Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Haute Cuisine: Nobel, Pulitzer and Other Literary Kudos

Great culinary writing is not restricted to cookbooks and has a serious role in literature, despite the carping of some critics. The Nobel Prize for Literature, Britain's Booker Prize, the Pulitzer, and America's National Book Awards have all recognized world-class writers who have used images of food in their narratives.

In reviewing these novels as major contributors to food images in literature, I placed them in a chapter entitled, "A Sense of Place," and, indeed, that's where many of them belong. In fact, Sara Rimer, writing for the New York Times, characterized E. Annie Proulx's 1993 novel, The Shipping News, as being "off-beat, darkly comic, [with] a vivid sense of place."

Consider these honored titles from your food-oriented readings over the past decades: Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (1900) won him the Nobel Prize in 1929. William Faulkner won two Pulitzers (1955 and 1963) and the Nobel in 1949 for Sanctuary. His Intruder in the Dust (1948) carries a penetrating philosophical message about eating. Hemingway got the Pulitzer in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in 1954 for Old Man and the Sea and other works,many of which describe meals with gusto. Curiously, Isak Dinesen (Karen Christance, Baroness Blixen-Finecke, 1885-1962), author of the famed "Babettes Feast" (first published in 1958) was mentioned several times in the 1950s as a contender for the Nobel Prize and it is said that Hemingway himself insisted that she, not he, should have been given the prize in 1954.

John Steinbeck was a Pulitzer winner in 1949 and Nobel winner in 1962, mainly for
The Grapes of Wrath, but never forget his masterful and mythic East of Eden (1952). Toni Morrison was awarded a Pulitzer in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her Beloved was held foremost, but Song of Solomon (1977) deftly employs food in vivid character study and was never far behind.

Playwright Harold Pinter got the Nobel Prize in 2005, preceded by the David Cohen Literature Prize in 1995, and the Lawrence Olivier Award for Life-Time Achievement in Theatre in 1996.

Once lesser known but equally delightful and now returning to readers' interest is the Russian poet and artist, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin (1870-1953), who, in 1933, was the first Russian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bunin wrote the classic tale of excess, "The Gentleman From San Francisco" (1916) and The Elagin Affair And Other Stories (1925), which includes the very sensual memory-memoir of autumn apples, antonovkas, in "The Scent of Apples."
Gunter Grass won the Nobel in 1999 and his novels include The Tin Drum and The Flounder (1977)

E. Annie Proulx's Shipping News won the National Book Award in 1993 and a Pulitzer in 1994. Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird earned not only a Pulitzer in 1992 but was also recognized by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum of New Orleans for her use in that novel of over 50 food references that are claimed as symbols of the American South. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, published in 1991, earned a Pulitzer in 1992. She is also the subject of scholarly articles such as Catherine Cowan's "You Are What You Eat: Food and Power in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres," Midwest Quarterly vol 1, no 4, Autumn 1998. All three of these works were adapted successfully as films.

More recently, the mature and graceful Cormac (born Charlie and quite rightly changed) McCarthy won a Pulitzer in 2007 for The Road, a novel so dark that it is the paucity of food in a post-apocalyptic America that drives the narrative about a man, his son, and "the others."

In a somewhat lighter vein and in a category invented by Lee Gutkind for the NEA, creative non-fiction, we have Mark Rotella whose Stolen Figs (2003) was recognized by Conde Nast as a Best Travel Book in that year. The target is Calabria, the region of southern Italy. Another best travel book award,
a nomination for "Author of the Year", and a French government's Chevalier de la legion d'honneur, 2002, went to Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence (1990), Chasing Cezanne (1997), and my absolute favorite, Hotel Pastis, a Novel of Provence, 1993.

Few writers in this genre come close to Mayle' skill with cuisine and chapter 1 of this novel (pp 13-19) is sufficient proof:

Candles, a shallow dish of white rose heads, champagne, a crisp salad with foie gras, lamb with juices running, a fresh baguette, a cheese board with a creamy Brillat-Savarin, a box of Partagas, and Mozart.
Left: Edward Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1880-81. Bottles of Champagne are immediately recognizable by the wrappings and corking developed by Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon at the seventh century Hautvilliers Abby in northern France, circa 1698.

I can only hope that there was coffee.

But for an earlier look at Americans feasting abroad, let's reach back a bit further to Mark Twin (aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910). He received no such haute awards (they had not yet been invented until 1901), but Bill Faulkner called him the Father of American literature and his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often referred to as the goal of all writers: the Great American Novel.

The book to examine here is his A Tramp Abroad published in 1880. With droll wit and sardonic observations, Twain moves across Europe - mainly France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland - commenting on the landscapes (fairly OK), the modes of transportation, student dueling, boat trips on the Neckar, the accommodation's and service and, of course, the food. Germans seem to have a propensity to boil things. Even oranges. His description of a mountain climbing expedition is hilarious. His sclimbing crew consists of, among other things, 17 guides, 15 barkeeps and a Latinist. Rations include 16 cases Hams, 22 Barrels Whiskey, 1 Keg Lemons, and 2,000 cigars.

