Once upon a time, I had a blog other than Jam and Idleness. And on that blog, I for a time hosted a feature called The Reading Lamp. I sort of let it die around about the same time that Mr. Interpolations created his own version thereof, and through which he totally out-classed me by getting David Mitchell to be one of his guests.
I don’t think David Mitchell will be participating here (although I won’t say no, if he asks nicely). I possess a rich network of smart friends and acquaintances who like both books and food, so I think it’ll probably be alright without him.
Welcome to Brain/Food, a series of interviews that will focus on the joys, sometimes overlapping, of satisfying our brains’ and bellies’ most profound cravings. Please say hello and hi and “Oh yes, excellent idea, etc” to Andrew Cornell, our pioneer interviewee. Andrew and I used to work together, he introduced me to China Mieville, and we have great book chats in spite of the fact that we sit on opposite sides of the line in the sand dividing Cormac McCarthy fans and foes. In other words, he’s awesome. Enjoy!
What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well? Have disagreements ever come to blows?
The book I’ve argued about the most might be Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I think it’s one of the best books of the 20th Century, but Cormac’s writing is mighty divisive. It’s a hard book to say I “love” though. I would usually reserve that word for something that brings me more basic pleasures.
What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book?
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is really underrated in my opinion. Calvino’s postmodern thought experiments have tended to overshadow the deep and abiding humanism that runs underneath much of his literary pyrotechnics. Invisible Cities is deeply felt because Calvino was essentially spinning out poetry about his complicated feelings towards his hometown of Venice. Invisible Cities is a sparkling little jewel of a book that reveals more facets each time you approach it—like the best cities.
Favourite childhood book?
The Hobbit really gripped me, and I even used the key provided in the forward to write notes in Dwarven runes, but I think the book that affected me most strongly as a child was a battered paperback of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I remember finding it on a wire rack in my elementary school library; meaning I would have first read it at possibly too young an age. I poured over that grimy little book, reading The Cask of Amontillado and The Masque of the Red Death and The Fall of the House of Usher over and over again. To this day I think The Masque of the Red Death is one of the most perfect short stories of all time.
Who is your literary boyfriend or girlfriend? (They need not still be living, or they can be a character in a book.)
M.F.K. Fisher, no question. She had this incredible ability to be intellectual about food, while simultaneously reveling in the sensual pleasure of a great meal—and managed both without sounding like a snob.
What book would a prospective lover/marriage partner/friend have to say they loved for you to end your relationship with them immediately?
The Secret—the universe is indifferent to your childish need for wish fulfillment. “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
What would your ideal desert island book be?
Is The Complete Works of Poe cheating? If so…maybe Dune by Frank Herbert…or Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess—big meaty books with lots of interesting plot points, rich characterizations, and layers of sticky images; but whose authors also had lots on their minds.
What about a dessert book, a book you could read and then eat?
Back to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher again and her first book written in 1937 Serve it Forth: “…[In Strasbourg] I discovered how to eat little dried sections of tangerine. My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. . . . In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.”
Has a book ever made you physically ill? If yes, which book was it and why did it affect you this way?
Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted (which reads to me like a great outline for a book he hasn’t gotten around to, you know, actually writing yet) opens with a story that made me badly nauseous one night in a Starbucks. But since that was Chuck’s intention: mission accomplished. The first book that came to mind when I read this question though, was Robert Heinlein’s Friday, which is the only book I can remember throwing across the room in disgust when the heroine muses about how under other circumstances she might have enjoyed her rape—a book dedicated to the women in his life no less…
Amazing (in either a good or bad way) literary collaboration that hasn’t happened yet?
Robert Ludlum published The Bourne Identity the same year that Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose came out. The thought of that collaboration makes me chuckle: The Rosicrucian Decipherment—imagine a Robert Langdon style protagonist who can kill people with his thumbs. Actually, that might have made Brown’s piece of junk worth reading…
Favourite literary description of food?
Although the descriptions of food in Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun are wrapped up in weird psycho-social projections about relationships, human sacrifice and cannibalism* (“…‘Did you taste that? Are you tasting it?’ she was asking me, with a kind of anxiety…”) they are still some of my favourite passages written about food—or at least the link between food and sex. In terms of just making me hungry, I’ve always found the descriptions of meals in The Lord of the Rings surprisingly appealing.
Have you ever read a cookbook front to back like a novel? What was it, and what story did it tell you?
I do this all the time now—in fact I have a copy of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook that I will probably never make a recipe out of but I treasure for the content, particularly the illustrations by Dave Mckean—but the first one I can ever remember reading like a novel was A Taste of India by Madhur Jaffrey. She opens the book with a line that goes (I’m paraphrasing) “saying Indian Cooking is the same as saying European Cooking.” It seems so obvious now, but blew my mind at the time. The book is organized by region and provides both a high-level overview of the regional cuisine and some charming and vivid anecdotal stories about meals had in those places.
What was your first cookbook? Do you still have it? How does it reflect who you are?
The first cookbook I can remember deliberately purchasing for myself, as opposed to the odd ones lying around my parents’ or friends’ houses, was a little book on Thai cooking. The name escapes me now, but it had a pink cover and no pictures. It purported to be very authentic and led to me spending hours searching cluttered Asian grocery stores for dried galangal and fresh lime leaves. I’ve struggled for and against this concept of authenticity in food ever since.
Is it okay to write in cookbooks? What about novels? What’s the difference?
Real working cookbooks—as opposed to food topic books or rare cookbooks—should show all the abuse of real kitchen life: stains, dog-ears and notes. Cookbooks are the only books I’m not precious about.
Is baking really a science? If so, what would a doctoral dissertation in baking comprise? Experiments, hypotheses, results?
I thought baking was a science until I watched a real baker at work one day and realized how much he relied on intuition and touch to adjust the volumes of ingredients to suit relative humidity and other changeable factors. What I’ve come to realize is that by “science” we mostly mean the physics of the universe. The more science you understand, the more you’ll understand the chemical reactions of ingredients to each other and to various heat sources. This understanding can help you cook better, but it can just as easily make the process of creating a decent meal by winging it, laborious. Ultimately, we’re talking about making food, not launching a space shuttle. It’s highly unlikely someone will die from eating your shitty quiche, so does it always need to be the best quiche science can make?
Describe what for you would be the bookish equivalent of an ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day? How about a steaming hot chocolate on a freezing January night during a snowpocalypse?
For me, this question is aligned with a similar question I ask people about re-reading books. I have a good friend, Richard, who is an über-book person and almost never re-reads. He feels that there are just too many new and exciting books to get to in a lifetime, why look back? But to me, there is a “comfort food” category of books that I read to put my mind at ease and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is always at the top of that pile—it’s a warm comfy blanket for my icier thoughts.