Monday, February 21, 2011

A Readerly Interest in Food

IMG_4034eggmontecristoThis is an entry for the Kitchen Corner’s “Cook off” wherein I try to capture the moment I fell in love with food.

My love for food started when I started reading. As a child I spent most of my free time reading.

I consumed books late into the night, straining my eyes with a low lamp, and risking the wrath of a parent who wanted me well-rested for the day of school coming.

On Saturdays I threw my hands up with disgust when my mother interrupted me to require some chore—like vacuuming the stairs. I hated vacuuming the stairs. I would grit my teeth and scream, quietly so she couldn’t hear but loud enough to feel rebellious, “You ALWAYS interrupt me at the good part!”

I was always at the good part. Because I was always reading.

I had read every book in my house at least twice,

but, the ones I came back to again and again,

I savored those books.

The White Mountains made my mouth water at coffee and hard biscuits, as Will took refuge on a ship while escaping the Tripods. I had no idea what liverwurst was, but I wanted to reach in and steal that tomato and liverwurst sandwich Meg makes for her mother in the beginning scenes of A Wrinkle in Time. On his journey to pick up the dogs he ordered, Billy roasts a piece of salt pork and an egg to make a cornbread sandwich in Where the Red Fern Grows.

These were all foods I had never eaten or even seen. I only imagined that the hunger that these characters felt had never been better sated.

These dreamed meals were often homey and made in simple kitchens. They appealed to basic tastes of salt, sugar, and fat but they tasted, in my food memory, complex. Bitter coffee was a taboo in my house but in elementary school I breathed deeply when I walked by the teacher’s steaming mug, and have always savored that rich smell. The sweet acidic drip of the tomato slid under my tongue when Meg’s mother eats her sandwich in the kitchen light of night discussion. I felt kinship with Billy when he chews that salty sizzling egg sandwich, and chews the dry and wet layers together. I imagine him thoughtful at a campfire and the smoke adding a savory angle to the plateless meal.

My list of food memory associations in books I had read was longer than the number of foods I had eaten in real life.

Even now, the stroke of taste from a book is never as good as the ones in real life, however incredible the chef. At Nobu, I recently had a sous vide pork belly with a browned edge topped with jalapeno salsa. That bite was just perfect, but it will never match up to fill the hunger created by a thermos’d cream of tomato soup, lobster salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread, celery, carrots, black olives, two plums, a tiny basket of cherries, a cardboard shaker of salt, and vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles that Frances has in Russell Hoban’s classic Bread and Jam for Frances.

As Albert says: “That’s a good lunch.”

A lunch worth three Michelin stars, in my book.

IMG_4030eggmontecristoCornmeal Pancake Monte Cristo

This creation is based on some of the tastes I imagine in Billy’s campfire meal of salt pork, egg, and cornbread. I think the play on sweet/salty/savory created by the “monte cristo” effect is something that stays locked in my hungry memory.

makes about 3 "sandwiches”

For the pancakes

  • 2/3 Cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/3 Cup flour
  • 2/3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 C buttermilk
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 egg
  • extra unsalted butter to grease the pan
  1. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and whisk together until combined—but do not over mix.
  2. Put a pat of butter into the pan and grease liberally. When the pan is hot, pour in about 1/3 C (maybe a little more) of the batter for each pancake—probably can fit in three at a time. When the top has a few bubbles and the edges look like they are starting to dry, flip and cook on the other side for about 30 more seconds.
  3. Repeat with remaining batter.

For the sandwiches

  • 9 thin slices of ham
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 two-oz slices of salty, hard cheese—I used comte
  • 2 Tablespoons guava jam (other jams would work here, or even molasses)
  1. After cooking the pancakes, butter the pan again and put the ham into the pan and warm on both sides. After removing the ham, cook the 3 eggs as you wish (over easy is good here).
  2. Assemble the sandwiches while all your ingredients are still hot. Lay the first pancake on the plate and top with a piece of cheese. Put 3 slices of ham and 1 egg on top of that, and spread some jam on the 2nd pancake for the top (either putting the jam face down or up as desired). Repeat with the rest of the ingredients. Serve while hot.


My favorite fiction books for adults that also happen to have succulent food scenes: (links to Goodreads)

And Never Said a Word by Henrich Boll

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

What’s your favorite food scene from a book?



Cakewhiz said...

My favorite hobby as a kid was reading and just like you, my parents would be yelling at me to go to sleep and that i would go blind if i read in such dim Good times!

Your pancake sandwich is drool-worthy. And using guava jam...yummmmmmm!

Eliana said...

Beautifully written post. Thanks so much for sharing.

Mariko said...

Cakewhiz: Wow-- did we have the same parents? :)
Eliana: Thank you!

jalna said...

That's a good-looking sandwich. I wish I could have a bite of that right now. That little bit that's on the fork will do.

kirsten said...

I distinctly remember reading the Boxcar Children, when the kids are just starting to live in the boxcar in the woods, and Jessie decides to spend their last dollar on basic provisions and spends like half of it on salt and butter. As a small child, I thought that was absurd and frivolous budgeting. They should totally buy something more essential than salt and butter, those are just toppings. But now, I understand.

Mariko said...

I am remembering that now. That reminds me of Dicey's Song where she wishes SO badly they had some salt to eat with their roasted chicken and potatoes. I guess they were less frivolous, but were they really living? :)

Mariko said...

Jalna: I'll trade you a sandwich for laulau.
(and guess who will come out for the better?)

Maria B said...

