Literary Eats: The Winemaker's Daughter

I am almost finished with The Winemaker's Daughter by Timothy Egan and it is an absolutely terrific story about the Pacific Northwest, in particular the Columbia River basin in Washington state; it's also about the immigrant experience, the Native American experience, the making of the Great Coulee Dam, forest fires, and winemaking. And food.  I mean these are Italians, how could it not?

In the kitchen, Angelo Cartolano is ready to cook.  He has picked zucchini flowers, filled a basket with three kinds of tomatoes, and brought wine up from the cellar.  The cutthroat trout are cleaned and iced.  Lamb shanks are marinating in Zinfandel, rosemary, brown sugar, garlic and lemon.  He pours wine and offers a simple toast.

"Beviam, beviam, beviam!"

Brunella holds the wine in her mouth before taking a longer sip.  Ethan sets his glass to the side.  "Wonderful," she says.  "It tastes like...heaven without a dress code."

Heaven without a dress code, I love that!

Angelo retreats down a hallway to a side pantry, where he keeps drawers full of flour and dried herbs, the ceiling draped in twined garlic and strips of oregano hanging overhead.

"What do you think of my father?" Brunella says, when he is out of earshot.

"Rustic," says Ethan.  "I can see where you get your passion.  Is there anything you two do not get excited about?"

"Is that so bad?"

Angelo returns, white flour dust trailing behind him.  He mixes the flour with eggs and water in a bowl and adds olive oil.  He takes moist balls of mozzarella and cuts them into one-inch sections, and dries the anchovies on a paper towel.  His left hand is badly gnarled and knotted, and it shakes uncontrollably, making it hard for him to finish.  Brunella folds her hand around his; it feels like a bag of marbles.  She helps him open the petals of each flower and pinch out the filaments.  They fill the insides with mozzarella and anchovies, add a dollop of honey, and press the petals until they are closed up again.  The zucchini blossoms are dipped in the batter and pan-fried until golden brown.

"Alora - fiori di zucchini fritti," he says, with a jack-o'-lantern smile, turning to Ethan, sweat dripping from his brow.  "My uncle used to make these in the camp in Missoula.  The highlight of the summer.  The guards thought we were crazy - look at the stupid dagos eating flowers.  Hah!  You do eat, don't you, Mr. Winthrop?"

Mr. Ethan Winthrop doesn't eat, actually, not even at the glorious party Angelo and Brunella throw a day later.  I want to have a party this summer and completely replicate this menu.  And you must come...

At dusk, Angelo announces that dinner is ready - a feast cooked over apple wood.  The pork loin has marinated in ginger, rosemary, garlic, wine and diced pears.  Angelo went to his big basement freezer two days earlier and retrieved venison steaks.  He has panfried them with mushrooms and sweet onions.  The red and white potatoes that Angelo has always grown - his reserve food, in case the world collapses - have become gnocchi di patate, doused in fresh-made pesto.  The Yakima corn is crisp and slightly charred, licked by fire.  And there are fist-sized Cartolano family tomatoes, bleeding juice, covered with basil, olive oil poured over them.  Louis Armstrong is still playing.  Angelo loves jazz, which he heard first in Bushwick and then in the camp at Missoula.  His uncle would never let anyone play Verdi, because it was what Mussolini liked.

"You see all this, Brunella," he says to his daughter, as they watch people load up on food, "and you wonder why I have to beg you to come home."

"You don't have to beg me, Babbo.  Stop with the guilt."

"What's wrong with our home, Miss Bigshot?  You tell me, and I will stop."

--The Winemaker's Daughter, by Timothy Egan, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004.

Literary Eats: The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien

I don't know how Oscar Hijuelos created a family of seventeen and made each member unique and memorable, but The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien is a masterpiece.

Nelson O'Brien is an enterprising Irish immigrant who travels to Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and there he meets his future wife, the sensitive, aristocratic, poetic Mariela Montez.  As they are en route to America in 1902, their first daughter, Margarita is born at sea.  The Montez O'Brien's settle in a in a small Pennsylvania town, where Nelson practices his photography trade and runs the Jewel Box Movie Theatre, and Mariela gives birth to thirteen more daughters and then, finally, a son.

As Margarita looks back on her long and full life, the novel recounts the lives, loves and tragedies of the Montez O'Briens and their always complex relations with one another.

I spotted this book on my basement bookshelves tonight and realized I am very overdue to read it again.  Quickly skimming through the pages, I wondered if there was something I could use for the Tuesday post, some good eats in the Montez O'Brien house.  And then of course I remembered:  Irene.

