I’ll Have Fiction With a Touch of Recipe, Please

 Books and recipes

It’s an amazingly easy recipe, what we call cherry cobbler–spread a can of pie filling in the casserole; cut a stick of butter or margarine into a yellow cake mix, and sprinkle on top of the syrupy fruit. Bake at 350 until the top is a little oozey, browned in spots, and the whole thing smells wonderful.

We like the dessert, and I love the fact that an old friend, Pam Hall, shared the method with me. Pam is gone, taken by cancer much, much too early (she accomplished so much; there was so much more she might have done!), but the recipes she shared make her a constant joy note in our lives.

I put fennel seed in my spaghetti sauce, a trick of my mother-in-law’s; it makes it taste like there’s Italian sausage mixed in, even when the budget only stretches to burger. I make my father-in-law’s recipe for meatballs. My favorite recipe for zucchini bread is from my sister-in-law, Mary, and Kathie Brown’s chicken and wild rice soup has become my favorite pot-luck dish.

I love it that the recipes shared by family and friends are so much a part of my story. I use the recipes and remember laughter and gatherings and times we shared the grief. The food weaves into the complex tapestry.

I love books that share their recipes, too.

I had a prof in undergrad, back in the mid-1970’s, who said that a great lack in US fiction was authors’ inability to write about food. In European literature, he maintained, reading about the characters’ food and feasts could send you running to the fridge or the deli, you’d get so hungry.

He might have been kind of right, back then, but I think US literature has changed and grown. And in the popular literature, in mystery stories and popular series, dear friends often share a meal or a treat as the story unfolds—and the recipe will be at the end of the book.

China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert’s unofficial detective character, is a woman to whom food and cooking and the sharing of meals are important. China owns an herbal shop; her best friend Ruby owns the adjoining shop which caters to a new age, spirit-filled crowd. Together, they run a tea shoppe, too, an enterprise which evolved over the course of the China Bayles series of mysteries. Pecan Springs, the funky Texas college town that China and Ruby call home, seems to be home, too, to a whole lot of deadly crime.

I was drawn to the China Bayles series when my family was mid-adventure: I discovered them in a little down-home library when my husband, late-forties, was a law student. The fictional China was on a reverse trajectory: she had rejected a career in law–she’d been a high-powered defense attorney in Dallas–for the life of an herbalist and shop owner. My husband gave up a thriving career in industrial sales to pursue his law degree. Both exemplify what we firmly believe: it is worth taking a chance to make your dreams come true. And it’s not worth staying in a career that saps your spirit, no matter how much money you might make.

Carolyn Hart’s review of the China Bayles books is quoted on the back of Rueful Death. “Such a joy,” writes Hart. “An instant friend.” I think that’s a great part of the appeal of the books; Albert creates a circle of likable, believable characters with whom most readers would enjoy hanging out. They eat wonderful meals and share delicious-sounding treats; they work at creative and fascinating endeavors; they laugh and cry together, and enjoy some good old gossipy talks.

Oh, and they solve some mighty grisly murders, too.

And they share, as the series evolves, some of their choicest recipes. ( I can’t remember which book in the series featured hot pepper cookies, but I’m sure going to find out; I’d like to try that recipe.)

Jan Karon gives us another set of instant friends in her Mitford series. Father Tim, in all his struggles with late onset diabetes, tempts us to cheat along with him. Oh, that orange marmalade cake—it’s such a dessert icon the denizens of Karon’s fictional world refer to it simply as OMC. Wouldn’t I have loved to pull up a chair and put my plate out when Lottie Greer was serving her fried chicken and mashed potatoes? And Puny–well, there’s no doubt about it. Puny is a cook, and Karon’s fiction gives us a rich lesson in southern hospitality.

I was pleased, at a grand old barn of a book sale last year, to find a copy of Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader. All those dishes that made my mouth water when reading are in the cookbook. YUM.

