Food in Books, Odds & Ends

Food In Books #2: The Great Winglebury Duel

A post in which I compare reading Dickens to eating chocolate cake. And other stuff.

On with the show

Welcome to this, my second, ‘Food in Books’ post. As you can tell, I still haven’t come up with a better title. Maybe this title will be the one that sticks. I’m managing to put the harrowing image of second-hand curry between library book pages out of my mind. Mostly.

Today’s book is a ‘Penguin Little Black Classics’ book of two short stories by Charles Dickens: ‘The Great Winglebury Duel’ and ‘The Steam Excursion’. The stories were originally published by Dickens in newspapers in the 1800s, but in 1836 they were gathered together into a volume called ‘Sketches by Boz’, alongside 54 other sketches of London life.

They are essentially the flash fiction of the 19th Century. A few brief dramatic scenes.

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I’m not normally a Dickens fan, but this tiny volume made it into my handbag to keep me company on my Easter travels without weighing me down.

If I was being sensible, for the sake of my bad back, I should probably make the switch to the spare Kindle that lives in our house, but paper and ink have my heart. And you can’t buy a second-hand Kindle book. I love an inexpensive pre-loved book, and the joy of lending my books on. 

So onto the book…

The Great Winglebury Duel

Very much like ‘The Outrun’ from last time, there is very little food in either ‘The Great Winglebury Duel’ and ‘The Steam Excursion.’ I’m sure I’ll get to a book that is simply groaning with food at some point, but it’s going to be very much a stumble-upon moment.

The first of the two stories is about a moment of mistaken identity. Mr Alexander Trott is taken for Lord Peter, gentleman lover-of-the-high-life, eloping with his older fiancé in disguise. Things inevitably get more and more tangled, as letters get delivered anonymously, and people take him for a madman.

The second story is about Mr Percy Noakes, a favourite in his circle of Society. He congratulates himself on the idea of pulling together a committee to plan a steam excursion; a delightful day out, which begins with social snubs and ends in a storm.

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I’ll be honest, the only food I remembered at the close of the book was the picnic feast that Percy Noake’s seasick guests don’t eat on the storm-shaken steamer:

“There was a large, substantial cold boiled leg of mutton at the bottom of the table, shaking like blanc-mange; a hearty sirloin of beef looked as if it had been suddenly seized with the palsy; and some tongues, which were placed on dishes rather too large for them, were going through the most surprising evolutions, darting from side to side, and from end to end, like a fly in an inverted wine-glass. Then the sweets shook and trembled till it was quite impossible to help them, and people gave up the attempt in despair; and the pigeon-pies looked as if the birds, whose legs were stuck outside, were trying to get them in.”

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I love just how unappetising Dickens manages to make the feast sound, and how he makes it positively come alive. The food really are characters in their own right, grotesquely writhing on their platters.

My joy in reading this passage, and most of the rest of these compact little stories, made me realise something. Dickens is like a rich chocolate cake!

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I really enjoy Dickens across a story 25 small pages long. I relish the heavy sentences laden in grotesque detail, and the comically over-developed characters, over a few thousand words. But making me read hundreds of pages of ‘Great Expectations’ or ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ is like force-feeding me the sixth slice of the cake.

Don’t do it!

But that feeling makes complete sense. Now that I actually think about it.

Dickens’ stories were serialised, weren’t they? His stories were designed to be enjoyed one bite at a time; at a few thousand words a week. Which makes me wonder, is there is an online service which emails you his books a chapter a week? If it’s not already out there, someone should take the idea and run with it!

So, would I sign up?

Ha! No, probably not. I suspect I’d still find his long and winding plots pretty tedious, if I’m honest. They’re just not for me. But I do think I’ll seek out some more of the little unintimdating volumes of his sketches. They will make great travel companions and will leave me feeling satisfied, like one slice of excellent cake.

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Do you like Dickens? What kind of food is he for you?

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Food in Books, Odds & Ends

Food in Books #1: The Outrun

I love a good book, me. And as you know, I love food. So this is the first in a see-how-it-goes, potential series about literature and food, called Food in Books!

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Re-reading that first paragraph, I just visualised that moment when you find a bit of someone’s dinner in a library book. That’s not at all what I mean by ‘Food in Books’! Perhaps I should come up with a better name. Any suggestions? 

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Recently, I’ve found myself musing about how food and stories go together. Like how the very best food often has a heritage or a story to tell. Or how most of us remember particular food-moments years (or even decades) after putting down our knives and forks at the end of the meal.

Or how food quite often plays a quiet, supporting role in the stories authors and film-makers tell. Sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly.

So, as I’ve been reading, I’ve found myself noticing all the mentions of food and musing on them. And so the idea for this not very imaginatively named blog series was born. Hooray for Food in Books! Or whatever it comes to be known.

And let’s be honest, part of the reason for this idea so that I have a valid excuse to write about books on a food blog!

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As an aside, whilst I was writing this post, I tried to come up with some food memories of my own. The first two that sprung to mind, dredged up from somewhere in my memory, hadn’t come into my mind for years! I find the mysteries of how memory works fascinating.

The first was the memory of a hot and greasy, ‘Cornish’ pasty, eaten on a sunny family holiday in Devon – we usually had a home-made sandwich-picnic, so a pasty was super exciting, and I got to eat it straight from the paper. Decadence! The second was of the first ever curry that I ate in an Indian restaurant – it was ordered by my curry-experienced friend, who assured me it wouldn’t be too spicy. It set my mouth on fire! 

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On to Book #1 in Food in Books

‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot

It’s fair to say that The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is quite an unusual book. It certainly divided opinion at my book group last night! However, I happily give it 4 stars. I thought it was great. Not perfect, but really affecting.

