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