“Cooking is to our literature what sex was to the writing of the sixties and seventies,” writes Adam Gopnik in an essay from the New Yorker’s April 9 issue. In the essay, Gopnik explores the role of recipes and cooking in fiction. (Maybe Gopnik could host the not-yet-created TV show that explores the same?) “There are,” he begins, “four kinds of food in books:”
food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.
Gopnik focuses mostly on this last type, which he describes as the effort by writers to “present on the page not just the result but the whole process — not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan.”
To investigate this genre, Gopnik tried to recreate meals from novels by Günter Grass, Robert B. Parker and Ian McEwan. (Interesting that he chose three men.)
If the results were a gastronomic letdown, they still led Gopnik to some interesting conclusions about what this type of writing about cooking in fiction is good for — “representing, rather than actually reproducing, our mental life.”
Unlike sex, driving, walking and other literary pasttimes that afford characters a few moments to reflect on the human condition, “you cannot have characters thinking while cooking; the activity is not a place for thought but in place of thought.” Read Gopnik’s essay.
Get a Microplane, Adam: while trying to recreate the bouillabaisse from McEwan’s Saturday, Gopnik reports that it’s not that important to avoid the white pith when zesting an orange, a task, he adds, that’s “about as difficult as writing a villanelle.”
First of all, any good algebra student can write a villanelle (not a good one, necessarily). And with any decent grater, avoiding the pith is about as easy as opening a can of beans. Finally, to see just how bitter the pith can be, wash an orange — or a lemon or lime — then make two small piles, one with grated peel only, the other with grated peel and pith. Taste test the two.
In a strong bouillabaisse that calls for just a little zest, it may not make a big difference. But in everyday dishes, like these collards with white beans, the bitter pith can be enough to tip it.