Thanksgiving celebrations and how it changes over time as they become more American.

Menéndez commences by describing her how Cuban family celebrated Thanksgiving – what they called Tansgibin – with black beans and rice, fried plantains and yucca. They didn’t know, she said, that they were being “ethnic” or trendy” in eating this food! It’s all about perspectives, eh? She then describes how, as their stay in America lengthened, they went about transforming the meal. For Cubans that meant making pig (or roast pork) the central feature, rather than turkey.

The pig is marinated in mojo” which she describes as

the most important part of the equation and families lived and died by their mojo recipes. Today you can buy a strange chemical syrup in bottles labeled “mojo” – of which the best one can say about it is that it’s another sad example of the banality of exile.

To digress a little, this reminded me of my recent trip to Japan. Our host at a ryokan we stayed at told us that, traditionally, each family would have its own Miso Soup recipe but that now people tend to buy the instant variety in the supermarkets. He, however, wasn’t talking about “the banality of exile” but of the impact of commercialisation (and modernisation). It’s not only immigration, then, that sees cultural practices decline. Anyhow, on with the story …

The whole business, she writes – the preparing of the “mojo”, the digging of the pit and the preparation of the grill for the pig, the men tending to the meat with the women preparing the rest of the meal – was a ritual, and, more importantly, “a happy, bantering gathering”. In fact, she describes herself as

one of the few women of my generation who does not consider the kitchen a chore or an affront to my independence, but rather a place of warmth and sustenance.

I take her point – to a point! But that’s another story.

Menéndez then describes how, little by little, change occurred. Someone brings a pumpkin pie (breaching the wall, she says), then comes the cranberry sauce, and a stuffing … and the final blow, the pig is replaced by the turkey. Not only are there concerns that the pig might be unhealthy but it starts to seem like “an embarrassing extravagance, a desperate and futile grasping after the old days”. Our author admits to liking the change. As the younger member of the family, she had become annoyed by

my family’s narrow culinary tastes – which to me signaled a more generalised lack of curiosity about the wider world.

Fascinating how food (and attitudes to it), as she says a little earlier in the article, prefigures change. And yet, change doesn’t come easily. Her family didn’t know how to cook turkey so, what did they do? Well, they cooked it like they cooked their pig. And then they would bestow their best compliment on the cook: “This tastes just like roast pork”!

I enjoyed the article … it provides much food (sorry!) for thought. Even in my own Christmas celebrations I love to find a balance between maintaining family traditions – so that the meal feels like Christmas and not just another festive event – and injecting some change (or difference) each year so that the tradition doesn’t become stale. How much tricker though this challenge is for immigrant cultures. What do you keep? What do you let go? And why?

At the end of the article is her recipe for Mojo … so if you’d like your turkey next year to taste like pork (or, at least, Cuban), you can look it up (in the link below).

In addition to writing pieces like this, Menéndez has written two novels, Loving Che (2004) and The last war (2009). Before them, she published a short story collection, In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  LOA’s notes tell us that her overall theme, as in this story, is the experience of exile. I wonder if any readers here – Americans particularly – have read her? I’d love to know what you think.

Ana Menéndez
“Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings”
First published: US Society & Values, 9 (4), July 2004
Available: Online at the Library of America

John M. Duncan, A Virginia barbecue

Now for something different from the Library of America – a little 3-page excerpt, titled “A Virginia Barbecue”, from Scotsman John M. Duncan’s Travels through part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819, which was published in 1823. In it, Duncan describes a barbecue to which he was invited by Bushrod (what a name, eh?) Washington, who was apparently a favourite nephew of (the) George.

Ground oven cooking, Kakadu

The original barbecue: Ground oven cooking in Kakadu National Park (Photographer: Me)

I wanted to read this for a number of reasons: I like to read about food; I like travel writing; I lived in Virgnia for two years; and I wanted to see what he meant by “barbecue”. The thing about “barbecue” is that in my experience Americans mean something different by it than we downunder do. In the brief introductory notes to Duncan’s piece, Library of America informs us that by the middle of the 19th century regional differences were appearing and that “debates about the best meat (pork for the South, beef for Texans), the proper smoke (cool or hot), the best sauce (thick and tomatoey in the Mexican manner or vinegar-steeped with hot peppers in the manner of the Atlantic seaboard), and the appropriate accompaniments were already beginning to rage”. Duncan, however, was a bit early for this debate so he simply describes what he sees:

The meat to be barbecued is split open and pierced with two long slender rods, upon which it is suspended across the mouth of the pits, and turned from side to side till it is thoroughly broiled. The hickory tree gives, it is said, a much stronger heat than coals, and when it is kindled is almost without smoke.

And, anyhow, he is not specifically interested in describing the cooking itself but in conveying the whole experience. From our 21st century point of view, he seems completely unconscious of the disparity between the black workers slaving over the barbecues and the guests (presumably all white) dancing, eating and drinking. This is not totally surprising, given the period, although William Wilberforce, back in England, would have been full throttle on his abolitionist campaign. Here are some of the ways Duncan describes the black workers:

…a whole colony of black servants …

Servants? Or, slaves?

… black men, women and children, were busied with various processes of sylvan cookery…

“Sylvan” is, to me anyhow, a rather poetic word for forest connoting a sense of romantic idyll that is somewhat belied by the reality of the situation.

Leaving the busy negroes at their tasks – a scene by the way which suggested a tolerable idea of an encampment of Indians preparing for a feast after the spoils of the chase.

A more socially or politically aware writer would probably, even at that time, have seen the irony in this comparison, but I don’t think Duncan did. I’m not trying to play politically correct revisionist games here, but rather reflect on how writing like this can convey meaning that was not necessarily intended at the time. Such writing – in the way it documents practices and attitudes – can be a real mine for researchers!

Duncan then describes the dancing – mainly cotillion – and the dining arrangements. I found it a little confusing when he wrote that “few except those who wish to dance choose the first course; watchfulness to anticipate the wants of the ladies, prevent those who sit down with them from accomplishing much themselves”. That is, they don’t get to eat much. Being “too little acquainted with the tactics of a barbecue, and somewhat too well inclined to eat”, he joins this first course. I had to read this a couple of times before I realised (at least I think I’m right) that “first course” actually means “first sitting”. It appears that when the ladies arise, all are expected to “vacate their seats”. The “new levy succeeds” (that is, as I read it, the next sitting) and many of these diners contrive to sit through the next “signal” to rise, thereby managing to get a good feed!

He also describes the drinking but makes it clear that while there was “jollity”, he saw no “intemperance”. He specifically states that this is so for the members of the judiciary, such as Judge Washington, who were present. Duncan makes such a point of this that I wondered whether he “protesteth too much”. I’m guessing though that it’s more a case of having his eye on his market: there was a strong temperance movement in early 19th century Virginia.

This piece is included in an anthology titled American food writing: An anthology with classic recipes. It would be fascinating to read more…