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We are frequently reminded that food prompts memory, a recognition that has led to the flourishing of food memoirs, a literary genre that has taken off in recent years. Many writers are inspired by Marcel Proust’s description of nibbling on a petite Madeleine only to be flooded by memories that resulted in the thousands of pages that make up “Remembrance of Things Past.”
Other good writers, M.F.K. Fisher especially, have constructed narratives around recalling a precise food moment in their lives. I am taken with Fisher’s description of the tangerines she left for hours on a radiator on a severely cold day in France. She tells us that “on the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.” Fisher’s ability to capture sensuality in spare prose is what I like best about her writing.
Powerful childhood food memories
As for me, I have no plans to write a full-length food memoir because I am conscious of the “so what” factor when I read some of these books, a sinking feeling that what a writer finds endlessly fascinating about her own life may be tedious reading for others. But I cannot help but indulge myself just a little by describing a few of my food memories that have been lasting points of reference in my life.
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For instance, when I look at a tall glass of newly poured milk I am brought back to my childhood and my older brother who tormented me with constant teasing. When we sat around the dinner table, he would quietly mutter taunts that he knew only I could hear.
One day, when he leaned toward me to whisper something insulting, I reached for the tall glass of milk our mother had just poured and threw all of it into his face. I hung around long enough to see his expression change from an evil glint to horrified shock, and then ran for my life into the bathroom where I locked the door and waited for everyone to calm down.
Another recollection from my youth has to do with being present at a post-funeral gathering. The departed was an elderly distant relative I had never met and I didn’t know most of the people who came to pay their respects. Many arrived with boxes of candy, and I positioned myself at the door to take their coats, graciously accept the candy and then head for the bedroom where I dumped the coats and opened each candy box to select and devour my favorite pieces.
Happily, not all of my food memories involve childish bad behavior. I am touched by remembering how my mother, who hated the smell of cooking fish, figured out a comfortable way to cook and serve one of my father’s favorite fish dishes. She would go to our backyard patio with her ingredients and an electric pot, then assemble the dish, set it to cook, and flee back inside, entirely escaping all cooking smells. The only drawback was that the dish appeared only in the warmer months because my mother was not inclined to brave Wisconsin winters to cook for the man she loved.
College love and fudge bottom pie
Another memory that has me in its grasp is about a pie I used to eat during my college years. I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and regularly took my meals at the student union cafeteria. This being a dairy state and a campus with a large agricultural component, the food was fresh, cheap and good. Best of all, the union was and still is a central meeting place where students from its disparate colleges would gather to rendezvous and meet new people.
Every now and then the cafeteria would serve fudge bottom pie, an iconic dish with a huge fan base, and I was undoubtedly its biggest admirer. The bottom of the pie is a graham cracker crumb crust that is covered with a thick coating of chocolate — not too hard and not too soft — and over this a custard filling that is the largest component of the pie. This custard is neither stiff and solid nor runny and gloppy. It must be just right. And the top of the pie is spread with a thin layer of sweetened whipped cream and flourished with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.
Years after college, I tried to create this pie at home, but could never get any of my attempts to taste as good as I had remembered. I finally stopped trying when I realized that the meaning of this pie is as much about my blissful undergraduate years as it is about something good to eat. I came to realize that fudge bottom pie was a symbol of carefree youth, the excitement of meeting new people, and falling in love for the first time when a slice of that pie was shared with someone special.
I now realize that fudge bottom pie is my Proustian moment, my petite Madeleine, but with a twist. I have to only think about it, not eat it, and I am flooded with memories of my college years when life was uncomplicated, carefree and full of adventure.
Top photo Fudge bottom pie. Credit: Barbara Haber
After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.
I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”
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If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.
I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.
Freezing meals, not just foods on sale
Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.
Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.
The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.
My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.
A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils. When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.
Be careful about what goes in the freezer
I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”
So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.
1 head cabbage with large tender leaves
2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely
1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes
1 can sauerkraut
1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup
Juice of one lemon
1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)
2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked
2 carrots sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.
2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.
3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.
5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.
Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.
Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber
I read somewhere that people generally use only two or three recipes from each of their cookbooks, and realized this was true for me, so I began to wonder why we select the ones we do from the vast numbers of recipes that are available.