Better to consider the love of Irene, the seventh of the sisters, with her most elegant name.  Cherubic, good-natured, and chubby as an infant and as an adolescent (how she loved it when the butler García would show up with those bags of plaintains that they could fry to crispiness in a large cast-iron pan), she had always been lavished with many sweets and foods and with sisterly affection.  As she became a young woman, those beautiful features were swallowed by the moonlike roundness of her excessively fleshed-out face, and she lived for meals and was most happy to sit in her room eating one-cent sweets and spoonfuls of sugar or of honey, the idea of falling in love with a man never occurring to her except when she read magazines and would envy those young women whose boyfriends and husbands brought them chocolates.  She would daydream about love, not so much for the sweet kisses and embraces of a man, or the roses that romance was said to bring, but for the boxes of dome-shaped, swirl-topped Belgian chocolates with maraschino-cherry centers, marzipan delights, chocolates with coconut centers, chocolates stuffed with citron and nuts.

Mouth watering yet?  Anyway, at around age 20 Irene decides to find herself a man and to do this she goes on a diet, and understandably becomes quite unhappy.  Her father tries to help by giving her a bicycle for the sake of exercise, but this has no effect other than to bulk up her already hefty legs.  Then one day, out cycling, she collides head-on with a young man.

A young man as immense and porcine as herself, a fellow in a black top coat and schoolboy's beanie cap, whose pockets, as it turned out, were stuffed with sugar cubes and candies...When they had lifted up their bent bikes, they sat for a time under a tree, more or less pleased by each other's corpulence, as in this circumstance neither felt shame.  His name was Pokapoulos, a Greek fellow, and he lived in a nearby town, and was the son of a butcher, and he, too, confessed that he loved to eat...

He started to visit with the family, always sidling in through the door and bringing parcels of meat with him, to her father's delight - for Nelson O'Brien loved his steaks thick and juicy - and when he would stroll with her, or keep her company in the kitchen while she helped cook the evening's meal, he was always attentive and complimentary to her.  "My, but you look pretty tonight," he would tell her, and, as in a fairy tale, made her feel so happy that she began to forget about the troubles of the world...

When he ate with the family, tasting her cookery, his eyes would water with delight and he would look on her with nothing less than complete adoration.  And though it would be hard for any of the sisters to think that Irene and this fellow were acquainted with the romance of heated embraces, they, when alone, would engage in long bouts of succulent, tongue-swallowing kisses, tongues tasting of sweets and nut breads and steak, entwined and thick with the blood of appetite and the promise of an all-devouring consummation.  That would take place after three years of mealtime conviviality, during a honeymoon which they would spend in a country inn near Lake George, a Swiss-style chalet known for its view of the Adirondacks and attendant waterway and for its quail-stuffed pastries and all-you-can-eat dessert buffet.

(Gulp)...Check, please!

Literary Eats: Sleeping with the Enemy

Sleeping With the Enemy, by Nancy Price, is a terrific book that was made into a mediocre movie with Julia Roberts.  I know what you're thinking...but as Pandagirl's teacher would say, "Don't judge a book by its movie."  You should give this one a try. To summarize, Sara Gray Burney is desperate to escape an abusive marriage to her unstable husband, Martin.  She fakes her own death, appearing to drown in Manhasset Bay.  She leaves everything behind and flees to Iowa to begin a new life for herself, disguised in a wig and using the name Laura Pray.  In the three weeks between moving into her apartment and landing a job that pays well, she survives on a diet of oatmeal, beans, catsup and apples.  And library books.  One night, the man next door, Ben Woodward, invites her to dinner.

"Not a fancy dinner, I admit," Ben said.  "Just lasagna and a salad.  But I've got some fresh rolls and a cake."

Literally starving, "Laura" arrives for dinner, caught between wanting to hide her identity and enjoying Ben's charming attentions, and through it all, the food...the food...the food...

Sighing, she put on her slacks and a clean long-sleeved shirt and sandals.  A real dinner.  Her mouth watered for browned and steaming meat to chew...the crunch of vegetables...butter melting on hot bread.  She had learned to walk early or late enough to miss coffee and food smells wafting from open kitchen windows.

When she stopped thinking about a glass of wine sparkling with light and bubbles, or chicken in brown juice puddled with gold fat, she found she was beginning to put on lipstick.  She gave a low cry and ran to wash her face clean and put on no makeup but dark mascara and eyebrows to match her wig.

Sara eased her kitchen door open.  It was almost dark.  She pushed through the lilac path toward food and found she came out at Ben's back door.  No one could see her knock there.

"Come on in," Ben said, holding his kitchen door open.  Sara went through the kitchen fast, trying not to look at a bowl of salad, a plate of rolls.

The house was cool.  Sara's damp skin began to dry and her hunger was sharper.  There was wine on the living-room window seat, and some potato chips.  Ben held the tray out to Sara.  She bit her lip and took a wine glass and a few chips, as if her mouth weren't watering almost too much to talk.

