“Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” — A quote attributed to Sigmund Freud. It means that sometimes you don’t have to look deeply for answers or meanings, and you should just take things at face value.
Sometimes, but not always, a cigar is just a cigar. Well, as I write my novel I am not thinking about cigars. But I am thinking about food. No, not because I’m hungry. But because food can tell readers a lot about a character. The type of food a character eats can tell readers about race, class, gender… culture, religion. Maybe there are foods the character doesn’t eat.
Who cooks the food? The main character? A servant to the main character? Where is the food eaten: a bar where the main character gets information from the bartender? Or in the front seat of a beat up 1975 pick-up while on a police stakeout?
Is this food from a sacred recipe passed down from grandparents? Or is the dinner just an event to get characters together to talk?
Food can have a powerful meaning to readers. In one or two sentences, you can convey poverty or wealth just by describing food. Food is a universal supporting detail in the story because every reader needs to eat. But not every reader will know food is important to culture. With a short sentence or two, you can convey that cultural info, and that will add depth to your character and story.
But don’t get carried away. Unless you are writing a story like “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” food should just be a way to reveal something about the character. Don’t create a seventeen-page description of how to cook Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Sometimes macaroni and cheese is just macaroni and cheese.
I started thinking about food because I am close to finishing the first draft of my novel. The main character is at a dinner party, and I am thinking about what kind of food should be served. And of course… now that I am writing a short blog post about food, I am getting hungry 😉
Anyway, my first draft looks like it will be around thirty-five thousands words. The final draft, after all the rewrites, edits, and added details… will probably be around one-hundred thousand words.
What about you? What does food mean in your storytelling?
There is a movie called “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” … the title of which was inspired by Alice B. Toklas’ most famous recipe: how to make haschich fudge (cannabis brownies). However the adoption of cannabis brownies by the 1960s counterculture happened years after Toklas originally recorded the recipe. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, a memoir of French cooking and travel by Alice B. Toklas, was first printed in 1954. This memoir recounts the life and times of Toklas, who was the partner of feminist writer Gertrude B. Stein. The book tells their adventures through the lens of cooking. Because of their ability to own a house, buy paintings, host a dinner with Picasso (yes, the painter), and to hire their own cook… that they were financially very well off while they lived together in Paris. In fact they lived in Paris during both World War I and World War II.
For this class assignment I had to cook a dish described by one of the recipes in Toklas’ book. I thought it would be fun to let my wife choose the recipe. When my wife and I began scanning over the recipes it was again reinforced that Toklas and Stein were financially well off. Recipes included lobster, duck with port wine, and recipes that sometimes took eight days of prep work to marinate. However in addition to social class these recipes
reinforce the idea that Toklas and Stein did not have children. Who has the time or ability to remember to marinate meat twice a day for eight days? Certainly not a single mom who feels accomplished with getting her kids dressed, fed, and not forgetting any of them in the supermarket. With this in mind my wife
chose two recipes that fit within our budget and that I could possibly do with two rambunctious children in the house.
Both of the recipes my wife chose were desserts. Great for my wife! However I do not like desserts and I do not like most candies. So these desserts would be made mainly for my wife to taste and eat (if they turned out edible). Following is my brief memoir of how I made ‘Bird’s Nest Pudding’ and ‘Coffee Icing’ using the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.
Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 I sat in my office making a list of all the ingredients I would need to make these desserts. After a quick exchange of text messages with my wife, I discovered we had icing sugar (powdered sugar). So I left my office and headed to the grocery store to pick up all the things I would need for these recipes.
Bird’s Nest Pudding
Butter a porcelain pudding dish, slice 8 apples into it, sprinkle with sugar. Pour over them a batter made of 1 cup sour cream, 1 cup flour. Mix well, add the yolks of 3 eggs and 1 cup milk in which has been mixed 1 scant teaspoon baking soda. Bear the whites of 3 eggs, fold into mixture. Bake for ½ hour in medium oven. Brush the top with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar. Brown for 10 minutes. Serve with sweetened heavy cream. This is a pudding we should not neglect (The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book – 1984: page 129).