For answers, I took a look at my own preferences, and while I make no claim to speak for anyone else, I will describe why certain recipes appeal to me. I sometimes come across a recipe that becomes a favorite when I am searching for ways to use up ingredients.
For instance, I had on hand eggs nearing their expiration date and a surplus of corn on the cob. I went through a few cookbooks and soon found a tempting recipe for fritters that called for eggs, lots of corn kernels and, happily, not much flour. This has become a standard dish in my house. But while I appreciate practical reasons for favoring recipes, I am more intrigued when I randomly come across a description of a dish I find so compelling that I must try the recipe as soon as possible or else I will obsess about it.
I should say right off that for me, and for other food lovers I am sure, reading a recipe is comparable to sight-reading by a musician. Just as an orchestra conductor can hear the music in his head by following the notes on a score, I can almost taste a dish by reading the ingredients and cooking instructions. Therefore, reading cookbooks has become an enjoyable pastime for me and maybe even adventurous because I never know when I will stumble into my next great find.
My latest discovery comes from Michael Romano’s “Family Table,” a cookbook focusing on the family-style meals prepared for restaurant staff that is filled with down-to-earth recipes. Among them is blue smoke oatmeal cookies. You may wonder what could be so special about an oatmeal cookie, that old standby that can be mealy and taste more healthy than delectable. But, this recipe includes some crushed cornflakes and coconut — not too much — so that the texture and flavor of this oatmeal cookie surpassed any I had tasted.
A well-written split pea soup recipe
I am often attracted to a recipe because of its use of a favorite seasoning not found in standard versions of the dish. Dried split pea soup recipes always struck me as pretty much alike until I came across one in the cookbook “Season to Taste,” which calls for lots of sliced carrots and roasted cumin, a flavor I love. The result is so good than whenever I serve this soup to guests I am bombarded with requests for the recipe.
I also find myself seduced by claims made by cookbook writers. For example, Madhur Jaffrey has a recipe for crisply fried onions that are slowly cooked and then stored in a jar in the refrigerator to use as toppings for a variety of dishes.
“It’s like money in the bank,” she promises, and she is right. Her words ring in my ears not only when I make those onions but when I cook and freeze the thick soups I prepare each winter and pull out to serve on cold nights.
James Beard’s work is also full of opinions and advice. In one of his books he counsels us to always have on hand a roasted chicken because then you will be prepared for many occasions. I listened to him and find that in the summer I can pull off a great salad at the last minute, and, at any time, have available the fixings for sandwiches, stir-fries, hash or my latest favorite, chunks of cooked chicken warmed in a curry sauce and served over naan instead of rice.
I sometimes find irresistible comments made in a cookbook writer’s head notes. In “Flour,” Joanne Chang says about a recipe for a multigrain bread she learned from a bread-baker, “If I had to pick one recipe that I am most grateful for, it would be this one.” Finding such a recommendation pretty compelling, I immediately tried the recipe and understand why it deserves Chang’s rave.
But a writer’s high opinion of a recipe I follow does not always lead to a good result. On the lookout for a definitive biscotti, I came across one whose author claims “these are hard, crisp, full of roast-almond flavor, and addictive for either dunking or munching.” They were so hard I wound up breaking a tooth and sitting in the chair of a dentist for a root canal. I should have dunked, and not munched.
Garden inspiration in the depths of winter
These days I am under the spell of Nigel Slater, the gifted British writer whose recipes are elegant and simple. “Tender,” a book about how he uses the produce from his backyard vegetable garden, is my current favorite, perhaps because we share an enthusiasm for growing and eating potatoes. But I also am drawn to his stylish writing and wit. In flipping a pan-sized potato pancake he instructs, “I find doing this with one positive movement and no dithering tends not to end in tears.”
And in “Áppetite,” a book I ordered from a dealer in England, he talks about why we should cook even though it creates a mess and takes up time. He says that if you decide to go through life without cooking “you are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on.”
Carrot and Split Pea Soup With Toasted Cumin
(Adapted from “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 celery stalks and leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin seed, roasted and ground
1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced thin
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup dried green split peas
Salt and pepper
1. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Sauté onion, garlic, and celery about 5 minutes.
2. Add cumin and carrots and cook for 2 minutes.
3. Add stock, bring to a boil, and add split peas. Simmer partially covered, for about 45 minutes or until peas are very tender.
