And waited while his billy boiled

I’m always disappointed by novels in which the characters don’t eat. Fiction without food is like fiction without dialogue. In fact, I admit that I tend to suspect a novelist of pretentiousness if there’s no food in his or her book – who doesn’t avidly want to know what everyone’s having for dinner? Reading and eating are related the same way writing and cooking are.

All my life, as far back as I can remember, food and words have been intertwined. Like a lot of kids, I had to read the back of the cereal box while I ate the cereal. This compulsion, however, extended for me into other areas not everyone seemed to need to explore. The greatest pleasure I knew when I was little, and this is saying a lot, was to eat along with characters in books I was reading, or to write about characters who ate what I wished I could be eating. This may still be true.

As a skinny, bespectacled elementary-school student in Tempe and Phoenix in the 1970s, I spent summer vacations escaping the 100-plus-degree heat in various deeply air-conditioned libraries. I was always hungry back then, and still am; reading made it worse, and still does. I remember the keenly piercing brain-hunger that would grip me whenever a character in a book ate anything – an urgent craving for the pemmican in Swallows and Amazons (which I imagined as a chewy kind of Spam), the Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (I pictured pillowy glittering candy that tasted like perfumed nuts, and I wasn’t far off) the dripping sweet flesh of the enormous traveling fruit in James and the Giant Peach, or some miniature version of the gigantic, caloric, wonderful Little House on the Prairie breakfasts, which seemed to consist of equal parts carbohydrates, cured meat, pickles, and preserves. Part of the excitement of all this food was the stuff that preceded or accompanied it — pirate sailing games, a sleigh ride in snow with a glamorous, dangerous witch, a perilous journey in an oversized fruit, the hard work and terrible weather of nineteenth-century Midwestern farm life. With travel, danger, and adventure comes food; this is a great tradition in much of children’s literature, a lesson I absorbed well and completely.

My first grownup-style faux pas, at least the earliest one I remember, was related to reading and eating. It was, in fact, entirely the fault of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I snuck off and read during an overnight at a friend’s house. As a budding hermit, I used these overnights as an excuse to read whatever books my friends had that I didn’t; in fact, now that I think of it, I have many memories of sidling away from my hostess to read her books as fast as I could before she noticed I was missing.

I finished Charlie in my friend’s bedroom beanbag chair and ventured back into the light, blinking with the force of the imagined taste of chocolate. On my way to the glass sliding doors that led to the backyard, where my friend and her sisters were playing, I ran into their mother.  “Hello!” she said cheerfully. “What’s up?”

“I just finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” I confided. “And I am craving chocolate now like crazy.” I wasn’t asking for chocolate, mind you; that would have been rude. I was simply answering her question, and I expected her to understand this; no polite kid asked for things in another kid’s house. I expected her to say longingly, “I know exactly what you mean,” looking off into the middle distance as she viscerally remembered the book’s lascivious, melting descriptions.

“Well, sorry,” she said instead, her cheer undaunted, “I don’t have any!” And off she went, leaving me in a state of cringing mortification.

This may have been the first time it dawned on me that not everyone’s brain was wired like mine.

Pot Roast from “The Joy of Cooking”

I made this easy but excellent dish as often as I could in junior high, when my mother, who was then working about sixty hours a week doing her psychology Ph.D internship at the V.A. Hospital, had my younger sisters and me each cook dinner one night a week. I never got tired of either making or eating this pot roast; I have no idea how my family felt about it, and I didn’t ask. It was always delicious and flavorful and never dry. It always satisfied my infernal twelve-year-old ravenous gluttony.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees unless you’re using the stovetop method. Rub a 3-4 pound chuck (or other) roast with garlic. Dredge in flour. In a Dutch oven or cast-iron pot, heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil “over lively heat.” Brown the meat on all sides, but don’t let it scorch. When the meat is half-browned, add 1 chopped carrot and 1 rib of diced celery and an onion stuck with cloves, says Irma, but I always skipped the celery and added 3-4 carrots peeled and cut into chunks, a large quartered onion without cloves (hated them), and 3 peeled quartered potatoes. When meat is browned, spoon off excess fat (always left it in). Boil a cup of dry red wine (in those days, it was Gallo), a cup of stock, and a bay leaf, and add to meat. Cover and bake 3 to 4 hours or simmer on top of the stove. Turn meat several times and, if necessary, add additional hot stock and season to taste. When the meat is tender, spoon off excess fat (or not), remove bay leaf, and serve with the pot liquor as it is or slightly thickened with sour cream.

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About Kate Christensen

eater, citizen, enthusiast, curmudgeon
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2 Responses to And waited while his billy boiled

  1. Des says:

    the added sour cream makes it marvelous

  2. I’ll have to try the sour cream too. Never done that. But I make a country pear tart out of one of Marcella Hazan’s books that’s studded with whole cloves and they make all the difference–you can always take them out since they’re right on top. I serve it with lightly sugared whipped cream that has the zest of one whole lemon in it. As one of my favorite poets, James Schuyler said, “double-yum.”

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