I have always eaten words. I have sometimes eaten my own, but even more often I have feasted on the words of others.
Vladimir Nabokov heard sounds associated with colors, through his celebrated audition colorée: in my case, words present very specific tastes and textures—a kind of audition savourée. The word “flourishing” rises like yeast dough in a bowl, pregnant with itself. “Truth” is liquid, swallowed deep by the “u” and gulped yearningly through the “th” like a perfect draught of cold water on the hottest day. “Evening” has a distinct savor of piñon wood smoke.
It is lucky I had this capacity. It kept me from starving in the house where I was a child, a kind of gastronomic hell, where food was abundant, but nauseatingly inedible, with pervasive flavors of metal cans, industrial cookies filled with a kind of vile, sugary toothpaste, bread dragged from its grave tasting of dust kneaded with formaldehyde, meat reeking of lighter fluid. I was forbidden the kitchen, where I longed to make dishes that tasted as good as words. Instead, I survived on baked potatoes and books, including cookbooks, which I began collecting as a student, beginning long ago with Hannah Glasse’s eighteenth-century The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which I found in a bookstall between thick novels packaged as school prizes and science textbooks.
I understood from books that food is not just consumed, but also lived. Time and place, kinship and enmity, love and hate, knowledge and ignorance, war and peace, riches and poverty fill our plates. I was fascinated by the problems of writing about food and the joys and terrors of appetites. Our experience of taste is ancient—we taste before we can speak, before we are born—and the imprecision of the vocabulary we have to describe food and eating (“delicious,” “tasty,” “good”) reflects the difficulty of finding language for experience that is older than consciousness. Food describes us better than we describe food—like the cook in my novel, I discovered that my dinners are descriptions of my guests.
Though the food at my childhood table was provincial, often packaged, and repetitive, I grew up eating the peaches of Oman, cucumbers of the Nile, and Othmani quinces with the porter and his three hostesses in the Arabian Nights. I shared wheat loaves and suckling pig with Odysseus. And I also stole food from Odysseus and his son Telemachus, eating the finest cuts of lamb and drinking the household’s choicest wines with the suitors who invaded their hearth. I roasted potatoes and eggs with Mary Lennox in her secret garden. I had a dime’s worth of chopped meat on Saturdays with the Nolans in their Brooklyn tenement where a tree grew and shared lavish Scottish breakfasts with Dr. Johnson and Boswell. And of course I savored the roast chicken of the greatest cook and most uncharacteristic heroine of all the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Clever Grethel.
Scholars have written about the Grimms’ practice of altering the written versions of the tales they collected from women storytellers, at times refining the language of the stories with pleasing results, though they also sometimes added moralizing layers to the stories and suppressed lovemaking (more taboo than violence, apparently) and embarrassing pregnancies (like Rapunzel’s), in order to construct tales they considered suitable for children. Somehow Grethel escaped. The story has not been coated with pedagogy, and the voice of the woman telling it is vividly her own, wonderfully captured by the translator Lucy Crane in the 1876 edition of the Household Tales illustrated by her brother, Walter. Grethel mischievously cannot resist eating the two roasted fowl she as been instructed to prepare for a guest and manages to elude blame for the deed.
Perhaps Grethel delighted the brothers with her red-heeled shoes:…’’ “when she went out in them she gave herself great airs, and thought herself very fine indeed.” I think Wilhelm and Johannes may have found her irresistible, for her celebratory, but not narcissistic, relish of her own beauty, the transcendental deliciousness of her cooking, her daring, high-spirited manipulation of her master and his dinner guest, the witty connoisseurship of her appetite. “Clever Grethel” is one of the few Grimm tales in which the heroine goes unpunished; instead, she is Rabelaisian in her enjoyments. Her self-indulgence is joyous, heroic. She eats up her master’s dinner without a pang of regret. After all, it is through her artistry that the chicken is prepared and cooked perfectly. She is a genius at making the table tell a story, a kindred figure to Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin, who confesses her feeling for the man she loves by baking him a cake with her ring inside, or Princess Parizade, whose dish of cucumbers stuffed with pearls discloses to the visiting sultan that he is her true father.
