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Beyond the Literary Extracts: Five New Ways to Savor Food and Literature at Thanksgiving

November 20, 2012 in Cocktails Inspired by Literature, Cooking, Food, Holidays

From Proust’s Madeleines to William Faulkner’s Mint Juleps, great literature has always influenced readers’ experiences of food. What literary geek doesn’t drink a Papa Doble and think about Hemingway’s famed thirst, or eat a Madeleine and associate the crumbling edges with Proust’s delicate Parisian nostalgia? But you don’t have to turn to the usual literary ‘extracts’ to savor holiday reading time. This Thanksgiving, Literary Traveler lists five ways to re-think the relationship between readers, writers and food.

1. The Cookbook as Literary Classic

Just recently, I discovered that Alexander Dumas wrote a cookbook, the enormous Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. As you might expect, instructions for cooking and devouring large and exotic beasts are the meat of this manly aristocratic tome. But for any wannabe Heston Blumenthals out there, Dumas has some advice for you: don’t bother with eagle—it’s stringy and tough. Of course, the more attentive and energetic of cooks will probably read that as a challenge to ‘man up’.

2. The Drink Named After an Author

Literary Traveler recently went in search of the Papa Doble, Hemingway’s take on the Daiquiri. The manliest of writers created his own drink, a double frozen Daiquiri that he likened to “downhill glacier skiing” (recommendation and a warning in one).

3. The Writer’s Secret Recipe

Despite her wild and reclusive image, Emily Dickinson had a domestic side. Nelly Lambert writes about Emily Dickinson’s delicate coconut cake recipe, and how she used to hand out baskets of cakes to local children. Dickinson was famous in the neighborhood for her baking, her bread recipe even won a prize. If you visit the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Jean Mudge’s Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as a Cook with Selected Recipes.

4. The Cookbook for Readers

Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen’s The Book Lover’s Cookbook is a homely compendium of literary passages accompanied by the authors’ own recipes. The book is assembled like homecooking out of a hodge podge of what’s in the cupboard—from Louisa May Alcott’s to Stephen King to Anais Nin to Shakespeare (and a liberal sprinkling of Maya Angelou). Check out my recent interview with Linda Olle, author of The Upper East Side Cookbook, who told Literary Traveler her cooking was inspired by literary idols like George Orwell.

5. The Recipe as Literary Parody

Mark Crick’s Household Tips of the Great Writers is a joy. Two of the funniest parodies in it are the Trainspotting style chocolate cake cook-up, gatecrashed by the main characters cake addict friends, and Kafka mixing up Miso soup in a kitchenette, watched over by some intimidating bureaucrats.

Rich Chocolate Cake à la Irvine Welsh:

“Ah drop a packet of butter intae the pan and light the flame beneath it. As it melts, ah pour on the sugar, watching the white grains dissolve intae the golden brown liquid. They’re dissolving cleanly; it’s good f****** s*****.”

Quick Miso Soup à la Franz Kafka:

“When the soup was simmering, K. cut the tofu into one-centimetre cubes and dropped it into the steaming pan with the mushrooms and some wakame. Looking out of the window into the darkness he noticed that a girl was watching from the neighbouring house. The girl’s severe expression was not unattractive to K., but the thought that she was deriving some pleasure from his situation sent him into a fury and he struck the worktop with his fist. It occurred to him that she might in some way be attached to the interrogation commission or could influence his case…”

So, as our favorite literary chef chimed again and again, “Bon appetit!”

Interview with Linda Olle, Author of the Upper East Side Cookbooks

October 10, 2012 in Fiction, Interviews

Linda Olle’s alter ego Parsley Cresswell is an intriguing character. Glamorous, yet frugal, evasive, yet conspiratorial, she’s the perfect guide to New York’s Upper East Side. Like Parsley, Olle is an avid birder, and the Upper East Side Cookbooks are a little bit like bird-spotting guides you might take with you to a café, while you sip and observe the neighborhood’s characters.

They’re also scrapbooks of tips on how to enjoy life and literature in a wealthy neighborhood on a budget. When WNYC’s Brian Lehrer asked Olle how she differed from her creation, she said coyly, “well, I don’t wear furs.” She does however forage for mushrooms and Gingko nuts in Central Park. And like Parsley, who manages to be both spontaneous and organized, she advises using caution and proper gear.

