Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Literary Lunch Menu

Since giving up smoking last week, food is always on my mind. And, as one who enjoys the literary lunch and the literary dinner, I was amused to read about a strange book featuring literary menus. Mark Crick’s Kafka’s Soup was published by Libri last year in the UK, but is now making big waves internationally for this small and independent British publisher.

When Kafka’s Soup was released last year, The Telegraph reported:
It was chronic asthma that turned Mark Crick into a gourmet bookworm. “Because I couldn’t eat much as a child, food became a source of enormous fascination -- and also frustration,” he says. “I would get halfway through a bowl of cornflakes and start wheezing so much that I couldn’t carry on, so I would go up to my room and read.”

Now, aged 42, he has combined his love of reading and cooking in Kafka’s Soup, a book of recipes recounted as if famous authors had written them. Jane Austen gives tips on tarragon eggs; Harold Pinter on cheese on toast. Homer gives a stunning oration about making rabbit stew and Geoffrey Chaucer rattles off a medieval recipe for a sweet onion tart.
“I hate celebrity cookbooks -- they’re really boring,” says Crick. “But I thought of what you could do if you had a huge budget and a time machine and could use any author or artist in history.” Illustrating the recipes are Picasso, Matisse and Warhol pictures -- all painted by Crick.
Irvine Welsh’s recipe for a chocolate cake was chosen, says Crick, because “people become terribly selfish when there’s chocolate cake around, just as they do with drugs. It’s the closest many get to taking heroin.”
The Independent reports that this little book has now has become an international sensation and is now taking the U.S. by storm in a culinary sort of way:
After garnering a handful of good reviews in the UK press, the book was picked up by Waterstone’s and, over the following year, acquired a cult following by word of mouth. A small theatre company in the West Country even began using the recipes as audition pieces. Then, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, foreign publishers began bidding briskly for the rights. Since then, it has been published in 23 countries and translated into 18 languages. When the book was published in Croatia, it knocked The Da Vinci Code off the No. 1 spot in the bestseller lists.
Harcourt snapped up the U.S. rights, and on its appearance there before Christmas the New York Observer’s books editor left Thomas Pynchon’s indigestible Against the Day on the side of his plate and turned with relief to this “scrumptious pastiche for the well-read cook.” The New York Times reprinted the Raymond Chandler recipe, while the Detroit Free Press bizarrely named it one of its “10 best spiritual books of 2006.”
In the course of its travels, Kafka's Soup has gained two more recipes: Rösti à la Thomas Mann for the German edition, and Moules Marinières à la Italo Calvino for the Italian. Both are included in the French edition. They will be also appear in the UK paperback, which will be published by Granta Books in November, along with a new recipe à la Charles Dickens.

It may seem strange that a book whose appeal rests so heavily on the accurate mimicry of style should do so well in translation. But the concept seems to have an international appeal, and Crick has been served well by his translators. And, as he points out, the reverential literary culture of many continental European nations means that they turn to the English “as a force of eccentricity and creativity.
Being a crime-fiction and thriller aficionado, I’ll try this recipe tonight:

Lamb with Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler

1kg lean leg of lamb, cut into large chunks
1 onion, sliced1 carrot, cut into sticks
1 tablespoon crushed dill seeds, or 3-4 sprigs fresh dill
1 bay leaf
12 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
850ml chicken stock
50g butter
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner’s handshake. I took out a knife and cut the lamb into pieces. Feeling the blade in my hand I sliced an onion, and before I knew what I was doing a carrot lay in pieces on the slab. None of them moved. ... They had it coming to them.

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