onsdag 26. mars 2014

Conversations Between Literature, Food and Travel

Literature gives us the opportunity to revisit a time when the saying ‘the world is your oyster’ was not yet invented. Two centuries ago the world of travel had not developed to a point where you could learn about new cultures by typing a search word into Google. Similarly, the cross-continental culinary experiences have reached a point of availability that offers you a trip abroad by introducing new foods to your pallet. Throughout the process of writing this blog I have explored various conversations between literature, food and travel. Whether it is to experiment with new culinary traditions, experience the atmosphere depicted in your favourite novel, or challenge your perception of the world, they all seem to have the ability to convert or support each other. By revisiting texts from previous centuries and looking back at episodes from my own travels I have forced myself to consider a traveller’s initial responses to new cultures’ customs.  Notions of fear, disgust, memories or pleasure all seem to be part of these responses. In fact, through studying the connections between literature, food and culture it shows that these emotional and sensory responses have always been present. Interestingly though, earlier narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s portrays how her reactions to encountering a new culture were brought upon her involuntarily, whereas recent literature and todays travellers’ seek the undiscovered and foreign by choice.

The volunteer traveller seeking the undiscovered at The Louvre - Paris.

Thank you for reading.

When curiosity was not an incentive for travel...

Lily Bart from The House of Mirth film adaptation.
20th century traveller - Lily Bart.

Modern day society’s guidebooks such as ‘The Lonely Planet’ and popular magazines like ‘Food and Travel’ demonstrates how today’s travellers explore other countries in order to engage with their culture. Yet, literature from the 19th and 20th century show that travel has not always been constructed around the curiosity to learn about what is out there. Throughout Edith Wharton’s novel House of Mirth (1905) she conveys how travel was most commonly practiced by the upper class in their pursuit of pleasure. As the main character, Lily Bart struggles to choose between a relationship based on mutual love in the middleclass or a loveless relationship in the upper-class she undertakes several journeys that eventually renders her alone in her own deathbed. Unlike travel narratives such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Improvisatore (1835) which pays great attention to the landscape and cultures the protagonist encounters, Wharton’s novel merely uses travel to demonstrate how 20th century genteel company utilized it as a way of seeking escape or luxury.  As Lily joins her friends on a cruise around the Mediterranean it appears to convey how Lily’s travels are restricted to reflecting her own personal tropes:  

The cruise itself charmed her as a romantic adventure. She was vaguely touched by names and scenes amid which she moved, and had listened to Ned Silverton reading Theocritus by moonlight, as the yacht rounded the Sicilian promontories, with a thrill of the nerves that confirmed her belief in her intellectual superiority. But the weeks in Cannes and Nice had really given her more pleasure. The gratification of being welcomed in high company (chapter 2.). 

This passage illustrates how the 20th century upper-class traveller was ‘vaguely touched’ by the new scenery and culture he/she encountered. As Lily states that it gives her a feeling of ‘intellectual superiority and ‘high company’’ it shows how she is not concerned with cultural engagement. Today’s travel environment however, does not seem preoccupied with travel as a representation of class distinction, but it is rather highly influenced by budget travellers, such as backpackers and their undying curiosity to learn about new cultures and their customs.  

Low budget backpackers. 
21st century traveller - hiking in Norway.
Work Cited:  

Whatron, E. The House of Mirth. U.S.A., Middleton Classics, 1905. 

tirsdag 25. mars 2014

Recreating an Atmosphere

As I have been writing this blog about literature, food and travel I have found that there is one thing they all have in common; the ability to create memories. In the same way a dish can bring back memories from a place and the atmosphere it carried, the novel you took with you on holiday can also become an item that reminds you of that place and time. The concept of memories being evoked through food is frequently explored in Norah Ephron’s novel Heart Burn (1983). In this passage she conveys how memories of travel and food are carried out through the narrator’s writing:

I’ve gotten to the point in the story where I return to Washington, and that brings me to Siegels; and therefore it brings me to the linguine alla cecca recipe. The four of us went to Italy a few years a go, and Julie Siegel and I managed to wangle the recipe from the proprietor of a restaurant in Rome. We also spent quite a lot of time after working on Pesto, because we went to Italy in 1977, and in 1977 everyone was eating pesto. (101)