The UES Cookbooks are narrated by Parsley’s neighbor, a straight-laced accountant who, after Parsley ends up in prison, pulls together the pieces of Parsley’s scandalous life from the notes in her cookbooks. Parsley’s crime? – a former writer and critic fallen on hard times, she pragmatically takes the job of dominatrix, and has the misfortune to be present at the scene of a wealthy old businessman’s death.

Linda Olle blends the drama of Parsley’s life with practical tips from her own experience living on the Upper East Side. The combination of humor, rumor, recipe and literature is a really unique way to be introduced to a neighborhood.

Literary Traveler: What is it that makes artists and writers like yourself want to stay in the Upper East Side, despite the cost of living there?

Linda Olle: If you got your apartment a long time ago, your rent is probably cheaper than in the Bronx. I signed my lease in 1981. It’s quiet here and the architecture is spectacular. There are lots of restaurants and few places to food-shop. I wanted to write about this oddball neighborhood, and there had never been a regional cookbook of the UES.

About ten years ago, I took up bird watching, which is practically inevitable when you live next to Central Park. It opened up a whole world, and I met some wonderful New Yorkers. It’s also Museum Mile. Parsley Cresswell, the heroine of the fictional-cookbook, goes to museum free nights and takes up bird watching, which is also free.

LT: Do you think the recession has changed the habits of wealthy Upper East Siders, or is it just freelancers like Parsley who’ve had to tighten their belts?

LO: Honestly, I cannot tell. I hear rumors of penthouses in foreclosure. Though I bill myself as the Queen of the Upper East Side, and my twitter is CarnegieHillian, I don’t know how neighbors manage at all.

I assume they’re like Mitt Romney and have their billions stored offshore, tax-free. Some of my neighbors are cool people and support good causes. It’s mostly Democrat. I don’t begrudge my neighbors their money, I just wish they’d forked over the taxes to help out their fellow man.

LT: Eric Arthur Blair (A.K.A. George Orwell) is one of Parsley’s favorite literary personalities – and seems to influence her philosophy. Which non-food related author has influenced Parsley’s cooking the most?

LO: The news stories of Martha Stewart spending 5 months at Federal Prison Camp Alderson, in West Virginia, fascinated me. She was able to make crème brûlée in the prison microwave. In Volume 3 of the Upper East Side cookbook series, Parsley Does Thyme, to be published on December 6, 2012, Parsley Cresswell is in prison and manages to make chocolate soufflé in a mug and microwave banana cake. She meets a serial killer who murdered two fiancés who stood her up at the altar: “Julienne made the roasted chicken with lemon and garlic dish called Engagement Chicken with Marry Me Juice for each of her serial boyfriends. She served it with Dutch beer and a salad called Lettuce Alone.” (page 52, Parsley Does Thyme.)

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London influenced me. Eric Arthur Blair (A.K.A. George Orwell) had a job as a waiter at a restaurant in Paris, found himself working “seventeen and a half hours” a day, “almost without a break.” It prevented him from eating an expensive restaurant meal ever again: “I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy… nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.” (from Down and Out in Paris and London)

LT: I know that Parsley adores Julia Child – but in the Upper East Side Main Course (Vol 2.) I was surprised to learn that her accountant/neighbor/biographer doesn’t ‘get’ her. Does this reflect your mixed feelings about Julia Child – or do you, like Parsley, make the sign of the cross when her name is mentioned?

LO: I revere her and grew up loving her TV show – everybody did. She was a hoot! Yet I rarely refer to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s not the most dog-eared cookbook in my collection.

I met Julia Child in 1995, at her home in Cambridge, with my friend who went to the Cordon Bleu. It was about the best day of my life to sit listen to them talk about Paris. She served smoked salmon and dill sandwiches and champagne. Julia’s girlfriend played the piano. It was a sparkling couple of hours. I was higher than a kite.

LT: Parsley’s thriftiness seems to have been born out of her Midwest farming background. But I also notice allusions to the kind of super-organized hippie cooking of the 70s Superwoman. What do you think of the Superwoman model of housekeeping? Do you reckon it’s making a comeback with the recession – and is it sustainable in a tiny city apartment?

LO: The 70s Superwoman was barefoot in the kitchen, made her own bread, wore her hair down, drank cheap red wine, smoked a joint while she cooked. Parsley is that, but actually more of a 50s hostess who takes pains. If you visit her, you’ll find her refrigerator stocked with paté, a selection of cheeses and raw vegetables, and paper-thin rice crackers, capers, and olives. Served by candlelight.