Cool air and white wine, frothy with bubbles...the crunch of potato chips against her tongue...Sara sighed.  Ben Woodward lived here and wasn't afraid and thought she was crazy.  For a moment she felt safe with him - a stupid feeling for someone carrying danger with her like a secret disease.

Sara felt as thin as empty china.  She was eating all the potato chips while Ben talked about growing up in Chicago.

Ben asked nothing at all, not even when they were sitting at his old oak dining-room table.  The lasagna was hot and gilded with melted cheese.  Ben's tossed salad had Iowa summer tomatoes in it, thick crimson chunks drizzled with French dressing.  Every hot roll crunched brown and crusty at the edges.  Red wine sent lazy bubbles up the sides of Sara's glass.

Sara tried not to eat too fast or too much, polite as a stray cat that explores a house hesitantly, delicately, as if it does not need a home and may not come again.

Sara scraped dishes at an old sink like hers.  The drainboard needed bleaching.  Ben brought a chocolate cake from a cupboard.  Sara tried not to look greedily at his knife cutting through swirled, dappled frosting.

The knife cut through moist layers, leaving a light brown fringe of frosting at each level...Coffee glittered golden-brown into white cups, and its rich steam hung above it.

Sara was full now, and a little dreamy with wine.

Ben leaned against his kitchen door and hunched his shoulders, turning his head back and forth to look at his dim kitchen as if pleased that they were in it together.  When she wished him good-night he smiled as though they had plenty of time, and he was happy and satisfied with whatever she had brought and whatever she would bring again.

So Sara stood closer to him in the doorway and smiled at him in the almost-dark.  He didn't try to touch her, but she didn't step away, and when she went through rustling lilacs she was smiling.  He was smiling, too, when he closed his kitchen door and stood alone where candles still burned.

--Sleeping with the Enemy, by Nancy Price, Berkley Books, New York, 1987

Literary Eats: Under the Tuscan Sun

This is cheating, yes, I know - I am not supposed to use armchair travel books such as Under the Tuscan Sun for literary eats.  But I'm on vacation and when I'm on vacation I read armchair travel.  And this is not about food so much as it is about the table, and Frances Mayes' vision of a table is so divine:

I have considered my table, its ideals as well as its dimensions.  If I were a child, I would want to lift up the tablecloth and crawl under the unending table, into the flaxen light where I could crouch and listen to the loud laughs, clinks and grown-up talk, hear over and over "Salute" and "Cin-cin" travelling around the chairs, stare at kneecaps and walking shoes and flowered skirts hiked to catch a breeze, the table steady under its weight of food.  Such a table should accommodate the wanderings of a large dog.  At the end, you need room for an enormous vase of all the flowers in bloom at the moment.  The width should allow platters to meander from hand to hand down the center, stopping where they will, and numerous water and wine bottles to accumulate over the hours.  You need room for a bowl of cool water to dip the grapes and pears into, a little covered dish to keep the bugs off the Gogonzola (dolce as opposed to the piccante type, which is for cooking) and caciotta, a local soft cheese.  No one cares if olive pits are flung into the distance...If the table is long enough, everything can be brought out at once, and no one has to run back and forth to the kitchen.  Then the table is set for primary pleasure:  lingering meals, under the trees at noon.  The open air confers an ease, a relaxation and freedom.  You're your own guest, which is the way summer ought to be.

In the delicious stupor that sets in after the last pear is halved, the last crush scoops up the last crumbles of Gorgonzola, and the last drop empties into the glass, you can ruminate, if you are inclined that way, on your participation in the great collective unconscious.  You are doing what everyone else in Italy is doing, millions of backsides being shined by chairs at millions of tables..."

"A Long Table Under the Trees," from Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, Broadway Books, New York, 1996.

Literary Eats: Tolkein

As the quest intensifies in The Lord of the Rings, the food becomes scarce and descriptions of it even scarcer, down to water and lembas crumbs at the end.  While hobbits are food-loving creatures, once the Fellowship departs the Shire, meals are not described in great detail, only the comfort and sustenance derived from them.  Yet there are little treasures of domesticity to be found in the Old Forest...  

A door opened and in came Tom Bombadil.  He had now no hat and his thick brown hair was crowned with autumn leaves.  He laughed, and going to Goldberry, took her hand.

'Here's my pretty lady!' he said, bowing to the hobbits.  'Here's my Goldberry clothed all in silver-green with flowers in her girdle!  Is the table laden?  I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered.  Is that enough for us?  Is the supper ready?'

'It is,' said Goldberry; 'but the guests perhaps are not?'

Tom clapped his hands and cried: 'Tom, Tom!  your guests are tired, and you had near forgotten!  Come now, my merry friends, and Tom will refresh you!  You shall clean grimy hands, and wash your weary faces; cast off your muddy cloaks and comb out your tangles.'

