Beyond the Age of Innocence: Reading Edith Wharton While Planning Dinner

Books have always made me hungry (which perhaps really says more about me than the literature). When I heard nursery rhymes I demanded hot cross buns. When I could read on my own and discovered the Little House books I requested corn bread (to which my Brazilian mother just shrugged). And when I read Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, well, you guessed it, I went into a chocolate frenzy. Fueled by a literary appetite I sprinkled red pepper on hot chocolate, devoured bars of vegan, rain forest approved of dark candy and meditated on chocolate mousse.

I could go on and on. When I fell in love with The Secret Garden I brewed tea and served it to myself in my tiny china English tea set. (I still have the tea set. But I also have several large sized pots, including a beautiful Wedgewood pot that my brother once gave to me.)

And Melville. Is it even possible to read Moby-Dick without thinking of chowder? (Mrs. Hussey at the Spouter-Inn offered two varieties–“clam or cod.” Fortunately, because I really like chowder, I have a delicious vegan version of corn chowder. (And this truly is fortunate, because one of the many mysterious things I love about Moby-Dick is the way it endows the white whale and all creatures with consciousness. The novel makes a claim against the superiority of humans and painfully depicts the suffering of sentient beings.) But more about chowder later.

 

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I have to say that  the books that have made me think about food in the most elaborate ways–and that have caused me to spend countless hours plotting (most often imaginary) dinner parties are the (desperately sad) novels of Edith Wharton. And there’s nothing like party food to cheer a soul up.

 

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In Edith Wharton they’re always having parties, big parties. Even when the occasion is to separate the (believed to be) adulterous husband from his too Euro style mistress, and his put-upon wife is pregnant, there’s a dinner fete. And even when poor Lily Bart (my favorite heroine of all) is about to kill herself, she still stops by for a cup of good tea. In Wharton dinner parties are the occasion of betrothals and break-ups, of cynical acceptance of one’s fate and of the innocent’s initiation into society. And who could disagree with the concept that a good meal always improves things?  In Wharton the dinners are vast banquets, with multiple soups, canvas-backs (whatever they are–a kind of duck I think), fish courses, meat platters, pastries, cheese courses and ices. (No wonder those people suffered from dyspepsia.) With music! And dancing!

There are no ducks at my table (for obvious reasons). The desire to eat one’s self into a seventeen course stupor has dimmed a bit in the past decades.  Yet, I remain attached to the idea formal dining. Of course my meat eating friends insist that the limitations of vegan cuisine make this difficult (and they relegate us to the corner with a badly made bean burger or a hodgepodge salad). Mais non!

I entertain myself by composing menus that would satisfy both the hungry vegan and the stately Wharton aficionado.

 

Menu #1

Deep Fried (I use an air fryer) Polenta Rounds with Brandied Mushrooms

Hearts of Palm Salad (I’m from California. We do salad early in the meal. Duh.)

Whole Wheat Phyllo (Egg and Butter Free Please) Purses filled with Burgundy White Beans and Wild Rice

Sauteed Spinach With Nuggets of Yam

Vegan Coconut Ice Cream (Either make your own or buy it.) with Seasonal Fruit Compote

Menu #2

Empanadas (I use egg-free wonton skins) filled with Soft Vegan Cheese and Olives (I use Kite Hill. I also use an air fryer for these but traditionally they are deep fried.)

Vegan Caesar Salad (Oh She Glows has a great recipe.)

Hot Peanut Butter Noddles with Water Chestnuts, Scallions and Greens

Pineapple Sorbet with Fried Plantains (again, the air fryer)

I imagine dancing and a soundtrack by James Brown, Cold Play and Scarlatti.

It’s time to eat. (Right now I just have a peanut butter sandwich.)

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