Come to my house and you get a cup of tea and cookies from the store if you’re lucky. I’m an insecure cook, but I aspire to be a 70s hippie, who puts out a fantastic one-dish meal, with crusty bread, and vegetable side dishes, with sensual pleasure and little effort.

LT: I’m sure other readers, like I did, will wonder which anecdotes are true or not. A few of them are so priceless that I just have to ask… I’m thinking of the very Upper East Side moment where a toddler with his nanny mistakes Parsley for his mother, because she is blonde. Or when the 80 year old neighbor who made his way down 80 flights of stairs during the Twin Towers disaster is greeted with cookies, freshly baked by Parsley…

LO: It’s so interesting you ask that. Like Parsley, I have almost an almost unhealthy fixation with Bob Dylan and George Orwell. I have a lot of friends who are writers, and a bookshelf full of intriguingly inscribed books. Here is a preview of volume four of The Upper East Side Cookbook: May I Have a Doggie Bag?: Parsley will be so destitute that she sells off the books, one by one, on eBay.

I too get my clothes second-hand at church bazaars and rummage sales. You can get barely worn expensive clothing at Upper East Side churches. These sales are so popular that their dates are more or less secret. My excellent winter coat came from the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue. There was a wrinkled twenty-dollar bill in the pocket – more than I paid for the coat. These Ferragamo shoes are from the Brick Church, between Park and Madison, where there’s a sale next weekend. I got a cashmere sweater from St. James Episcopal on Madison – the next one, November 16, is marked on my calendar.

The experience of being mistaken by a toddler for his mother happened to me three times in Central Park—with different children. I was in my twenties when I first moved to New York from Wisconsin. I’d be sitting on a park bench, reading. The child toddles up and shyly says, “Mommy?” Nannies on the Upper East Side are usually black. The baby has spent most of his life with the nanny, and rarely sees his mother—who is likely a blonde like I am. The kid looks at me, questioningly. I’d be smiling back and shaking my head “no,” but that only makes him more convinced that I’m his mother. When I give this rather poignant experience to Parsley, I can see the humor in it.

Yes, I know of an 80-year-old man who survived the World Trade Center bombings walking down from the 80th floor, and he walked all the way home to the Upper West Side. His neighbor greeted him with some freshly baked cookies. Talk about the restorative powers of baking!

Parsley’s esthetic is more European and Japanese. I spent a lot of time in the U.K. and in Japan. I’m not a 50s or 70s Superwoman, just a traveler who likes to eat wherever she goes. I’ve eaten fabulous meals in Japan, North Africa, Spain Italy, France, and especially, in London, Edinburgh, and Dublin.

Culture shock 3: the line

August 24, 2010 in culture boundaries, culture shock

I just shared a positive anecdote about surrender in a culture shock situation, but it can also be a liability.  A traveler has to be willing to push boundaries, to grin and bear the uncomfortable situation.  However, especially during the early phases of adaptation, this flexibility makes her vulnerable, too.

The subtle culture shocks – tremors, as I called them – can define a culture in contrast.  You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.  And sometimes “it” is something as minor as a healthy selection of peanut butter.

Likewise, a person can be defined in contrast – you are marked by your limits, notable for what you do not do.  Let’s add a moral element to the food, and say that a vegetarian may identify as someone who does not bloody their mouth with the inhumane slaughter of animals.  But what if the vegetarian’s host family slaughters a goat in celebration of her arrival?  If she ate it, it would be a sign of respect to the family, and certainly reflects a willingness to push her boundaries.  But at what point does she violate her own beliefs?  And, if they are constantly in negotiation, how will she know?

I tended to know when the line is crossed – rampant sexism always gets my goat – but I had trouble knowing when to keep that goat as a pet, or when to slaughter it in public (I think this feeling of disgust means the metaphor is officially exhausted).

My question is:  How and when did you learn to set boundaries when you were traveling?  Which of your convictions – culturally transmitted, personal, religious, etc. – are nonnegotiable, and how do you react appropriately in situations where they are threatened?  Where, and how, do you draw the line?

Friday Links: Book News From Around The Internet

March 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

Every Friday, starting this week, the staff at Literary Traveler will gather up the relevant book news from around the web, bringing it together in a handy post for book lovers to peruse.  Enjoy!