4. In a food processor or blender, purée 2 cups of soup mixture, leaving the rest in the pot.
5. Return purée to pot, taste for salt and pepper, and serve.
Note: If soup has thickened too much before serving, thin with stock or water.
Top photo: Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber
Coming up with Christmas presents that people really want is a challenge that confronted me every year until I wised-up and limited my gift-buying to delectable edibles.
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In the old days this meant telephoning food companies and placing orders to be delivered to recipients, but I had to know what companies to call. These days, the Internet has become a veritable shopping assistant or scout. I only have to name a food and sources pop up, and I can purchase many gifts with the flick of a finger. No pushing through crowded stores for me. And on Black Friday, that infamous post-Thanksgiving Christmas-shopping day for bargain hunters, I stay at home nibbling on leftovers.
In thinking about what to buy, I seek out novel products, that is, items not likely to be found in the usual stores. Inevitably, I am led back to my Wisconsin roots where certain local specialties hold great appeal.
Cheese castle goodies
A favorite store with online shopping services is Mars Cheese Castle, located in Kenosha, Wis., midway between Milwaukee and Chicago. This place has local cheeses, phenomenal hams and sausages, and wonderful bakery products, all available online. My favorites are their Baby Swiss cheese, Usinger’s bratwurst and summer sausages, and an applewood smoked ham I often crave.
As for baked products, Mars is famous for cheese bread the company says is baked with a quarter-pound of extra-sharp Wisconsin cheddar in every loaf. And I always order Kringles, a Danish pastry I find only in Wisconsin that has various fillings of apples, cherries or blueberries, and also pecans or cheese. My only problem in ordering a supply of Christmas gifts from this place is that I must fight the urge to keep and eat everything myself.
On a visit to Mars Cheese Castle last summer, I was browsing along aisles of knickknacks when I stumbled across a shelf with plain boxes labeled “cheese storage bags.” Manufactured in France, the boxes contain 15 bags that simulate the environment of a cheese cave, thus preventing cheese from suffocating and molding, which is its fate when wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. I bought a box and, sure enough, these bags do what they promise. I have become a zealot on their behalf. They are a perfect gift for cheese lovers, and I was thrilled to find sources online. I now have a stack of them I hand out as hostess gifts, and will give them at Christmas when I need the perfect small gift for a worthy recipient.
Custom candy Christmas gifts
But items that relate to Wisconsin are not the only desirable gifts I find online. I have a friend who collects hot sauces with funny, often rude, names and I am always on a mission to find new ones. The best one so far is called Scorned Woman, which arrived in a slinky black velvet sheath. Others are Slap Ya Mama, Mad Dog, Bee Sting, and one called Pain Is Good with a label showing a man screaming in agony. My friend lines up her collection in her kitchen as a conversation piece, and I will be sorry when she runs out of space.
Another standby gift for the sweet lovers on my gift list is candy from See’s, a luscious West Coast chain of shops that do not exist east of the Mississippi except for pop-up stores that show up just before Christmas. But these places only have ready-packed assortments, not offering the luxury of handpicked pieces available in the stores or online.
People have their favorites, and these vary as widely as the scores of different chocolates created by See’s. To receive a gift of hand-selected chocolates from a friend who knows what you like, it seems to me, is quite wonderful. I would add that See’s candy is owned by Warren Buffet, who always knows a good thing when he sees it, and if this candy is good enough for him, well, say no more.
And on the subject of candy I cannot help but refer back to Wisconsin where I can buy a product known locally as Fairy Food, but also goes under the more prosaic name of Molasses Sponge candy. Fragile, melt-in-the mouth squares of delicately flavored molasses crunch are enrobed in exquisite and thick coatings of milk or dark chocolate.
My source for this is a shop called Buddy Squirrel that has been in the vicinity of Milwaukee for almost 100 years. I suppose it got its name because the store is famous for its roasted nuts, but it’s the Fairy Food that sends me there. I should hasten to add that knock-offs of this candy made with cheap ingredients are around and to be avoided. Go for the real thing or nothing at all.
