Archive for the ‘food’ Tag

cows and carp – eros and thanatos   Leave a comment

When Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein, she heard bells ring. They went on to have one of the happiest marriages of the 20th century. They agreed that a life worth living should include plenty of food and the company of artists and writers. For the 39 years that followed their first meeting, that is the life they lived.toklas1.jpg

Such bands of steel are forged by sex, and Gertrude wrote a great deal about the delights of it with Alice. Gertrude’s work included many private references to her love for Alice – “my delicious dish, my little wife” – as well as many references to cows, which Steinian scholars have suggested are orgasms, given that, according to Gertrude,” cows are between legs” and are given to wives:

I am fondest of all of lifting belly
Lifting belly is in bed
And the bed has been made comfortable
Lifting belly
So high
And aiming.
Exactly and making a cow come out.

Gertrude, who was the genius, stayed up all night writing her strange, lovely prose; while Alice, the mistress of the house, woke early to supervise the servants, collected recipes and typed Gertrude’s manuscripts.
While Gertrude proffered sex in prose, Alice prepared suggestive dishes. In the ‘Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’, she writes, “In the menu, there should be a climax and a culmination. Come to it gently. One will suffice.”
Later in the book we come to : Murder In The Kitchen
‘ Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seem as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. They can’t, they can never become acceptable facts. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.
The only way to cook is to cook, and for me it suddenly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was then, that I learned to cook seriously. It was at this time, that murder in the kitchen began.
The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in it. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come to take me into custody. After another cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, and put it aside while I prepared . . .
Carp Stuffed With Chestnuts
For a 3-lb. carp, chop a medium-sized onion and cook it gently in 3 tablespoons butter. Add a 2-inch slice of bread cut into small cubes which have previously been soaked in dry, white wine and squeezed dry, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 2 chopped shallots, 1 clove pressed garlic, 1 teaspoon salt,1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, 3/4 teaspoon powdered mace, the same laurel (bay) and of tyme and 12 peeled chestnuts.
Stuff the cavity and head of the fish, carefully snare with skewers, tie the head so that nothing will escape while cooking. Put aside for at least a couple hours. Put 2 cups dry white wine into an earthenware dish, place the fish in the dish, salt to taste. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes at 375 . Baste, and cover the fish with a thick coating of very fine cracker crumbs, dot with 3 tablespoons melted butter and cook for 20 minutes more. Serves 4. The head of a carp is enormous. Many continentals consider it the most delectable morsel. ‘



. . . and would Madame prefer camel, or wolf ?   1 comment

At this time of the year many French supermarkets offer a choice of ready-prepared menus, for the host who lacks the time (or the confidence) to cook the all-important Christmas Eve feast.

take-away xmas meals

During the winter of 1870 Paris was beseiged for 130 days. (The damned Prussians this time.)
While other foods may have run out, their reserves of gastronomic panache still permitted some extraordinary menus. On Christmas Day (99th. Day of Siege) a top restaurant excelled itself with this offering, which should be filed under Necessity/Invention :-

siege of Paris menu

You may need some help with the vocabulary. Or you might simply want to turn away at this point.
tête d’âne farcie =
stuffed donkey’s head, ours = bear, chameau = camel chevreuil = deer, loup = wolf
un chat flanqué de rats is indeed a cat on a bed of rats. And while you won’t want any help with antilope or kangourou, you may feel the need for a seltzer, or counselling.

I was delighted to find that, a week or so later, the American ambassador was gracious enough to accept the invitation to this fine feast:


‘The whole of the animals and birds of the Jardin Acclimitation were bought by an English butcher of the Faubourg St. Honoré just before the siege, and were all sold by him during the siege at the rate of 25 francs per pound. He is said to have realised a very large fortune by the transaction.’
O ! Perfidious shopkeepers of Albion !

Posted December 19, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

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Maid in France   Leave a comment

I was first sent to France as a swotty, snotty and spotty teenager for a month chez les Docteurs Barritault. It was a rambling mansion in a two-centime village on the banks of the Loire. Madame la Docteure would give Cook her daily intructions on what to buy at market, and we were summoned à table by a gong. It was la France profonde : lateness was deplored, conversation was in French, hands were rested on either side of the plate (not in the lap) and meals took hours.
Madame B had a little bell at hand, while Monsieur B had a small hill of pills to be washed down with ceremony and a sip of watered wine. Meals usually started with a small plate – never small enough for me – of something cold and slimey. Something preserved in aspic-jelly, to delight or to horrify depending on one’s age and nationality. Usually something unidentifiable (how can one country grow so many unidentifiable things?) Or occasionally something familiar (why did they do that? I could have eaten that egg!)
When all hands were finally correctly at rest, the bell tinkled and la bonne arrived to clear and set the table again for the next course. The plates got bigger but the portions remained the same size: a large expanse of porcelain with a grouping of unknown vegetable-matter alone in the middle. A sauce dish was passed around sufficiently slowly and with such appreciative commentary that the tepidity of the dish was assured by the time it reached les jeunes at the bottom of the table. The sauce was not optional – it was central.
The bell, the maid, the wait, la conversation – and then the next set of dishes. It might perhaps be another vegetable, all all alone – or it might be straight to the meat or fish. Just that – in its sauce. There might be one potato. Or more likely an elaborate confection of them – au gratin, à la dauphinoise – requiring the bell the maid the waiting. And the waiting itself was obligatoire (essentielle!) for correct digestion. As were the various wines – always watered for the young. Not out of mercy for us who loathed these sourly poisonous potions – but as a safe entry-level to the adult world of the connoisseur. Was there then a salad course? I don’t remember. There was certainly a cheese course. Inevitably. There are as many French cheeses as days in the year, and I must have sniffed them all. It seemed then an elaborate and fiendish memory-game: how not to end up choosing that particular (those very many particular) cheese that made one want to pucker in revulsion and spit out the window.
Bell.Maid.Wait. Contented gastronomic silence among all adults save Monsieur whose pills had either not been numerous enough, or strong enough, to quell his rumblings abdominal. Apprehensive silence down our end (no whispering at table, s’il vous plait. We had politely slogged thus far: would the last course be heaven or hell?
At last – pudding. Only the French don’t do puddings. Not the splodgy, stodgy comforting heap that we know and love and regret eating too much of. This, au contraire, is le dessert. It was ‘afters’ raised to its lightest, to its highest pinnacle: it was a work of sugary eggy art. But not art as I knew it. It had strange fruits and liqueurish syrups often hidden below a billow of mousse, or within a pillow of pastry. Complete with a sickly sweet wine – to ‘try’ – alongside.
I learnt to tolerate French food. I learnt to appreciate the alcohol that lurked in the wine. I got a tan and the spots disappeared. I discovered that my stammer receeded when faced with the need to be funny and charming to French girls, girls who thought nothing of changing out of wet costumes on the river beach, a barely modest few paces away. I resolved to live in France one day.

Posted December 9, 2007 by Richard Williams in personal

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