As for the linguine alla cecca it’s a hot pasta with a cold tomato and basil sauce, and it’s so light and delicate that it’s almost like eating a salad. It has to be made in the summer, when tomatoes are fresh. Drop 5 large tomatoes into boiling water for one full minute. Peel and seed and chop. Put into a large bowl with 1\2 cup olive oil, a garlic clove sliced in two, 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, salt and hot red pepper flakes. Let it sit for a couple of hours, then remove the garlic. Boil one pound of linguine, drain and toss with the cold tomato mixture. Serve immediately. (101)

The way in which the narrator incorporates her recipe as a part of her narrative seems to convey how the recipe was a part of what constructed the atmosphere during her stay in Italy. As she expresses the sensory experience that she associates with the ‘linguine alla cecca’, she appears to be reminiscing the time she spent in Italy, which seems to encourage the idea that maybe this atmosphere can be recreated. However, she does specify that it may only be done  ‘in the summer’, as that is the best time to get the fresh tomatoes.

Conveniently, I spent a couple of weeks in Italy two years ago, and I see this as a golden opportunity to attempt to recreate one of the many delicious meals I was served in one of Toscana’s many homely and fruitful gardens.  The following recipe and photos will demonstrate my humble attempt (including failures) to re-fabricate it:

Starter: Tomato and Mozzarella slices, served on Garlic bread, with optional Rocket leaves and Balsamic vinegar.

Main: Italian Feta-cheese meatballs, served with Tagliatelle pasta and Herb infused Tomato sauce.

Walnut bread, tomatoes, rocket leaves, garlic, and the mozzarella which I forgot to include in this photo. 

Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella in the thin slices before you layer them on a plate for serving. 

Cut the bread into healthy sized slices and chop two garlic cloves until you are tired of chopping.

Rub the garlic onto the bread slices.

Pop them in the preheated oven (200 degrees) for about 10 minutes.

Add the optional rocket leaves and balsamic vinegar if you fancy it. 

Serve whilst cold and fresh.

Since by bread burnt I did not have the option to layer the tomato and mozzarella on top of the bread.
However, it turned out to be a good thing, as it meant I had more room for the main dish.


Mix 500 grams of beef mince, 1 egg and 1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper and Italian herb mix. 

Add about 100 grams of diced classic feta cheese

To smoothen the mix, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and pour the same amount into the heated pan.

Form the meatballs into golfball-like shapes before you put them in the pan. 
Fry them until their brown all around (not burnt, like some of mine are)

Add two cans of garlic infused chopped tomatoes.

Let is simmer, with a little boil to it until the meatballs are cooked all the way through (about 30 min).

Add a teaspoon of salt, pepper, oregano and Italian herb mix for extra flavour. 

Have a well deserved glass of red wine whilst you wait.

Cook the fresh pasta for 4 minutes before serving.

Serve hot with a few green leaves on top to make it look extra yummy.

Was the recreation successful?

Before I reveal the result I want to show you a few photos to demonstrate which atmosphere I was aiming to refabricate: 

The fruitful garden where I was served a wide range of delicious Italian meals.

Prosecco in-between the dishes.  

The family's seasonal dining room enclosed by passionfruit trees.

As I am sure you all have figured out by now, my attempt to recreate the Italian atmosphere through cooking was unachievable. Although I must admit that the food was delicious, and my Waitrose purchased red tablecloth did add to the atmosphere, there was no denying the fact that I was still stuck with the dishes at the end of the night. I guess there is something to what Nora Ephron wrote in her novel about the ‘linguine alla cecca’ having to be cooked in the summer when the tomatoes are fresh. My attempt to refabricate not only an Italian meal, but the atmosphere of peak summer time in Toscana does seem a bit ridiculous in hindsight, especially when I did so in a student flat in Roehampton which could not possibly have been any further from the real thing.

Work Cited:

Ephron, N. Heart Burn. London: Virago Press, 2013.