Sallie Goldenbaum creates her own set of friends for us–more kind, dear, creative women who knit together, support each other…and solve, oh, the occasional murder. Part of the appeal of the series is the ritual Friday night gathering on Nell and Ben’s deck…In Angora Alibi, Goldenbaum gives us not just knitting patterns, but also recipes from  Friday night. Those grilled tuna steaks were sounding pretty darned good, and now I can try to recreate them on my own backyard grill.

It’s a theme, almost, in popular series–there are baking murders and tea murders, coffee murders and chocolate murders, all with their own recipes in the back, or in the text. Are they great literature? Maybe not, but not every book has to have us spinning thoughts of the meaning of life and death and contemplating the abyss. Some are meant to comfort and/or entertain. The food adds a depth, draws us into the imaginary world–and lets us draw the imaginary tangibly into our reality.

It’s fun. It’s connection. Just like my cooking is enriched by the recipes my actual friends and family have shared, making a living connection between us, between generations, surviving death and separation, so the fictional characters enrich our lives; the recipes give us entree to the fictional community.

There is something, I think, to what that professor said: the sharing of food in writing creates something worthwhile. I write this as I feint and parry, fixing dinner. We have just returned from a weekend away–a weekend in which each and every meal was eaten at a restaurant. The urge for home cooking is strong.

I have chicken breasts roasting in the oven, skin on, lightly touched with paprika and parsley. The skins will crisp up, the juices grow clear and succulent. I look for a side dish, realize we’ve used up the potatoes; there are no boxed potato sides, either. Mac and cheese, I think–perfect comfort food, and I go to my black notebook where I keep recipes I’ve clipped from newspapers, magazines, Internet sources, downloaded from friends’ emails. The notebook opens right to the recipe I want–I’ve opened to this page many times before.

I pull ingredients from the pantry, defrost some veggie broth stowed in the freezer, and throw together some no-boil mac and cheese. It goes in the oven; soon the house smells of roasting bird and melting butter; a pile of orange cheese waits on the counter. I’ll stir it into the steaming pasta just before we eat. My tired ‘boys’ float out to the kitchen; the sun goes down and we turn the lights on. The house becomes an island of comfort, a homely haven after our adventure.

The chicken roasts perfectly, ready just as the macaroni is ready; I use thick mitts to pull the casserole from the oven, slide the cheese from my glass chopping board into the steaming pasta, put the lid on to hurry the melting. Peas simmer in buttery sauce; Jim gets down plates and pours big glasses of iced water. Mark lays the silverware, and I lift the casserole lid. A wonderful steam escapes; I stir the cheddary sauce, and we dig in. Home and safe and sharing a meal we’ve created.

I understand the writers’ impulse to tuck a recipe into the back of a book. A comfort to me; a wish for comfort to you. A real touch; a hope that we’ve truly connected.

Oh, I don’t expect to find a recipe at the end of every work, although I know volumes have been written on the food we wondered about in the classic literature we’ve read (pickled limes, anyone???) But the nights I afghan up, settle in with a story that’s purely for enjoyment, I like to find a recipe at the end of my read. It connects, it connects, it connects.

*******

No-Boil Macaroni and Cheese
(from the Columbus Dispatch, c, 2012. For ST, Columbus; supplied by Louise Strait of Groveport, OH)

This recipe is so good (writes Strait), I often double it and use a bigger baking dish.

1-1/4 cups chicken broth (I use any light broth I have on hand)
1 cup uncooked macaroni
3/4 cup evaporated milk (I use milk from the bottle when I don’t have evaporated on hand)
2-3 tablespoons dried minced onion
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons flour
1-1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Optional–toasted breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine all ingredients except cheese and breadcrumbs in a 1-1/2 quart baking dish. Cover. bake 50 minutes, stirring twice.
Remove from oven. Add cheese; stir until melted.
Sprinkle with breadcrumbs if desired.

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