Why does Marcel Proust eat madeleines, and not macaroons? What on earth are the mysterious pickled limes which Amy eats in Little Women? The Literary Kitchen is a new blog set up by Nicoletta Asciuto and Amy Smith, in which they bake their way towards understanding the significance of food in literature.
Where did the idea for the Literary Kitchen come from?
For years we had both independently dreamt of opening a café/bookshop of some sort – then Nicoletta (otherwise known as Nico) proposed transferring this idea online. We thought it would be a great way of uniting two of our passions – literature and food – and sharing these with our friends. Since at that stage we had both submitted our PhD theses, we thought setting up a culinary/literary blog would also be a great way to keep ourselves busy with something ‘fun’, not too far from our own areas of expertise, and also something creative to look forward to – and not a job application!
Since this initial idea it has grown into a project which has an extremely wide-ranging readership. It provides a quirky angle on well-known and unfamiliar texts, and engages our friends, undergraduate and postgraduate students, researchers, A-level students, and members of the public. The idea is generally that of a cosy café serving food from books, encouraging discussion of such texts within its virtual walls.
How have you decided which recipes to cook, or which literary works to focus on?
As we have been planning the blog, we have discovered that almost all novels and many other forms of writing mention food.
As we have been planning the blog, we have discovered that almost all novels and many other forms of writing mention food. So we have been overwhelmed with choice. Our first recipe, for instance, was Ibsen’s macaroons. Nico was preparing to teach A Doll’s House for a module on drama, and in a moment of cohabitation we found ourselves passionately discussing the role of these sweets in the play, and trying to figure out what kind of macaroons they would have been. Would desiccated coconut have been available in late nineteenth-century Norway? Or did Ibsen think of almond macaroons? How does this interpretation change our understanding or appreciation of this play? Similarly, the idea of making the meat pie from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome came while Amy was preparing to teach this novella for her tutorial on American fiction. This made us think about how love and jealousy are effectively and subtly portrayed by comments relating to a simple homemade pie. Both of our PhDs specialized in poetry, and therefore we have selected several poems (including Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ and Ciaran Carson’s For all we Know).
Generally, we want to write about our favourite texts and recipes, and also to discover new ones. We would like our readers to find out something new about a text they are already familiar with (like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) or to be inspired to read an unfamiliar writer (such as Michael McLaverty).
Lots of novels include scenes where characters chat over dinner, sup tea and eat cake, or drink (sometimes too much!). If you could step into any novel and join the party, whose table would you most like to be at?
Nico: For me, it would have to be almost certainly Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem: A Hallucination. This is a short, magical realist novel by an Italian writer and yet set in Portugal and written in Portuguese – I remember having to read it in school before going on a school trip to Lisbon, and it is possibly the first book that made me think about the importance of food in literature. The protagonist/narrator wanders about a (literally!) baking hot Lisbon, meeting the ghosts of various dead friends, and stopping at a number of restaurants, cafes, and bars (the novel even includes a list of the hallucination’s “literary menu”, with all the dishes mentioned). In particular, I would like to sit down with the narrator and his dead friend Tadeus, as they discuss literature, love, and the existence of souls, over champagne first, and a Portuguese dish called sarrabulho then, an apparently rather disgusting dish (sorry, Portuguese friends!) with pork and tripe, and yet with a surprisingly ‘heavenly’ taste. After the meal, the cook teaches the narrator how to make sarrabulho, commented by Tadeus as ‘a refined lesson of material culture’, and finally stating how it is necessary to revive the imaginary with the material, in literature, and in life. I think this is at the core of our blog, too: reproducing food from literature helps us make what would be otherwise only imagined more ‘real’, tangible and enjoyable.
P.S. I also would not mind having a cup of tea with Marcel Proust, or a slice of cake with Jay Gatsby!
Amy: Naming one meal in a novel is as difficult as deciding what my favourite piece of literature is! There are far too many to choose. When I was younger I wanted to drop in on Bilbo Baggins on the evening when the dwarves visit him in The Hobbit. They eat platefuls of seed-cake and I didn’t know what that was – so I really wanted to find out! These days, I would love to join the visitors at the Ramsay’s house in To the Lighthouse. When Woolf describes the precision with which the boeuf en daube is prepared I can almost smell it. The meal sounds as exquisite – it is a ‘perfect triumph’ – as Woolf’s prose, and I would love to see her characters up close. I have just finished reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and found the description of Miss Brodie’s attempt to fatten up the music teacher extremely funny. I would love to be a fly on the wall in that household!
What can we expect to see on the menu of the Literary Kitchen over the coming months?
At the moment we have planned posts on E.M. Forster, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, and more. We also want to broaden the geographical and historical scope we cover, but we are keeping this under wraps at the moment. We are also taking suggestions – so if you want to read our thoughts on a particular topic or see how we recreate a favourite literary recipe, get in touch via the blog or our Facebook page.