A season for indulgence
The fun of buying food gifts for friends and family is that you can offer cheerful indulgences that people generally do not buy for themselves. This is why I don’t order those boxes of apples or pears that are popular and routine Christmas gifts. To me, that would be the equivalent of handing out socks or neckties, gifts that seldom bring joy to the faces of their recipients.
Cheese bags from Mars Cheese Castle. Credit: Barbara Haber
I have long been a devotee of cranberries as much for their history and lore as for their happy association with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. And they deserve to be an essential part of this totally American feast day because they are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, that are native to North America.
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We have evidence that long before Europeans settled in what was to become the United States, indigenous people used cranberries extensively both in their diet and as medicine. Pemmican, a preserved food, was made from crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. As well as lasting through a harsh New England winter, pemmican was portable, a benefit for people on the move. As for cranberry’s medicinal properties, the Indians were said to make cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, but as far as I know, there has been no research done to measure the efficacy of this.
What we do know, however, is that cranberries contain a high level of vitamin C, and that in earlier times American sailors took them on voyages to avoid scurvy, just as the British took along limes for this purpose. We also know that cranberry juice is often recommended to people suffering from an urinary tract infection, so this fruit has a good reputation among the health conscious.
The healthy and the sweet
But it seems to me that the cranberry’s greatest triumph has to do with its crucial place at the table as a delectable accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. Just as holiday cooks vary as to how they prepare sweet potatoes, so do they differ in their preferred cranberry sauces and relishes. The easiest version, and perhaps the one with the most dubious reputation, is the canned jellied sauce that slithers out of its container with a long scar along its side, the imprint from the inside of the can, ready to be sliced and served.
Another canned sauce is similar to what we cook at home from fresh cranberries. Berries are left whole and cooked with plenty of sugar until a jellied sauce is formed. Raw cranberries bear the distinction of being both sour and bitter and must be tempered by sweeteners to be edible. (I recently came across the sobering fact that sugar has such a huge capacity for dissolving in liquid that one pound of water can easily absorb two pounds of sugar.)
Home cooks have been adventurous in their approach to cranberry sauce with recipes that embellish the simple mode of throwing the fruit into a pot with a little water and lots of sugar. Some introduce other fruits to the mix, especially oranges that give great flavor and an inviting complexity to the dish. Other cooks cast wider nets and add raisins, currants, blueberries and pecans or other nuts.
Then we get into the realm of spices. My preference is for a sauce made with cranberries and sugar, just a touch of orange zest, maybe a stick of cinnamon and nothing else. But I have come across recipes that call not only for cinnamon, but nutmeg, ginger, cloves and even allspice. To my mind, harsh spices take away from the tangy and unique flavor of a cranberry sauce whose fruity purity strikes me as the perfect companion to turkey with a rich gravy.
Getting creative with cranberries
But canned or cooked cranberry dishes are not the end of how this Thanksgiving side dish is approached. Enter the world of relishes. What with the availability of meat grinders and food processors, home cooks have been busily grinding up fresh cranberries along with apples, oranges, even pineapple in mixtures that can include such flavored liqueurs as Grand Marnier to pep up the dish. And if such mixtures are not lively enough, white pepper, fresh ginger and even jalapeno peppers can be added, thus taking an innocent cranberry relish into the realm of south-of-the-border salsas.
National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg has received lots of attention for a cranberry relish recipe that includes an onion, sour cream and red horseradish, resulting in a shocking pink dish she admits looks like Pepto-Bismol.
This never-ending pursuit of novelty is displayed every fall when food magazines can be counted on to scramble up traditional Thanksgiving dishes. One magazine this year is offering holiday relish recipes that omit cranberries altogether in exchange for pomegranate seeds or kumquats.
For innovation, I would rather direct my attention to the cranberry industry, which has successfully attracted us to its products all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry drinks now occupy vast grocery shelves and are available in mixtures that include the juices of other fruits, and of course in diet form.
And dried sweetened cranberries are pushing aside the long-held monopoly enjoyed by raisins in such baked favorites as cookies and muffins. I have made the switch in my own baking, and am happy to encounter the bright flavor of cranberries in May or June and not just at the end of the year.
Dried Cranberry Muffins
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1½ cups sweetened dried cranberries
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin muffin tin.
2. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl to be sure the butter is thoroughly mixed. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix thoroughly.
4. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing at low speed until batter is smooth. When all ingredients are mixed, add the cranberries and walnuts by gently folding them into the batter.