What a wonderful post. I can relate to your reading stories SO much. My parents always interrupted me at the good parts as well, it took me a while to realize that there were no "bad" parts when I was reading. And boy, did I crave the food that people had in the books. I used to beg my mother to make what was described in the book I read. She was nice enough to do that a couple of times, but then (after a mere 10-15 books) refused unless I helped and stopped complaining that the food wasn't as I imagined it to be :P
God bless my mum, she was/is so patient and supportive when it comes to my crazy antics

Stephanie said...

Yes yes yes yes yes! Oh my, I just thought I was the only one. Maybe that's self-centered, but I had to laugh to myself in the dark just now (quietly of course, since everyone is asleep, hence the dark) because so many of those stories/foods are so familiar to me. Ah, this is great.

Hester aka The Chef Doc said...

OMG... drool. I LOVE Monte Cristos! I was introduced to them in oh, 8th grade? I've not had too many since because gosh, they're just so bad for you, lol. But mmm, your post is bringing me back memories of powdered sugar and dipping jam :-) I totally love the pancake concept.

Belinda @zomppa said...

This possibly could be the best looking breakfast I've seen in awhile...especially as I have my oatmeal (which I love, but it's not this). A good book and food. Perfect.

Mariko said...

Maria: What did she make for you? I'd love to know.
Steph:I'm sure you have a list of your own. Let's compare notes.
Hester: I think just talking about them makes me want one.
Belinda: I love oatmeal, but I try only to compare it to cold cereal. :) Thanks for stopping by!

chow and chatter said...

lovely post will share wow i bet your such a great teacher

Christine Wu said...

I totally can relate. Remind me of my childhood too. Still remember the day my mom punished me by throwing away my books and wouldn't let me read for a whole week (hah, ironic, nowadays parents WISH their kids would read more). I had to tape my books under the drawers.

Where I grew up it was hard to find children's books (I didn't know who Ramona was til I was 18!) but the books that made me fell in love with food are books by Enid Blyton. The famous five having picnic at George's island. I could taste it.

briarrose said...

Fabulous lunch creation. I love it!

Juliana said...

Wow, these pancakes look delicious, love the idea of using cornmeal an love the idea of sweet and savory...great breakfast meal :-)

Maria B said...

I am sure I do not remember all of the things she had to made for me (Grateful, I know), but I distinctly remember some things.
In my Astrid Lindgren children books the kids were always having stacks of pancakes with jam and honey. But here in Germany we do not usually eat pancakes "American style", ours are more crepe-like. So my mum made the effort of preparing "little" pancakes for me just so I cold eat them stacked.
Another thing I remember is a boy returning from a long trip getting a type of chestnut paste, called Vermicelle, with whipped cream on top. She made that for me and my siblings as well. I hated it, but asked for it many times just because in the book it sounded delicious.
And who could forget the year I demanded a Pancake-Cake for my birthday. My poor mother, who LOVES to bake proper cakes, was forced to make 50 crepes and create a cake out of them per my demand.
Also I always wanted to recreate the midnight food fests from Enid Blyton's St. Clares books, where the girls have all kinds of food mixed together in the strangest ways and yet it sounds so exciting and delicious.
Oh and as in one of my alltime favourite children books the kids just stick a straw into an orange and drink it, I always wanted to do that as well. It was a mess, many an orange was massacred.
I realize this is a long comment and on hindsight I'm sure you are glad I don't remember more :P

Gwen said...

How funny. I loved to read to until my teenage years when I was kind of important. ;) hahahaaa
Theres nothing better than a good book for an escape from everyday life. This breakfast does look interesting! I bet my kids would love it! ;)

Kate @ said...

Lovely post!! And those pancakes have made me drool... I love a monte cristo sandwich so this is right up my alley.

Amy K. said...

What a great post! I also had a voracious appetite for books as a kid and loved to fantasize about whatever food was being described.

Hemingway and Steinbeck are also my favorites. It's been so long since I've read anything, I'm unable to recall any other particular book/author that regularly described food in their stories.

I like this idea of recreating an imagined dish from a novel. That sounds like a great challenge to me! Care to pick a novel?? :-)

Anonymous said...

Did you know the monte cristo was a fav sandwich of mine... I used to get mine at.... what I think was TGIF? I'm not much of a reader aside from manuals.... so unfortunately I can't relate on that level...

marla said...

You are awesome - I love your foodie book round up. Thanks for sharing those memories with us. I LOVE what you said about Bread and jam for Frances, that book is dangerous to read at bed time. The monte cristo looks amazing girl!

Judy said...

Really cool recipe. I love the idea of using pancakes as bread for a sandwich.

angi said...

Yes! Total agreement about Murakami - I feel like in most of his novels, he somehow inserts at least one gorgeously-written scene having to do with food. I love this post so much Mariko! And I love the idea of recreating the dishes from your food-reading memories - such a wonderful idea. :)

Kristen said...

That Monte Cristo looks awesome!! I'm hungry now.

Amy said...

Congratulations of your Feb-cook-off-writers contest. :) I love your writing. I wish my kids would be like you, who love to read so much. I definitely wouldn't interrupt them with chores if they have books on hand. :P

I'm hosting a Culinary Smackdown Battle on my blog, featuring cookies this month. Maybe you can use some of your "winning butter" to create some cookies. hehehe...but really, you can also use an old recipe if you want. Please join us for the fun. I have some cool prizes waiting.


Robbie said...

Really fun and mouth-watering post, mariko! You're so creative and genius. I want one of those sandwiches right now, but alas I only have about half of those ingredients on hand! Funny you should mention Where the Red fern Grows 'cause we just watched the movie of it a couple of weeks ago! They didn't go into detail about what he ate, though, like in the book.

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