In the late 1960s, when I was a teenager, I began to read John Updike (Couples) and Sue Kaufman (Diary of a Mad Housewife). I pictured the chic, adulterous, party-going characters as Barbie dolls, in sparkly black cocktail dresses, accompanied not, well, by Ken, but perhaps Mick Jagger. In Updike country, women passed the canapes and downed highballs, while their husbands flirted and networked. Sometimes the women are jealous; other times they’re making their own assignations. What I learned: being a good hostess and great cook has nothing to do with marriage.
In the same era, my own mother did not attend cocktail parties, nor did she call anything a canape. She opened soup cans, fried chicken, and tossed iceberg lettuce with French dressing, but we ate out much of the time, in a decade when most people ate in. She had that ’60s thank-God-for-packaged-and-prepared-food attitude that meant cooking was a thing of the past: she was relieved not to be a prisoner of the kitchen.
She stopped cooking after her divorce, because she literally fell apart for a few years. And, unfortunately, like a typical teenager, I vowed I would never be like her, not understanding the reality of DNA.
Cooking did not come naturally to me. I make quick, healthy sandwiches and soups because I do not enjoy cooking and do not run to a sous chef. What do I serve guests? Chili or roast chicken. Yup. Two unadventurous dishes it’s hard to go wrong with. My mother served Stouffers lasagna and McDonald’s hot fudge sundaes at bridge club parties.
And over the years I have had my failures, when I attempted something out of my comfort zone. These days I empathize with my mother.
And I have taken comfort in CULINARY DISASTERS IN LITERATURE!
1.The witty Louisa May Alcott, one of my favorite writers, preferred “blood-and-thunder” stories to her popular books for girls, which she wrote to pay the bills. Sure, there are morals in every chapter, which I loved as a girl, by the way, but Alcott is a feminist with strong heroines and subversive subtexts. Her characters must master boring domestic skills, because they are poor and don’t have a house full of servants, but it is not their raison d’être. Jo in Little Women sells blood-and-thunder stories to newspapers, and Mother and the girls are proud, but patriarchal Father, if I remember correctly, puts the kibosh on that. In a later novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl, creativity is valued: the heroine Polly is not only an excellent, if impoverished, musician and music teacher, but hangs out with a community of artistic women.
In Little Women, the March sisters loathe housework and cooking as much as I do. This satisfied me deeply when I was a child. In Chapter XI, “Experiments,” they beg Marmee to let them off chores for a week of their vacation, because Meg, a governess to a rich family, and Jo, cranky Aunt March’s companion, are tired of trying to please others and want some leisure. And yet the leisure palls, and they are almost glad when Marmee and Hannah, the servant, declare they are taking a day off. No problem! They’ll do the housework. The slangy, writerly, tomboyish Jo makes lunch, but she boils the asparagus till the tips fall off, burns the bread, and has to crack open the lobster with a hammer. And she must serve it to guests, Laurie and Miss Crocker, as well as her sisters.
Poor Jo would gladly have gone under the table, as one thing after another was tasted and left, while Amy giggled, Meg looked distressed, Miss Crocker pursed her lips, and Laurie talked and laughed with all his might to give a cheerful tone to the festive scene. Jo’s one strong point was the fruit, for she had sugared it well, and had a pitcher of rich cream to eat with it. Her hot cheeks cooled a trifle, and she drew a long breath as the pretty glass plates went round, and everyone looked graciously at the little rosy islands floating in a sea of cream. Miss Crocker tasted first, made a wry face, and drank some water hastily. Jo, who refused, thinking there might not be enough, for they dwindled sadly after the picking over, glanced at Laurie, but he was eating away manfully, though there was a slight pucker about his mouth and he kept his eye fixed on his plate. Amy, who was fond of delicate fare, took a heaping spoonful, choked, hid her face in her napkin, and left the table precipitately.
But she is sure of the dessert. How can you go wrong with strawberries and cream?
Salt instead of sugar, and the cream is sour.
Later in the book, Meg, too, has a culinary disaster when her husband brings home a guest while she is making jam that won’t set. And then there is “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,”which I wrote about here.
Clearly Alcott’s sympathies are with the undomestic! Her characters master plain cooking and housework but only from necessity.
2. In Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool, a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, Ruth, the owner of Hattie’s diner, recalls her domestic dim-wittery when she got knocked up years ago and married the junk-scavenger Zack. They lived with his horrible mother, also named Ruth, who sabotaged her attempts to learn to cook.
Eventually she had grudgingly copied out on notecards the recipes for a few of Zack’s favorite meals. They never turned out right, though. The recipes either left out key ingredients or were unclear about techniques or got the proportions wrong, which made Ruth look like a very slow learner indeed….Only after Ruth finally tumbled to the fact that her culinary efforts were being sabotaged, and compared the notecard recipes with others in cookbooks she’d checked out from the library, did she begin to improve.
I’m glad Ruthless Mother, as she is nicknamed, is not my mother-in-law.
3. In the memoir, The Gastronomical Me, MFK Fisher describes simple French food which she made accessible to Americans in her food writing. But she started out a simple California girl who liked to cook. One night, when her parents were out, Mary Frances decided to cook supper for herself and her sister. She chose a recipe for something called “Hindu eggs,” and quadrupled the amount of curry powder in the cream sauce. The girls ate as much of it as they could, pretending to be nonchalant about the spice. But it did not end well.
4.In Margaret Sidney’s charming classic, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Polly Pepper is determined to bake a birthday cake for Ma. Naturally, there are difficulties: they don’t have the ingredients, their nearly-deaf next-door neighbor can’t find the recipe she has in mind, and there is a hole in the stove that makes the oven temperature uncertain. But eventually the cake comes out of the oven.
Oh dear! of all the things in the world! The beautiful cake over which so many hopes had been formed, that was tot have given so much happiness on the morrow to the dear mother, presented a forlorn appearance as it stood there in anything but holiday attire. It was quite black on the top, in the center of which was a depressing little dump, as if to say, “My feelings wouldn’t allow me to rise to the occasion!”
But a posy in the middle hides the hollow in the cake, and Ma is delighted by their efforts.
5. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, the 28-year-old heroine, Kate, keeps house for her scientist father and younger sister Bunny, and makes the same meal every night. When her father’s Russian genius assistant, Pyoty, decides to court Kate, he, too, must eat her cooking.
She turned back to the stove. She was reheating the concoction they had for supper every night. Meat mash, they called it, but it was mainly dried beans and green vegetables and potatoes, which she mixed with a small amount of stewed beef every Saturday afternoon and puréed into a grayish sort of paste to be served throughout the week. Her father was the one who had invented it. He couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t follow the same system; it provided all the requisite nutrients and saved so much time and decision-making.
6. Cover your eyes! This one is gory. In Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, one hideous bad dinner party is memorable. King Tereus marries Procne, daughter of Pandius, who begs him to sail back to her home country and bring her sister, Philomela, for a visit. Instead, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts out her tongue so she can’t talk, and leaves her in the woods. When Philomela weaves a tapestry of the story and finds her way to her sister, they plot revenge. They kill Procne’s son, Itys, and serve him up as a “ritual” meat dish to Tereus. Ugh!
If you can think of any other bad cookery stories in literature, let me know!