5. Using ¼ cup measuring cup, scoop batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
They are delicious served warm and freeze beautifully for reheating later.
Top photo: Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett
Good writing about food is not different from good writing more generally, but cookbooks written by established literary figures can be especially satisfying. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House,” the work of Roald Dahl and his wife, Felicity, is one such book that I return to from time to time, for it shows not only his consistent interest in food but a tender side not often revealed in Dahl’s other work.
By Felicity and Roald Dahl
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In much of his writing, his approach to food is mischievous if not downright wicked as when gluttonous children are punished in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and in “Matilda.” That novel is now a current Broadway hit musical, where a naughty, greedy child is made to eat an entire chocolate cake by himself, with success I might add.
But my favorite wicked food moment in Dahl occurs in his short story “Lamb to Slaughter,” in which a pregnant, loving wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb just after he announces he is leaving her. She gets away with the crime by getting rid of the evidence, cooking the meat and serving it to the four investigating policemen she invites to dinner.
Although I am happy to point out that “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” is not entirely free of Dahl’s biting humor, its purpose is to honor and celebrate the lives of the author’s extended family and friends through family recipes that connect people the Dahls loved to the couple’s favorite dishes. Writing such a book was a process of gathering-in so that the cookbook was a summary of what meant the most to Roald Dahl just before he died in fall 1990. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” was published posthumously.
Dahl’s was a household where food was respected and enjoyed and where paying tribute to meaningful dishes was essential. Because the book is so personal, its recipes are eclectic, ranging as they do from Dahl’s mother’s chicken concoction that contains canned potatoes and frozen peas to the complicated latticed lamb and apricot roulade with onion sauce, a dish that calls for a long list of ingredients that include puff pastry, chopped almonds and Middle Eastern spices. What limits the book as a cookbook — recipes sometimes chosen for their sentimental value — is also its greatest strength as a personal statement about love of family.
Famous last meals
Occasionally pulling back from too much sentiment, Dahl threw in a chapter called “The Hangman’s Suppers,” which reminds us that back in the days when convicted murderers were hanged in England, they were allowed to request a last meal. Dahl asked well-known friends what they would order for their last meal were they to face the hangman.
Actor Dustin Hoffman didn’t think he would have much of an appetite, but for the sake of the game chose mother’s milk. “Might as well go out the way I came in,” he said. Writer John le Carré was also transported back in time and ordered up a nursery meal that includes bread and butter pudding served, he hoped, by a young and pretty nanny.
Mystery writer P.D. James provided so complete a menu with proper wines that I suspect she had previously given the question serious thought. She went so far as to order two desserts because she figured she would no longer have to worry about her weight.
And, this being Dahl, his love of chocolate is deliciously dramatized in his elaborate discussion of British candies that were invented in the 1930s, including such classics as Mars Bars, Kit Kats and Smarties. He likened this golden age of chocolate to what in music would be compositions by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and in literature to the masterpieces of Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.
He ends his disquisition by declaring, “If I were a headmaster, I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.”
Always end a meal with chocolate
Such devilish perceptions enhance this food memoir, a genre that can be tiresome in the hands of people who take themselves too seriously. Roald Dahl’s voice keeps the tone of this book lively and entertaining, but at the same time pays homage to the people who have meant the most to him, and food is his vehicle for expressing both love and his roguish humor. That’s the thing about good writers writing about food. They can take us anywhere.
Although so many of Dahl’s books remain popular, “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” has gone largely unnoticed, probably because it is a cookbook and assumed by many to be unimportant. Bad enough to miss out on the insights provided by his descriptions of food, but to miss out on the colorful autobiographical writing and amusing anecdotes found here is a sad loss indeed.
The book reminded me that although critical evaluations of the lives of women automatically take into account their personal side, the same is not true for men. It is therefore all the more refreshing to find descriptions of Roald Dahl holding forth at a festive old pine table 12 feet long and 3 feet wide, covered with quantities of such sumptuous foods as Norwegian prawns, lobster, caviar and roast beef. At the end of the meal he would produce a battered box stuffed with chocolate goodies and announce, “Treats!” It is the only way to end a decent meal.
Top: “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” and other books from Roald Dahl. Credit: Barbara Haber