He opened the door, and they followed him down a short passage and round a sharp turn.  They came to a low room with a sloping roof.  Its walls were of clean stone, but they were mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains.  The floor was flagged, and strew with fresh green rushes.  There were four deep mattresses, each piled with white blankets, laid on the floor along one side.  Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot.  There were soft green slippers set ready beside each bed.

"In the House of Tom Bombadil," from The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkein, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1966

Literary Eats: Anna Karenina

[Editor's Note - Yes, I know it was supposed to be Tuesday Great Literary Eats.  The second I turned out the bedside lamp last night I thought, "Oops."  Oh well, I'm still finding my stride here.] Anna Karenina, written by Leo Tolstoy, was published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in The Russian Messenger. I attempted reading it once and bagged after a couple chapters.  I think I was just too young (what the hell does anyone know at 26, really).  I also gave War and Peace a spin and likewise ran out of gas.  I think the problem there was the logistics of trying to read such an enormous book in bed; there's no comfortable way to hold it.

But I'm thinking I'll give Anna another try...if for no other reason than this:

As I was reading Anna Karenina, I discovered an amazing thing.  The food in that book is really great. There's a dinner that Levin has with some other guy, and everything is described. When you read it at two o'clock in the morning, and it's cold out, and you're in bed, all you want to do is go out and have that meal. --"Why I Love Cookbooks," from More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin.

It is Oblonsky with whom Levin goes to dinner at the Anglia, and Oblonsky is intent on having Turbot (a species of flatfish).  But when they arrive at the restaurant, they are informed that the kitchen has just received a shipment of fresh Flensburg oysters.  This results in Oblonsky changing the entire game, and embarking on a new menu.

'Well, then, my good man, bring us two - no, make it three dozen oysters, vegetable soup...'

'Printanière,' the Tartar [waiter] picked up.  But Stepan Arkadyich evidently did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

'Vegetable soup, you know?  Then turbot with thick sauce, then...roast beef - but mind it's good.  And why not capon - well, and some stewed fruit.'

The Tartar, remembering Stepan Arkadyich's manner of not naming the dishes from the French menu, did not repeat after him, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the entire order from the menu: 'Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde à l’estragon, macédoine de fruits...' and at once, as if on springs, laid aside one bound menu, picked up another, the wine list, and offered it to Stepan Arkadyich.

'What shall we drink?'

'I'll have whatever you like, only not much, some champagne,' said Levin.

'What?  To begin with?  Though why not, in fact?  Do you like the one with the white seal?'

'Cachet blanc,' the Tartar picked up.

'Well, so bring us that with the oysters, and then we'll see.'

'Right, sir.  What table wine would you prefer?'

'Bring us the Nuits.  No, better still the classic Chablis.'

'Right, sir.  Would you prefer your cheese?'

'Yes, the Parmesan.  Unless you'd prefer something else?'

'No, it makes no difference to me,' said Levin, unable to repress a smile.

--From Part I, Chapter X of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Books, 2000.

Levin, it should be noted, cares nothing for fancy fare.  He likes "shchi and kasha best," and he "ate the oysters, though white bread and cheese would have been more to his liking."  During dinner he and Oblonsky discuss the tribulations of their romantic lives - Levin wishes to marry; Oblonsky is married but wishes a dalliance.  If I may get my high school English on, I will say that Tolstoy uses both the conversation and the food to represent all that is wrong in Russian society:  the excessive, multi-coursed meals, the snooty waiter, and talk of adultery representing the aristocracy; the simple fare and true love representing the workers of the world.  Who will have their day.  And their desserts.


Literary Eats: Gone With the Wind

I was fiddling around with the idea of a regular weekly feature for the "readies" who come here.  I decided that Tuesday mornings will bring "Great Literary Eats" - spotlighting passages about food in novels.  The challenge for me is that I cannot quote the obvious; no reaching for books like Year in Provence or Like Water for Chocolate.  Too easy.  The idea is to find incidental feasts in literature, to find great food where you might least expect it. And what better way to start than with a girl who swore she would never be hungry again?

From Chapter XXV, Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, Macmillan & Co, New York, 1936:

Beyond Tara was the war and the world.  But on the plantation the war and the world did not exist except as memories which must be fought back when they rushed to mind in moments of exhaustion.  The world outside receded before the demands of empty and half-empty stomachs and life resolved itself into two related thoughts, food and how to get it.

Food!  Food!  Why did the stomach have a longer memory than the mind?  Scarlett could banish heartbreak but not hunger and each morning as she lay half asleep, before memory brought back to her mind war and hunger, she curled drowsily expecting the sweet smells of bacon frying and rolls baking.  And each morning she sniffed so hard to really smell the food she woke herself up.

There were apples, yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare.  At the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.

How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste!  Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal.  Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut.  And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream.  The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, had the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.  For the appetite Mammy had always deplored, the healthy appetite of a nineteen-year-old-girl, now was increased fourfold by the hard and unremitting labor she had never known before.