Exquisite dishes, of the finest cuisine: Jorge Amado and the literary art of food

Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands claims, in its subtitle, to be about “the fearsome battle between spirit and matter”. It isn’t much of a battle, in the end–having known extremities of sexual joy with her first husband, the roguish and incorrigible Vadhino, Dona Flor tries to re-imagine herself as a staid and entirely respectable woman in her second marriage to the gentle but dull Teodoro. In this battle between spirit and matter, the body wins out and Dona Flor finds a way to appear to inhabit both these realms to her own (nearly infinite) satisfaction.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is rather a silly novel. It’s hyperbolic and bawdy and loud. This is not to say it isn’t fun and generally well-written, for it is both these things. But it’s not subtle and it really offers almost nothing in terms of insight into what makes people tick. Amado deals, primarily, in clich├ęs; and while this novel isn’t really allegorical (because the sex stands in for sex, and the concern for reputation is represented by nothing other than itself, for example), its characters look flatly allegorical. Amado’s characters’ complicated humanity could be summed up like this: Flor likes sex, a lot, but feels kind of uncomfortable about it. Vadinho likes sex and doesn’t feel uncomfortable about it at all. Teodoro is a romantic and is therefore kind of terrible in bed. Paper dolls, nothing more.

I used to love such seething, sexually charged (but literarily so) narratives; writing reality larger than it can possibly be lived once seemed to me to do justice to our human impulses even if most of us are too small, concerned, fearful, or lazy to live in direct proportion to them. My tastes seem, however, to have changed rather significantly. I’m more, much more, interested in what humanity actually looks like these days, in the quiet ways in which we either ruin ourselves and others, or manage to scrape out some contentment as we limp along. (This is why I am spending so much time in the nineteenth century, particularly with Trollope and Eliot. Especially Eliot; my god, Middlemarch!) Perhaps my literary palate will change again and I’ll find myself unable to enjoy anything not included in the realm of magic realism and literary showboating. For now, though, I’m best satiated with subtler flavours.

That said, Amado’s descriptions of food in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands include some of the best I’ve come across. Our titular heroine, being the proprietress (proprietrix?) of the adorably named “Cooking School of Savor and Art”, is one of the lucky few to have found her vocation in life. She is as sure of herself in the kitchen as her first husband was sure of her (and every other woman’s) body; she is the high priestess of the sauce pan and the cutting board. And Amado, I think, is a committed votary, for food figures larger here even than the romping and the flirting and the jealousy. If anything in this novel manages convincingly to be both aggressively itself as well as allegorical, it’s food, for nothing signposts Flor’s state of mind or spiritual condition or bodily contentment the way her relationship to food does.

Food in this novel is necessary, abundant, and social; the book opens with a short dissertation on what ought to be served at a wake:

When should refreshments be served?

All night long, from beginning to end. Coffee is indispensable, continually, that is to say, plain coffee. A complete breakfast, coffee with milk, bread and butter, cheese, crackers, couscous with poached eggs, is served only in the morning and to those who have spent the whole night there.

The best thing is to keep the kettle on the boil all the time so that there will be no lack of coffee, for people will be coming in continually. Cookies and crackers to go with the coffee; from time to time a try of cold cuts, sandwiches of cheese, ham, sausage, simple things, for the deceased is sufficient cause for worry and concern.

If, however, the wake is more sumptuous, one of those whose money flows like water, then a cup of chocolate at midnight is called for, thick and hot, or a tasty chicken broth. And codfish balls, croquettes of different kinds, assorted sweets, dried fruit. (p. 1)

But food is also poetic, feeding the soul as well as the body. This, from Dona Flor’s recipe for marinated crab:

Grate two onions, crush garlic in mortar;
Onion and garlic do not smell badly, ladies,
They are fruits of the earth, perfumed.
Mince the coriander, the parsley, several tomatoes.
The shallot and half the pepper.
Mix all with the olive oil
And set aside this sauce
Of aromatic flavor.

(Those silly women who dislike the smell of onion,
What do they know about pure smells?
Vadinho liked to eat raw onion
And his kisses were like fire.)
Wash the crabs whole in lemon juice,
Wash them well, and then a little more,
To get out all the sand without taking away the taste of the sea. (pp. 41-42)

I can’t imagine Amado’s mouth didn’t water to the point of distraction while he was writing; I know reading this novel made me intensely hungry every time I spent more than 10 minutes at a time with it.

Which gave me perhaps one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. I like novels, a lot. I also like food, a lot, and cooking, and so I own a fair number of cookbooks. Many of these cookbooks are truly excellent and have not only made me much more open-minded about trying new things, but have also inspired me to become more skilled in the kitchen. But while most of my cookbooks are full of good recipes, and a few are show-stoppingly excellent, they are all plagued, to greater and lesser degrees, with dull, bad, or downright embarrassing writing; the introductions to the recipes tend not to inspire a desire to make those recipes; sometimes the book and recipe titles induce an intensity of cringing that should never be paired with excellent meals.

This is my world-changing idea: Great authors should, somehow, be convinced to re-write cookbooks, once all the recipes have been perfected, into literary masterpieces. Imagine: Ann Patchett on chocolate lavender mousse; David Mitchell on a piccata so fine it brings tears to your eyes; Anthony Trollope on fresh out of the oven molasses bread. People who don’t read novels would all of a sudden understand just how delicious words can be; readers stuck inside their own heads would see that the key to all mythologies might very well be found in a superlative coconut curry. Everyone would both eat better and read better.

It would be a revolution.

4 thoughts on “Exquisite dishes, of the finest cuisine: Jorge Amado and the literary art of food

  1. Reminds me that Isabelle Allende did ‘Aphrodite’ and on a more story-like note, I did enjoy Anthony Capella’s ‘The Food of Love’ he writes well about food within a light narrative and then ‘The Empress of Icecream’ was also well done, a little dive into the history of icecream.

    • There’s a good essay on ice cream in Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small. Then there’s Like Water for Chocolate, of course–that’s where I first learned rose petals were edible!

  2. Now, your idea at the end is a good one, a good, good one. Yet I must ask: what are these hideous cookbooks you have been reading?

    To stick with vegetarian-friendly cookbook writers, Deborah Madison is not embarrassing, bad, or even dull. Or Claudia Roden. Or, I don’t know, Edna Lewis, the sainted Edna Lewis. I should back up – Edna Lewis’s books are full of pork.

    Who are the bad cookbook writers?

    • I’m not going to reveal who I think the bad cookbook writers are; the vegan world is just too darned small. But I’ll look for Madison and Roden, thank you. :)

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