Grethel probably raised her chicken before she cooked it. Poultry rearing was traditionally the province of women back in the days when chickens ate well, which is probably how we got the nickname “chicks”; women wrote manuals of household management, including instructions for rearing poultry, like Esther Hewlett’s 1825 Cottage Comforts and Mrs. Jane Loudon’s 1845 Lady’s Country Companion. In Robert Graves’ impeccably researched historical novel, The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr. Milton, Powell, the future bride of the insufferably patriarchal great poet, John Milton (“He for God only, She for God in him”) feeds her chickens with white rice cooked with sugar and tots of brandy.
Grethel roasts her chicken on a spit, basting it with butter and its own juices; she is a master of fire. She knows precisely when the fowl must be eaten at its height, with a “famous drink” of wine. “Come, I may as well make myself happy, and first I will make sure of a good drink and then of a good meal … the gifts of the gods are not to be despised.” Her skill is a freedom superior to her master’s blunt power. She finds an ingenious way to disguise that she herself has eaten both of the birds she prepared for supper by setting the master and the guest at cross-purposes so effectively that they rush off in a pursuit that promises to be as self-perpetuating as the treadmill chase in Chaplin’s 1928 film, The Circus. It is not only chicken that Grethel knows how to cook.
Grethel reminds us that appetite can be a form of knowledge: it can be calibrated with thought and craftsmanship. Her knife work, as she begins her epic dinner, cutting off first one wing, and then, finding the bird lacks symmetry, the other, evokes la Mère Fillioux, one of Lyon’s famous women cooks of the 1920’s. Alice B. Toklas wrote of la Mère that “she placed a fork in the chicken once and for all. Neither she nor the plate moved, the legs and the wings fell, the two breasts, in less than a matter of minutes, and she was gone.” These are cooks who understand the anatomy of their offerings, who carve as jewelers cut facets. Mère Fillioux knew from the age of her birds how much time they’d need to cook. Of course, the French approach to chicken is one of depth and differentiation: chicken is not just a generic barnyard bird; different breeds and the craft of rearing offer different flavors. The birds range from poulet, poulette, poule, chapon, coq vierge, and ultimately poularde, a hen of five to six months, who has never laid eggs and been fed elegantly on grains, milk, and its own forage, considered the quintessence of poultry. Like Grethel’s, French chickens are roasted in butter, and their juices finished with cream. In the United States, though, where excellent cream and butter are sometimes not easy to find, the most famous roast chicken, served at Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Café in San Francisco, is pre-salted at least twenty-four hours in advance and roasted austerely in its own juices.
The nineteenth-century novelist, travel writer, and memoirist Marion Harland was warned by her publisher when she began to write cookbooks that her other writing would surely be trivialized once she was associated with cookery. Still, in the spirit of Grethel, the gifts of the gods are not to be despised. Here is one of the many ways I like to roast a chicken, which of course should only be given this luxurious treatment if it is a worthy bird and at room temperature for cooking.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut a lemon in half. Roll one of the halves gently on your cutting board to help the juice flow freely. Put that half lemon inside the chicken with a generous number of sprigs of thyme or tarragon. Finely grate the zest of the other lemon half into a bowl, to which you will add a cup of crème fraîche, salt, pepper, and either chopped tarragon or thyme to taste. Rub the chicken delicately, with the remaining lemon half, just to haunt the flesh with lemon. Then loosen the breast skin slightly, and spread half the crème fraîche mixture underneath it, pushing the mixture under the skin of the thighs as well. Paint the bird all over with the remaining crème fraîche mixture. Roast for thirty minutes on one side, then flip to cook for thirty more minutes on the other. Turn the bird onto its back, turn down the heat to 350 degrees, and roast for about another hour, until the thigh juices run clear. If you put small halved new potatoes and mushrooms under the bird as it roasts, they will be laved in the sauce created by the juices of the roast, and the herbed crème fraîche, which is less cloying and ingenuous than cream, and tastes exactly like delicious irony.
Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel, The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She has also written Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece and a book of poems, Heredity. This is the first in a series of food diaries for Book Post: find the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth installments here.
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