How to feed the literary crowd
What would Shakespeare eat? These cookbooks mix culinary and literary pleasures
'Cooking is easy if you know how to read," writes novelist and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist in the coda to The New Great American Writers Cookbook.Skip to next paragraph
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Although gardeners spend countless hours salivating over seed catalogs, you'll never hear anyone say that gardening is easy if you know how to read. But, like off-season gardeners, cooks plow through cookbooks and food magazines for vicarious victual sustenance, whipping up fantasy meals that don't require them to get their hands dirty.
Recently there has been a bumper crop of cookbooks targeted at bookworms. Many of these literary-themed cookbooks are better at providing food for thought than for the table, making them especially appealing to armchair cooks - people who would rather flip pages than flapjacks.
"The New Great American Writers Cookbook" is a quirky collection of down-home, expedient recipes edited by Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner. It focuses on Southern authors who are more literary than culinary. For the most part, it's a stretch to call them "Great American Writers" - and a leap to call them gourmets.
The book abounds in Southern staples such as gumbo, collard greens, and corn breads, with many recipes written in the form of entertaining narratives. Ingredients include ketchup, Lipton's onion soup mix, and Coca Cola. Gish Jen suggests packaged wonton skins for her Mom's Shrimp Wonton - "unless you lack frustration in your life."
William Harrison's Timber Rattler Stew requires a big fat rattlesnake, while Stewart O'Nan's Flannery O'Connor Chili calls for boneless peacock - although he concedes with tongue firmly in cheek that "Yankees can substitute chicken. Real Yankees like Mr. John Cheever can substitute leftover Thanksgiving dinner."
On the other end of the culinary spectrum are Francine Segan's seriously researched and beautifully presented cookbooks, Shakespeare's Kitchen and The Philosopher's Kitchen.
Segan's books, illustrated with luscious full-color photographs by Tim Turner, provide deliciously informative, meaty browsing. "The Philosopher's Kitchen" is well- seasoned with quotes from Apicius's "On Cookery," Cato the Elder's "On Agriculture," Sappho, Menander, Horace, and other ancients.
Sprinkled throughout "Shakespeare's Kitchen" are quotes from the Bard highlighting food-related imagery, including, "My salad days, When I was green in judgement...," from "Antony and Cleopatra," and "He scotched him and notched him like a carbonado," from "Coriolanus."
There are no tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, vanilla, or chocolate in Segan's books, since they did not come to Europe until the 15th century and weren't widely available until much later.
Instead, her clear, easy-to-follow recipes show a predilection for pestos and purees. They feature fennel, mint (a symbol of hospitality in ancient Greece), onions (considered aphrodisiacs), olives, grapes, figs, and honey.
Lacking chocolate, tea, or coffee, desserts in Shakespeare's time, called "the banquet," included Gooseberry Fooles, Banbury Cakes, and Rose Cakes made with rose syrup and candied rose petals.
Victoria Brooks, author of Famous Faces, Famous Places, and Famous Food is a travel writer first and a recipe collector almost as an afterthought.
Her book is a series of biographical travelogues that track 10 famous male writers - many of them long dead - to their favorite roosts in exotic, far-flung locales: Ernest Hemingway's Havana, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Sri Lanka, Paul Bowles's Tangier.