Brain/Food: I really ought to be reading Jonas Jonasson right now

Fred Sweet is both unfairly photogenic and unnaturally smart. He is also very patient; I’ve been sitting on this interview for at least a month and not finding the time to post it. Mea culpa, mea culpa! Dr. Sweet, who teaches Classics, will confirm that this is Latin for “I suck.”


We’re having a snow storm at this very moment–the first time that one of my climatological reading questions has been of immediate import! I am completely without a copy of Jonas Jonasson’s book about strange elderly men sneaking out their own windows, however, so am making do with Anthony Trollope–which, I must say, isn’t holding up at all against Fred’s dry wit.

This is the last Brain/Food of 2013, friends! Who’s in for 2014?


What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well?

Homer’s Iliad.  It’s often dismissed as being one long blood-bath . This is SO reductionist!  No one conveys more evocatively the splendor and the terror of life better than Homer. And note: the Iliad is the first literary artifact of the western world—and it’s still the best!

What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book?

It’s hardly unknown, but I don’t think it receives the accolades that it deserves. I’m speaking, of course, of John Banville’s The Infinities. It conveys a sense of enveloping mystery that gets under your skin.

Freddy & The DetectiveFavourite childhood book?

No question: far and away my favourite was the Freddy the Pig series (by Walter Brooks): full of theriomorphic charm and wit.

Who is your literary boyfriend or girlfriend? (They need not still be living, or they can be a character in a book.)

Since first reading Virgil’s Aeneid, I have been in love with Dido: lovely, talented and generous—and doomed, because she represents an obstacle to the juggernaut to be known as Rome.

What’s the strangest/most interesting/creepiest/most amazing thing you’ve ever found inside a book?

I’ve just finished reading Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared:  a wonderfully droll take on the 20th century (and the funniest book I’ve read since Freddy the Pig.)

Do you have any reading superstitions?

None that I know of.

What book would a prospective lover/marriage partner/friend have to say they loved for you to end your relationship with them immediately?

Atlas Shrugged: those who love it tend to be narcissistically twisted.

What would your ideal desert island book be?

Ovid’s Metamorphoses: endlessly inventive and witty and bursting with great stories. In fact, there are (count them) over 200 stories altogether, many of them so familiar to us that we may not even be aware that Ovid is our principal source:  Orpheus and Eurydice, Pyramus and Thisbe, Echo and Narcissus, Apollo and Daphne, Europa and the bull, Ariadne and the Minotaur, Venus and Adonis.  And so many more—more than enough to while away the endless hours on that deserted island of mine.

Favourite literary description of food?

How about a movie? Babette’s Feast made me very hungry.

Reading and eating simultaneously, yes or no? Dangers and benefits?

I tend to regard reading and eating as discrete pleasures.

Have you ever read a cookbook front to back like a novel? What was it, and what story did it tell you?

I have never in my life cracked open a contemporary cookbook (which could make the next few answers very brief).

Your favourite author writes a book about your favourite food/dish just for you: Title? Genre? Summary of contents?

This is not a direct response to the question (I just thought I could work it in somewhere): there is, in fact, a cookbook from the Ancient World by a bloke who calls himself Apicius. It’s full of Roman recipes which are mainly deeply unappetizing. Mind you, some of them sound quite normal: chicken with plum sauce, pork roast with cumin, parsnips with coriander.

But over 400 of the recipes involve a sauce called garum, made from fermented fish. To us, foul stuff—but the Romans loved it. Legend has it that Apicius died from the effects of gluttony; and check out what he spent a fortune on: camel heels, cockscombs, the tongues of peacocks and nightingales, the brains of flamingos, the heads of parrots and pheasants, and boiled ostrich. Yikes!  (Also of interest: Apicius discovered how to treat the liver of sows by stuffing them with dried figs. He then slaughtered them with a humongous overdose of honeyed wine.)

Excuse me a moment—I’m feeling peckish….

What was your first cookbook? Do you still have it? How does it reflect who you are?

See above (i.e., no previous experience).

Is it okay to write in cookbooks? What about novels or books of poetry? What’s the difference?

If you own whatever the book is, I think you can pretty much do what you want with it.

Is baking *really* a science? If so, what would a doctoral dissertation in baking comprise? Experiments, hypotheses, results?

This seems to really stretch the conventional definition of science.

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?

When I was a boy, I found the Hardy Boys refreshing on a hot day.
For winter storms, see above (Jonas Jonasson).

Where can you comfortably eat but not read, and vice versa? What do these little hang-ups say about your commitments to good food and good books?

I prefer to do my reading in my chair in the TV room before or after an excellent dinner.

Would your ideal 10-course meal of epic reading comprise? Where would it happen? Under what circumstances?

I’m unclear about this question; hence my answer will be inadequate and disappointing.

If you could replace those little Gideon Bibles in hotel room nightstands with any book at all, what would it be? What would you have left on guests’ pillows to replace the ubiquitous mint?

Either Homer or Ovid (see above).

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara says:

    Fun post, with some of the same preferences I would claim: The Iliad, for one and Babette’s Feast for another and of course, Dido.
    Garum, fermented anchovies, is actually in Worcestershire sauce. Can’t say I ever tasted or smelled any stinking fish.

    1. Colleen says:

      It’s been a long time since I ate fish sauce, but there’s a Korean restaurant here that makes vegan kimchi (which usually has the stuff) because, the owner insists, “Westerners hate the smell.” Some people just have more sensitives noses. Or have seen how fish sauce is made. *pukes*

  2. Sylvia says:

    I read Jonas Jonasson’s book this past summer. I laughed out loud so often, I got strange looks on the bus. As I was reading, I kept thinking ‘this should be a Coen Brothers movie’. I’ve since learned that a movie is being made in Europe. Hopefully, it will make it to Canada.

    1. Colleen says:

      Laughing out loud is the best recommendation anyone could possibly give me; I’m definitely going to try to get to this one this year.

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