Saturday, April 25, 2009

Reading the menu

{Photos by rocketlass.}

An unexpected--and unwanted--theme developed in last weekend's reading: terrible food. The first batch came via Barbara Pym, who can always be relied on to convey the bland-to-nauseating menu of the spinsters and curates who make up her cast. This time, I was reading A Few Green Leaves (1980), which offered not only a "shape" and the classic English abomination lamb with mint jelly, but a ham mousse and a salmon mousse as well--the horrors of which are simultaneously set in relief and leavened somewhat by the opposite horror represented by the one character with aspirations to better eating, the comically self-regarding reviewer of restaurants Adam Prince:
"Tonight," [Adam] was saying, "all I shall be capable of eating is a plate of spaghetti"--he gave it an exaggeratedly Italian pronunciation--"perfectly al dente, you understand--exactly twelve and a half minutes, in my opinion--with a sprinkling of Parmesan and a knob of butter."
I wonder whether Prince's failure to whip out the Italian flair for "Parmesan" is an indication of the English habit of regarding all cheeses as in some sense fundamentally domestic? Anyway, Prince's conversation with Tom, the vicar, continues:
"Ah, butter," said Tom, seizing on something he had heard of. "What kind of butter?" he was inspired to ask, for he knew that there was a great variety of butters.

"I prefer Danish for spaghetti, otherwise Normandy, of course."

"And what will you drink?" tom asked, thinking of tea-bag tea, instant coffee, or West Oxfordshire water.

"It doesn't matter all that much what one drinks with spaghetti so I shall surprise myself. I shall go to my cellar and shut my eyes and reach out to touch a bottle and then, ah then, who knows what it might be! . . . Do you ever do that?" he asked Tom. "Just go to your cellar and pick a bottle at random?"

"Unfortunately, I have no cellar, as such," said Tom, for naturally there were cellars at the rectory, a whole floor of them underneath the house.

Adam seemed surprised. "But wine's so much part of the job," he said.

Even the ghastly instant coffee still so common in England would have been welcomed by the characters in the next book I read, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), the novel on which the movie Soylent Green was loosely based. In Harrison's novel, the deprived residents of overcrowded Manhattan fight over soy-lentil steaks, drink a bitter faux-coffee drink called kofee, make broth out of weedcrumbs and sandwiches out of meatflakes. Oh, and they take LSD that's mostly dirt and industrial waste.

Strangely enough, however, they don't eat the one substance that gives Soylent Green (and Charlton Heston) its best-known line:

It was the final horror I kept waiting for, the hideous dessert at the end of my reading buffet, but it never came. I guess if I'm still hungry later I can go read How to Eat Fried Worms.

1 comment:

  1. For good food reading, allow me to recommend Ronaldo Menéndez' story "Insular Menu" in the current edition of Zoetrope All-Story -- it is about famine but will leave you with images of "brazos gitanos, French pastries, Chinese rice, Galician potatoes,... the picadillo a la habanera that Piñera preferred, the sweet-potato pudding that Lezama liked so much,... the unbelievable Insular Menu."

    Is not available online but the magazine is probably in your University library; or if not, is well worth the $8 investment.