A thought by Truman Capote

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Truman Capote (1924-1984) knew a few things about literature, and about gossip. He did not study literature after secondary school, but he was writing every day since he was eleven years old, eventually publishing short stories, novels, plays and screenplays. He broke ground for a new genre, too – the real-life crime story. His book In Cold Blood (1965), about the murder of a family of four in Kansas, is usually called a nonfiction novel, which Capote researched for six years, travelling to the small farming community where the murders had taken place and later to the prison where the murderers were held before their execution.

In Cold Blood was not the first or last time that Capote used real life as material. He mined his own life for experiences and included himself and people he knew as sometimes little disguised characters in his writings. This led eventually to his falling out with the New York social scene that Capote had been eager to belong to in the 1960s.

Author and professor Colum McCann advises aspiring writers: “Plot takes a backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.” This is why we enjoy reading or watching stories based on real-life, even well-known historical events. We know the ship will sink, but we watch Titanic nevertheless. We know of people’s triumphs and failures, but we are keen to understand how they came to that point, the decisions they made and challenges they overcame to get there. The literary treatment, like Capote’s writings, adds another element that we may not find in straight documentaries or news journalism: the rhythm and imagery of storytelling, the depth of character and scenic backdrops. Capote himself acknowledged this, too: “To me, the greatest pleasure about writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” But still, he just could not resist the temptation of the gossip.

A thought by A.A. Milne

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Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is mostly remembered today because of a children’s book. He created Winnie-the-Pooh, the loveable bumbling teddy bear and his friends, putting his little son Christopher Robin as a character into the stories. But Milne wrote many more things – plays, poems, novels and newspaper columns. Many of the latter appeared in the British satirical and humour magazine Punch, which ran from 1841 to 2002 and where Milne worked as a contributing author and assistant editor. He wrote witty essays on a number of topics, from literature to golf, thermometers, walking sticks and food. They allow an intimate look into everyday British life in the early 20th century although admittedly mostly of the educated middle- and upper-classes.

The above quote is taken from a piece called Lunch, which discusses the merits of that meal over others:  “An invitation to dinner is formal, to tea unnecessary, to breakfast impossible, but there is a casualness, very friendly and pleasant, about invitations to lunch which make them complete in themselves, and in no way dependent on any lunch which may or may not follow.”

I enjoy reading his essays, and others like them, exactly because they draw little spotlights on everyday phenomena. Politics, morals and other big issues of life deserve a large chunk of our attention. But looking at the little things in a different light is like being a traveller in one’s own backyard; it is refreshing and opens your mind, especially when written in such a charming way.

A thought by Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish playwright, novelist, essayist and poet, enjoyed the good life. He subscribed to the philosophy of aestheticism, of art for art’s sake and for providing refined sensuous pleasures. Living in London, he moved in fashionable social and cultural circles, and this is the world that is reflected in much of his writing, where characters meet in drawing rooms and at garden parties, and amuse themselves with witty banter and, again and again, food and drink. The humour of their dialogue is proof of Wilde’s great talent for wit – he was exceptionally talented at distilling sharp observations about people and about life into brilliant one-liners. His twitter account would have been legendary.

A thought by Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French novelist, dramatist and poet, and is considered one of the greatest French writers. Outside of France, his best-known novels are Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although many may know them through their adaptations into numerous films, plays and musicals. Hugo was much engaged in the political and social life, elected first into the Académie Française, the council that is the official authority on the French language, and later into the National Assembly, where he campaigned for social justice, the alleviation of poverty as well as the universal right to vote and to free education. The epic Les Misérables addresses exactly these social causes, through the fictional story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, but also through essays on various historical or philosophical topics scattered through the text. They make up over a quarter of the already enormous book – one of the longest novels ever written. The above quote for example comes from Chapter 1 of Book 7 of Volume 4 of Les Misérables, where he calls for the illumination of minds through education and science. Education will not, as he points out, make us live happily ever after, but it gives everybody a chance to make their own choices and shape their own lives. Being left in the dark means not to be able to understand what is happening around us, in the natural as in the social world. It breeds fear and superstition: “It is unintelligible in the dark. It gnashes and whispers, completing the gloom with misery,” as Hugo vividly describes it. He does not believe in determinism, that we are destined to stay in the same situation as we were born in, and thus either fortunate or unfortunate. The real human division, he writes, is between the illuminated and the ones in the dark – and this can be changed. Minds can be illuminated, through education, through reading.

