Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Meals for the Mind - Lucy Coats



Books provide meals for the mind. It’s a fact. I’m not talking about cookery books—although there can be and is great pleasure for me in reading a good recipe and anticipating its arrival on my table as real food. No, I’m talking about those sublime literary food moments which, once read about, stick in the memory forever. For me, many—but not all—of these moments occurred in the books of my childhood.

I learnt to cook scrambled eggs from Swallows and Amazons. Susan’s admonition to ‘keep scraping the bottom of the pan’ is forever stuck in my mind, so that whenever I make them now, a small part of me is in a clearing on Wildcat Island, crouched over a campfire frying pan, stirring as if my life depended on it. Later on, at university, I discovered the recipe for a perfect soft-boiled egg (it may be apparent here that I rather like eggs), from the redoubtable Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I have felt immense disappointment ever since if the carefully cracked top doesn’t reveal a result ‘like velvet’.

Other of my memorable gastronomic milestones come from Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse, where Marmaduke Scarlet produces all manner of delicacies, from ‘pastry more like sea-foam than dough’ over a most succulent veal- and-ham pie, to a small blue box containing dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on. His glorious kitchen is squirrelled away in my mind’s eye as a long-held vision of what I might one day own for myself. An Aga is currently the best I can do in the way of ovens, but I have quantities of baskets alongside copious bunches of herbs hanging from my ceiling in a fragrant tribute to him.

As a child, books introduced me to new and wonderful sounding kinds of food, which I longed to try for myself, and sometimes could. My mother and I often made the parkin from Little Grey Rabbit’s bonfire night—and I remember carefully picking a whole basket of primrose heads with which to make the primrose wine recipe from the same source. The delicate fragrance of those small pale flowers transports me back to that moment every Spring. Sadly I have never tried Mrs Webster’s little heart-shaped yellow valentine cakes, decorated with a chamomile flower and made from duck eggs and sugar and butter. I don’t know why not, really, because they would be perfectly easy to make.

My perfect picnic is still Mole and Ratty’s feast from The Wind in the Willows. Well maybe not the cold tongue, but certainly the fat, wicker luncheon basket of coldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkins (deep breath) saladfrenchrollscresssandwiches pottedmeat (final deep breath) gingerbeerlemonadesodawater. My grandmother and I used to go on Badger Feasts—in honour of Mr Badger’s regrettable table manners—where normal rules of behaviour were suspended in favour of chewing with the mouth open, talking at the same time, and even (horror of horrors) the throwing of food.

This is only the tip of my own food-lit iceberg—no more blog space for Frodo’s buttery stolen mushrooms or Blyton’s Faraway Tree Land of Goodies where everything is possible. I know there are many more meals for my mind waiting out there—and look forward to your helpful suggestions as to where to find them. Must go and whip up a mound of something delicious now, though—this chatting about food has made me dreadfully hungry all of a sudden.

14 comments:

Nick Green said...

My tip for the perfect scrambled eggs: heat the oil so hot it is visibly smoking before you pour on the egg & milk mixture (whisked). Keep scraping, that's right... and serve the very split-second there's no more runniness in the frying pan. About 60 seconds from start to finish!

Lucy Coats said...

Any scrambled egg variation will be tried as long as they include scraping! And your favourite meal in a book, Nick?

Nick Green said...

My favourite meal in a book is probably the Christmas carp from Eva Ibbotson's 'The Star of Kazan'. The cooking of it is described in such meticulous detail, and becomes so loaded with emotion too. And it sounds so much more interesting than turkey with all the trimmings.

asakiyume said...

Oh, I love food in books. I must have starved to death in a previous lifetime :-P My favorite is in The Silver Chair, when they all manage at last to get out from underground, and have, as I recall, bacon and hot chocolate (and other yummy things) in a wintery Narnia. Mmmm! But all the food in Narnia--I remember vividly the apples wrapped in bear meat from Prince Caspian, which was maybe my least or second least-favorite of the books.

There was a picture book when I was a child called Bread and Jam for Frances that was about a little badger who would only eat bread and jam, and how she finally broadened her tastes, and I **loved** the descriptions of what she had for lunch. Presentation was key, too: when she finally decided to eat a varied diet, she set a doily down on her desk before laying out her food :D

Lucy Coats said...

N--I must read 'The Star of Kazan' immediately--love Eva Ibbotson and have never eaten carp.

Asakiyume--I'd forgotten the bear in apples-seem to remember it was ok hot but disgusting cold. The other one from Narnia is the yummy trout which Mrs Beaver cooked, and also the White Witch's foaming drink.

asakiyume said...

Lucy, yes, I think you're right--the bear-and-apple meal was good hot but nasty cold. My mother-in-law says the same thing about lamb; I wonder if it has to do with the fat content? Not so nice when it's congealed...

Tarie said...

*happy sigh* I love children's literature and food. :o) I remember Bread and Jam for Frances!!!

My favorite food in children's literature? All the meals in Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm, The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin, and the Harry Potter series.

This post reminds me: I really better read Jane Brocket's Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer soon!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I loved Little Grey Rabbit and seem to remember Squirrel and Hare baking a cake (when LGR was out one time) with the most unusual ingredients. I should go and look it up - I still have the entire (tatty) collection somewhere.

Kate said...

For me it was the description of the sweets they buy in Linnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge, oooh, and the christmas boxes from What Katie Did At School.

Tarie - Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer is just fabulous, in fact I'm fairly sure that almost all the food moments mentioned in this post and comments are in there!

Lucy Coats said...

Seem to have struck a foodie chord here! I can see I've a lot of treats in store--never heard of Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer.

ML--there are many cakes baked in LGR--Hare and Squirrel bake her a cake for her birthday--but I think the one you are thinking of contained ? ground beechnuts and ?tansy flowers?

Linda Strachan said...

Lucy all these wonderful tempting dishes...there's got to be a book in this!

Lucy Coats said...

I was thinking that too, while I was writing the blog...!

Diana Evans said...

wonderful post Lucy!!! and I have to agree that books provide meals for the mind...I also think that illustrations and wonderful pictures add to the mix...

Great read!!! thanks for sharing this...

Anonymous said...

Alas, someone has written the book - Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, by Jane Brocket. It actually contains Susan's scrambled eggs, and we cooked from it all summer long.... Now crisp autumn is coming, ho for the recipe for marmalade Roll, as eaten by beavers.