In an enameled saucepan put ¾ cup very strong black coffee. Add enough icing sugar to make a very heavy cream. Warm over low heat. Pour on cake and with a spatula cover top and sides of cake. Sprinkle thickly with finely ground pistachio nuts. (The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book – 1984: page 70).
After spending roughly $12 (US) at the grocery store, I drove home and set to cleaning the kitchen. I cannot cook in a dirty kitchen. This is not to imply my wife keeps a dirty kitchen, but that we have different standards of clean. Furthermore we have two foster kids who make keeping anything in the house clean. Again, Toklas and Stein could not have had children considering the types of foods they were able to indulge themselves with. So, after roughly ten minutes of cleaning the kitchen I reached for the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. It wasn’t where I thought I left it. I checked my backpack, and then the bedroom and living room.
It was 6:52 p.m. and I began to have a sinking feeling. No, I did not think one of the kids had eaten it. But I did consider, strongly, that I may have left the cook book in my office. After another futile minute of hunting I drove to campus… found the book on my office desk… and drove home. Annoyed with myself I was now ready to begin cooking at 7:37 p.m.
I set the oven to preheat to 400 degrees. There was no mention of how hot to bake the bird’s nest pudding, but I know many things bake at 350. I have a cooking quirk to preheat the oven to a higher level than I intend to cook at because I do. There is no psychobabble analysis needed here because preheating to a higher temp is just something I do. Anyway, while the oven was preheating I peeled eight apples and sliced them up. In addition I brewed a cup of strong black coffee. At 8:05 p.m. I finished peeling and slicing the apples and put them in the porcelain dish. I then mixed in the sour cream/flour topping, followed by the eggs yolks mixture, and finally I added the egg whites mixture. I sprinkled on sugar and put the bird’s nest pudding in the oven at 8:28 p.m. I turned the oven down to 350 degrees.
At 8:30 p.m. I focused on the coffee icing. The coffee was finished brewing. To this I added A LOT of powdered sugar. The directions noted that I was supposed to add enough to make a very heavy cream. What did that mean? I was unsure, but I stopped adding sugar after dumping two cups of powdered sugar into the 3/4ths cup of black coffee. It looked like honey syrup boiling in the pot instead of a very heavy cream. I hoped that when it cooled it would thicken like many sauces do. To crush the pistachios, my wife helped me remove the shells, and then I put the pistachios inside a Ziploc bag. Then I crushed the pistachios with a rolling pin while they were inside the Ziploc bag.
At this point I attempted to make whipped cream out of the heavy whipping cream. After 15 minutes it still looked like milk. My wife told me I wasn’t ‘whisking’ hard enough. She briefly showed me how, and after I ‘whisked harder’ the heavy whipping cream looked like whipped cream. I put the whipped cream in the refrigerator and returned to the oven.
The boiling coffee icing still looked like syrup. At 9:10 p.m. I removed the coffee icing from the heat for it to cool. Then I checked the bird’s nest pudding baking inside the oven. After 42 minutes of baking the pudding was still runny. I brushed the top of the bird’s nest pudding with butter, sprinkled on sugar, and left it to bake longer in the oven.
And then left it longer.
At 10 p.m. the pudding seemed done.
I placed the bird’s nest pudding on the counter for a few minutes to cool down. At 10:13 p.m. I did a taste test. This pudding was not good. My wife tasted it and thought it was okay. I told her she did not need to be nice to me, but she still insisted it tasted okay. She even said she would eat more the next day, while I would have been content feeding it to our chickens. It tasted very bland as I recall most British food to taste. But this was from a French cook book! I instantly wished I had not sprinkled sugar… but instead added a cup or two of sugar to this recipe. Two recipes I found online for bird’s nest pudding and bird’s nest pie list over a cup of sugar to be added to the recipe. Blah! I wonder if the French sprinkling of sugar equals two cups of sugar.