And think about it: Books are like flames also in that they do not diminish when they are shared. When did you last share a book with someone?

 

A thought by Paul Schmidt

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Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was a US American professor of literature and translator of mainly Russian and German authors (Chekhov, Brecht…). He also wrote poems, plays and essays himself.

The above quote was taken from his essay “A Winter’s Feast”, published in Parnassus – Poetry in Review in 1990. The essay reflects on a passage from Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, which was entirely written in verse. In the first chapter, Pushkin describes a New Year’s feast that the novel’s hero, Eugene Onegin, attends at a restaurant. He dines on champagne, roast beef, pineapple, Limpurger cheese, truffles and foie gras. Certainly a festive, even ostentatious, meal – but it is even more than that. Schmidt unveils the multiple layers of meaning Pushkin managed to condense into a few words. As Schmidt writes, “food was a metaphor for the age,” and it is a great lyric and metaphorical tool, because it carries so much meaning within it.

In terms of food writing, I am personally most interested in literary nonfiction food writing, rather than fictional writing featuring food. This essay illustrates my main reason why. The poet or fictional author will put together a menu, dish or meal to suit the needs of the story or poem. This is, in purely food terms, less realistic. Less authentic, to use a much-abused word. Schmidt tells us, for example, that the “roast beef” was bécasse in an earlier draft of Pushkin’s text, which is woodcock, a game bird living in the forests of Central Europe and Russia. Pushkin, Schmidt writes, chose this dish “not because he liked woodcock but because bécasse rhymes with ananas (pineapple)”. The poetic or fictional use of food is of course proof of the lyrical talents of an author, which I appreciate, too, but for different reasons. As a real-life enthusiast and foodnerd, I just personally prefer nonfictional writing – like this essay itself.

After a discussion of the meal as a whole, Schmidt muses in little sub-essays on each of the dishes and their culinary-cultural meanings. The passage on Foie Gras, for instance, begins with the statement: “There is a dark side to food – the inside.” Do not let the slightly pompous tone throw you off – Schmidt tempers it masterfully by throwing, of all things, Arnold Schwarzenegger into the discussion. The subject of Roast Beef brings Schmidt to the topic of human “meditation” on our food, in the sense of meddling, of imposing culture on nature, of making food out of raw materials. The cheese, finally, prompts the thought that has become this week’s quote – the relevance of preserving food for human nutrition, and culture. Food preservation, Schmidt says, is evidence of our cognitive capacities, our big brains, because it shows our awareness of time, which sets us apart from other animals: “To set about preserving food, one must first be aware of time—not merely the fact of it: distinguish day from night, and you can tell time—but rather the effect of time on the world”. Time affects our food, lets it go from unripe to ripe to overripe and rotten. Food preservation means controlling these effects, gaining a small victory over Nature – a thought I have myself reflected on the first time I made jam. Schmidt takes it even further and relates our perception of ripeness with sexuality, the transition from the sweet innocence of milk to the provocative aromas of ripened cheese. Those smells are sometimes downright indecent – which is why we love them, of course…

A thought by Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, playwright, translator and lecturer. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and many other awards besides, honouring his prolific work “of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, the topic of the struggle for civil rights and the sectarian violence in the region often shone through his poems. But he sought to reflect the private and apolitical side of it, describing the lives and voices of the people who lived and died in those troubled times.

His poetry was also evocative of his natural surroundings, of the bogs and seasides and not least the local food and foodways. He wrote of picking blackberries, peeling potatoes and eating oysters, “my palate hung with starlight”. The above quote is taken from his poem “Oysters”. It is a mark of his eye for the lyrical details of everyday life that he not only celebrates the food, “philandering sigh of the ocean”, but also the gift of friendship.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

A thought by G.K. Chesterton

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was an English journalist, writer and critic. He is now best known for his books around the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, but he was a prolific writer on many topics, publishing around 80 books and 4000 essays. He was fond of using humour in his writing, though they often dealt with serious topics such as politics, economics, philosophy and theology. This quote is taken from his essay “Cheese”, from the collection Alarms and Discursions (1910). The essay starts light-heartedly and even nonsensically, bemoaning the “neglect of cheese in European Literature”, but turns into a reflection about civilisation and modern society, and the value of diversity within them. “Good” civilisations are “varying and yielding, because they are alive,” he writes. Like good cheese.