When we chose the book, I thought it was a novel, but it’s actually the memoir of a woman in her 30s who is recovering from addiction – trying to stay sober and to piece her life together in the wild landscape of Orkney.

Some experts think that the inhabitans were in charge of the ceremonial life

In the book, Liptrot allows us to experience the scattered memories of her descent into alcoholism and the break up of her relationship, far from home, in London. And then to join her, as she washes up on Orkney, fresh out of rehab; back in the place where she grew up, but never belonged. Her parents were English and had bought a farm on the biggest of Orkney’s islands back in the seventies. It has a big open field called the Outrun, and it’s here that the story begins and ends.

Liptrot’s writing is honest and bare, and it made me want to go to Orkney.

If I had to describe The Outrun, I’d say that it is almost relentlessly autobiographical, despite the fact that it is also very much about Orkney as a place. The book feels odd, but I like that. There is the frenetic chaos of her alcoholism. And the slow-paced, cyclical, reflective pace of her recovery, threaded through with facts and stories about Orkney. The second half, in particular, is organised more thematically than chronologically. I like that too. Life doesn’t always feel linear.

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I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read the book, but to me, it felt like it was written by a woman still very much on the journey of recovery. It was all pretty raw, all the pieces of herself not yet quite put back together. For me, that made it all the more worth reading. I felt honoured to be able to experience her journey with her – to live a life so different from mine.

And I’m still in awe of her swims in the winter Orkney sea!

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I could say a lot more, but this isn’t just meant to be a standard book review. Where’s the food, I hear you cry.

To the food!

Ironically, as this is my first Food in Books post, The Outrun doesn’t actually feature a great deal of food. In fact, during the London sections of the book, Liptrot rarely eats. Most of her calories inevitably coming from the alcohol she drinks alone. And there isn’t a great deal more in the Orkney sections. However, there is one particular food-moment that really captured me…

In a courageous move, Liptrot moved across from her ‘home’ island to Papay, an island with just 70 residents; just in time for winter. She plans to live in a little cottage called Rose Cottage which belongs to her summer employer (the RSPB), and to intentionally take time out to reflect and heal.

Having chosen to visit such a small community, she relishes the remoteness, but she is also anxious about fitting into such a tight community.

And so an incident with a cabbage! 😃

“Over Christmas, bad weather meant there was no ferry for a couple of weeks and the shop ran low on fresh food. The usually well-stocked Co-op is open for two or four hours a day, and going for milk often feels like a social occasion. I don’t have a car so have to ask for help with things like getting sacks of coal home. I was fearful, from warnings and childhood experiences, of doing the wrong thing, being too loud, too English, but I meet only friendliness and helpfulness on Papay, as well as a gentle curiosity about what I’m doing there. // One night there is a knock at the door: an unexpected delivery of a third of a cabbage after I’d mentioned in passing in the shop that a whole cabbage was a lot to buy if you’re living alone, and to carry on a bike. This small friendly gesture calmed me, helped soothe some anxiety that I wasn’t fitting in. The workings of society on an island are easier to understand than in a city and I’m gradually relaxing and seeing more clearly.”

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Imagine what it must be like to be so dependent on the weather for deliveries of food. I imagine pantries must be stocked up with tins and dried food, and that people are used to cooking meals from the cupboard. The orcadian.co.uk website has a couple of recipe books, I wonder if they feature any of them!

But what I love most about this little passage is the incident with the cabbage! There is something so wonderfully simple and profound about that small gesture. Undertaken by a generous and un-named Papay resident. It makes my heart ache for the best of what a small community can be! I imagine that small act of practical care and acceptance did a lot for Liptrot’s heart.

Sharing food

I got the sense that, for Liptrot, both addiction and recovery were/are very solitary endeavours. Although she liked her new island home, and tells us about the events that she attended (like an island art festival), or activities that she undertook with other people (like learning to snorkel), the other human beings feel to me like ships passing her in the night. Her characters – even though they’re real people – enter the narrative for a couple of paragraphs and then disappear again, before we feel properly introduced. In fact, I feel like I know some of the people from Okney’s history we’re introduced to better than the living human beings in her story.

I don’t know if this sense of fleeting-ness and disconnect is a literary device that genuinely reflects her relationships at this time in her life. Or if it’s unknowingly done. Or if it’s because she doesn’t feel confident to write the people fully-fleshed, in case she offends or gets them wrong. But it does create a sense of solitude or isolation.

And I do also wonder whether the reason food doesn’t feature much in the book, is because of the amount of time Liptrot spends alone.

Food really comes into its own when it’s shared

When food is shared, it is much more than the sum of its parts: that’s something I’ve been musing on recently. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy posting food that I made for/by myself, but I rarely think to post about food that has already been shared face-to-face, over a real-life table, or sitting together with friends in my lounge. In that case a food blog is tapping into a bigger truth: that food is about connection. Or something. Musings ongoing.

Finally a couple of quotes from the book, one about alcoholism and one about food:

“One reason alcohol is addictive is that it doesn’t quite work. It’s difficult to get enough of something that almost works.” 

“The full moon and new moons of winter… are also the times when it’s possible to forage for spoots, the local name for razor fish… We walk backwards and the spoots, which lie vertically just under the surface are disturbed by our booming footsteps and burrow downwards, leaving a telltale bubble in the sand… I dig furiously with a trowel, then with my rubber gloved hands… it’s a battle of woman verses spoot but I manage to get it and put it in my bucket. That night I fry them up with some garlic and eat them with spaghetti – a small meal but one of the most satsisfying I’ve had in a long time, caught for free and with fun.” 

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