I wrote this in late March at the beginning of lockdown and it was published as part of the Daunt Books Publishing series on reading in isolation. Lots of writers I admire have contributed, check it out.
I recently finished Zami: A New Spelling of my Name by Audre Lorde, which is one of the best books I have read. The ‘biomythography’ relates a portion of Lorde’s youth between the 1930s-1950s and features a brilliant treatment of food. Lorde is a genius observer of cooking and eating. While her mother cannot show affection and metes out vicious punishments (shown to be symptoms of her own traumatisation), Lorde’s portrayal of the vigorous, even brutal way her mother goes food shopping acknowledges her absolute insistence that her family survive the conditions of racial segregation. For a family trip to Washington, Lorde’s mother packs roasted chickens cut into delicate pieces and ripe, furry peaches. The picnic is a pre-emptive refusal to be denied pleasure in the way that the racist state intends (when they get there the ice cream parlour will not serve them). Her mother does not dare express a verbal hope that Audre might experience fairness at school or in life, but puts so much into nourishing her daughter and keeping her body strong to live into the future. The lavish provision of food as self-love and as a form of political action also comes through in the way Lorde contrasts the buffet food on offer at parties held by different groups of lesbians. White lesbians never have enough food at their parties, or they don’t think enough about appetites – the buffets at black lesbian parties are delicious and plentiful.
Last night after a panic and some crying (I had almost tricked myself into thinking I could fight off the pandemic with recipes) I read the beginning of Some Tame Gazelle (1950) by Barbara Pym, a story of two middle aged, unmarried sisters who live together in a rural parish. Pym (b.1913) and Lorde (b.1934) lived wildly different lives – Lorde a radical black lesbian poet, political writer and activist in racist America, and Pym a white British woman writing middlebrow comic fiction. However, both are deeply interested in how women live together and channel their desires in circumstances where they are often less than welcome – and both share a keen eye for how food can articulate a social dynamic. A few pages into Some Tame Gazelle, Pym puts a chicken to very good use:
‘In the dining-room Harriet sat at one end of the table and Belinda at the other, with the curate in the middle. Harriet carved the boiled chicken smothered in white sauce very capably. She gave the curate all the best white meat.
Were all new curates everywhere always given boiled chicken when they came to supper for the first time? Belinda wondered. It was certainly an established ritual at their house and it seemed somehow right for a new curate. The coldness, the whiteness, the muffling with sauce, perhaps even the sharpness added by the slices of lemon, there was something appropriate here, even if Belinda could not see exactly what it was.’
Pym’s cold serving will stay with me for a long time.
I offer here a recipe by a writer born in the same year as Pym, Elizabeth David. I love making and eating canapés – the levity, the construction of a complete mouthful, the party feeling! – and these are an absolute favourite. Piedmontese peppers (peperoni alla piemontese) from Italian Food, published in 1954, are transporting to warmer, more sociable times in a way that feels necessary at the moment.
Some red peppers (or a mix of red, yellow and green)
A couple of garlic cloves
A few small tomatoes, cut into quarters (or a couple of diced tinned tomatoes if you can’t get fresh)
A tin of anchovies
To serve (optional): A few pieces of toast cut up into bite-sized pieces
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Cut the peppers into quarters lengthways and remove the seeds and pith and place in a roasting tray. Into each piece put a couple of thin slices of garlic, one or two little pieces of tomato, half a fillet of anchovy cut into a few smaller bits, a small nut of butter, a little olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Bake them in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until cooked but a little al-dente still. Arrange on a dish and serve warm or cold with little pieces of toast (if you want) and a strong drink. Garnish with parsley if you want.