As we well remember from previous meetings with Twain, anything preposterously bad was, in his estimation, probably French. But the Germans fair no better. Switzerland is

In the penultimate chapter, Twain rails:

A Man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe; but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die. [p. 365]

He complains that

coffee is an unknown beverage
bread is "good enough," but cold and tough
Beefsteak in Europe they don't know how to cook it. It's overdone, rather dry and tough.
the number of dishes is sufficient; but then it is such a monotonous variety of unstriking dishes. It is
an inane dead level of "fair-to-middling.
Fish is usually tolerably good
Roast chicken is tasteless as paper
The grapes are generally good, and sometimes there is a tolerably good peach, by mistake.

And in his attached Appendix he castigates the role of a European portier, denigrates the German language and Heidelberg Castle, and purports to have given a Fourth of July Oration in German to a student Anglo-American Club.

Extending this idea of people in someone else's pantry, T. C.Boyle received the prestigious Penn/Faulkner award for American fiction in 1988, and for The Tortilla Curtain (1995), he got the French government's 1997 Prix Medicis Etrangers for best foreign language novel.

The plot centers on a young Mexican couple camping out(i.e. "homeless") in Topango Canyon and their travails with the gringos up in Aroyo Blanco Estates, a gated community determined to keep them out, despite a glimmer of liberal leanings. Boyle (born in Peekskill, NY, 1948 and now professor of English literature at UCLA) refers time and again to food in order to establish the disposition and mood of his characters. While Delaney Mossbacher prepares for dinner a salade nicoise or tofu kebabs and mushrooms on the BBQ grill as his wife sips her weekly glass of Chardonnay and bottles of Evian, young Candido and his even younger wife, America, live in the brush at the foot of the canyon, desperate for clean drinking water and surviving on pinto beans, eggs, chilies and, of course, tortillas, earned after hard labor at twenty-five cents an hour.

Ironically, the subject of Tenksgeevee turkey comes up on Thanksgiving Day, once at Arroyo Blanco Estates, and a second when Candido receives a chance- freebie at the grocery store. Both are abandoned to the sudden hellish brush fire that sweeps through the area.

Mexicans are lumped together with other "dangerous" illegal immigrants who always seem to adapt (as well as a tarantulas!) but fear the Migras (INS) and eventually, through Boyle's keen style, they assume a place with other intruders: unsavory men, coyotes, snakes and other predators. The subtext-text here is the old conflict of environmentalists vs. less-principled people, then homo sapiens vs. nature, and then the informed "civilized forces" vs. the Savages. Really bad stuff.

E. Annie Proulx (born Norwich, Connecticut, 1935) begins her story in the Hudson Valley's Poughkeepsie, NY (this author's hometown, portrayed not inaccurately as somewhat of a backwater), lets her hero taste some upstate gourmet cuisine, but then pushes on to the rugged shores of Newfoundland and the seafaring community of his ancestors. Proulx paints the blustery region with wonderful weather descriptions as well as tastes of the local food: fried bologna sandwiches, beer, seal flipper pie, beer, and beer. "Newfie" jokes aside, the culture is rich with males' verbal jousting, ghostly legends, music and superstition, but neighborliness and tender love are there as well.

Seal Flipper Pie:
3 seal flippers (skinned turres, a seabird, preboiled, may be used instead) 
fat back
vegetables: turnips, carrots,parsnips,potatoes
2 cans beefstock
2 teaspoons savory
Cookin a roasting pan according to details.

And finally, a play that is less known but an artistic work that is successful in its
confrontation with evil: Omnium Gatherum (2002) by Theresa Rebeck and Alerxandra Gersten-Vassilaros. The play was first produced closely after the Al-Qaeda attack on New York's Twin Towers, September 11, 2001, and evokes the issues and emotions embedded in that event, at one moment with the startling sound of a low-flying plan during the well-appointed on-stage dinner (chutney-encrusted salmon). The audience reaction is palpable.

A Pulitzer prize finalist in 2003, the title means "a miscellaneous collection of people," just as those killed on 9/ll might also be termed a miscellaneous collection. Others would claim, however, that they were a significant part of America's onslaught of monopolistic capitalism. The play is nearly plotless but flows ahead through incendiary conversations among the guests (including one Palestinian) and their opinions about America's simplistic views, materialism, cultural imperialism and monopolization the World's wealth and natural resources. One guest, silent and unnamed, turns out to be a ghost, a fireman who was a victim of the Twin Towers disaster. His views are wrenching.


Mojo said...

I recall the Cod Cheeks were a regular item on the menu in the Shipping News. Any idea what they are or how to prepare them?

Maybe you could make a collection of recipes for cooking the dishes described in famous literature... Like reconstituting a Wooly Mamouth out of the frozen DNA found in Siberian mummies.... :-)

Heidi Kenyon said...

Dear Dr. Moore,

I found you in an online search for food art. Your site is fascinating!

I've recently started an online literature review, Eat Your Words: A Journal of Food Literature. My goals are similar to yours: I want to draw readers into literature through their love of food. I'm writing to ask whether you'd allow me to link to some of the art images on your site, or perhaps even consult on art to include with the writings. I hope you'll visit the web site and contact me at eatyourwordsjournal@gmail.com. Thank you!


Heidi Kenyon