Now I began to feel pressure. I was cooking TWO dessert items. Would either turn out? The coffee icing had not thickened by 11 p.m. Tuesday night, so I put it in the refrigerator to cool overnight. My plan was to put the icing on sugar cookies that I purchased… but if it didn’t thicken then it might be better for pancakes.
At 4:32 p.m. on Wednesday I checked the coffee icing. It had barely changed in thickness. Why? This I am unsure of because two cups of powdered sugar added to 3/4s cup of black coffee should have been very thick. My wife expected it to be a solid sheet of candy that I would need to melt down. Instead overnight it had not thickened at all. If I had more money I would experiment with this some more because I have no idea why this icing did not thicken. The recipe does not say how much sugar needs to be added to make a thick cream, but I felt like I added enough sugar to guarantee a heart attack. As a syrup it tasted very good.
Sigh… two disappointing cooking outcomes.
My conclusion, if anything can be concluded from this, is that I do not like desserts. That was already known. So like so much other scientific research my experiment simply complimented (reinforced) existing knowledge. This was disappointing but not ego crushing. My ability to cook chili (meat or vegetarian) is very good. I can also cook steak, vegetables, and various dishes that go far beyond the skill requirements of a microwave dinner. While I am writing this report (attempting to write it) the kids have been put in timeout more than once. While I was cooking the kids were put in timeout more than once. I reiterate: There was no mention of children in the obituary of Alice B. Toklas. I’m convinced if she had kids she would have just ordered pizza!
So, I am the director of a forthcoming food studies blog at my college. Food studies covers everything food related: farming, nutrition, history, restaurants, cook books, pesticides, family dinner, GMOs, etc .
What should be the name of this blog? Post your suggestions below. Thanks!
Chickens are starting to appear in larger and larger numbers in animal shelters. Animal shelters? Really?
Really really. This is a real story. The story goes on to say that people no longer want their chickens after the birds have stopped laying eggs, and just don’t know what to do with them! Are we really spending tax payer dollars, or donor dollars, on abandoned chickens because people do not know what to do with them?
My wife and I have backyard chickens. When these chickens stop laying eggs, they are not going to become pets. They are not going to be dumped on some poor overworked/underfunded animal shelter. And they are not going to be dumped in some neighborhood like a college kid’s puppy that is no longer wanted because summer break has arrived. This is a real problem. Yes, sadly Country Catches Critical Chicken Crisis (c5) is not a joke. This is a reflection of the super-modernized, super-sanitized culture we live in. People sit at their computer screens, distant from the “dirty” processes that make the real world run.
“The majority of them are going to be backyard birds that have been either abandoned or dumped,” he said. “Usually, no one wants roosters, and the hens we get are usually spent hens. People don’t know what to do with their old hens. I’ve picked them up at apartment complexes, parks, or I get calls from the Humane Society or animal control.”–OPB
Well, there is an old fashioned remedy that has been passed down for generations which can deal with c5. And I’m going to share it with you, here… for free!! That’s right! You won’t need to purchase a membership, buy a poorly written book, or attend a seminar in Las Vegas.
The Remedy to c5 is… (drum roll please): It’s called chicken dinner. I know some of you may not have realized that chicken dinner is made from chickens. You probably thought chickens grew on trees or were manufactured by a new Monsanto wonder plant. But in reality, chicken dinner is made from chicken.
First, you kill the chicken (yeah, this is old school). Second, you pluck the chicken. Third, you gut the chicken. Fourth, you prep the chicken for cooking (my wife normally does this, and it is an overnight process). Fifth, prep the chicken via your favorite recipe and then toss it in the oven/skillet/crock pot. Sixth, you EAT the chicken. For some of you, this old fashioned method of what to do with chickens after they have stopped laying eggs may seem a bit barbaric. Well grow up. At the very least you could sell them on craigslist to someone else that will eat them.
Think before you get chickens. If you want backyard chickens but don’t have the stomach to eat them, then you shouldn’t get backyard chickens. What’s the problem with eating chickens? I mean seriously… chicken tastes like… chicken.
Honestly, backyard chickens filling up animal shelters is absurd… wake up America.