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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, go poking around in language’s wardrobe and end up talking to a faun and it’s SO COLD until a lion who is a metaphor for Christ brings the summer heat...
Last episode we learned all about compiling recipes, turning food into words. This time, we meet someone who turns words into food. (Not like Alphabetti Spaghetti - different.)
On with the show.
KATE YOUNG: I made a treacle tart, is the kind of beginning of this story, and the treacle tart was a thing that I made because it's Harry Potter's favourite dessert. And that sounded like a good review of a thing I had never eaten and thought contained treacle - which it doesn't. It has golden syrup.
KATE YOUNG: Yeah, it's a lie right there in the title.
HZ: Did you know that before you made it?
KATE YOUNG: Well I just read lots of recipes and just kept going like "Surely, maybe this is the modern way of making a treacle and maybe I'll find one that has a treacle in it," but there's no recipe for a treacle tart with treacle in it.
HZ: Pie of lies.
KATE YOUNG: Yeah. Pie of lies. It's all golden syrup.
HZ: This is Kate Young, a writer and cook who a few years ago left her homeland Australia and moved to England and eventually started writing a blog, and then a Guardian column and then books, as Little Library Cafe: she’d figure out how to cook foodstuffs and even full meals that she’d spotted in novels. Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake from Matilda; Edmund’s Turkish delight from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; the New Year’s Day turkey curry from Bridget Jones’s Diary; dinner for two from Anna Karenina…
HZ: When you were like, "I'm going to make Harry Potter's favourite dessert", was it just wanting to enter into the mood of the books?
KATE YOUNG: Yeah. I was in a really tricky place where I'd been in the UK five years and knew that it was where I wanted to live and knew that it was the right place. But at the same time I was really homesick, and really disconnected from a family that I was really close to growing up and still am close to now but in a very different, more technological way.
HZ: Non-geographically close.
KATE YOUNG: Non-geographical, yes exactly. And so it was this link to a childhood that felt very safe and very welcoming and warming, and like the England that I hoped I would find, which in some ways I did and in other ways - and often better ways - I didn't. I do love living here, but there are some times when reconnecting with childhood felt like a really protected, good thing to do. So there's a lot of children's literature in the early bits of the blog. It's become more diverse and more international and more complex as time has gone on. But the first months were very much like, “I’m homesick and lonely, I'm going to make children's food from books that I loved as a child.” It is this really visceral connection to the books we grew up reading and the food we grew up eating and how that connects us to bigger stories and wider stories. I think food always for me has been quite rooted in emotion and in a connection with home and with history and with my family and all of these things. So much of my understanding of food, and what it is and what it does, is the bits of it that make me want to eat, the bits of it that make me want to be at that table with those people having that thing again that we used to eat. And so I try and just put that in and and have it there so that people feel that sense of wanting to be in that room eating that thing, because that's what makes you pick up a cookbook and cook something from it.
HZ: Kate’s recipes don’t just evoke her own mood or circumstances that match the food, but also the fictional characters that inspired her to make it.
KATE YOUNG: When did the characters in this story eat the food? Because there's lots of things like there's a cold apple pie for breakfast and there's sausage rolls for midnight feasts. Cold apple pie could just as easily be a dessert, it could be a dinner table thing. But because the Railway Children eat it for breakfast, it's in the breakfast chapter. And so we sat down and went, "how are we going to do this? We're going to do it based on the time of day that the characters are eating that thing in the book." And that connects it much more to the story. That allows me to tell that story about why you would eat apple pie for breakfast, or why Pippi Longstocking is making pancakes for breakfast or why the creamed haddock on toast is an evening feast because Gwenda, the character in Sleeping Murder, is not allowed to eat it for breakfast. The woman who makes her food in her house refuses to bring her fish in bed for breakfast, so she has it for supper instead.
HZ: When you're reading a book what makes something a good recipe to try versus one that isn't?
KATE YOUNG: Sometimes it's immediately apparent that this is the thing I absolutely want to eat. Maybe it's because the character in that scene is my favourite character from that book - there's no reason that sausage rolls should be a thing from Harry Potter, but Neville's my favourite character, so I wanted to make the sausage rolls that he drops a platter of at the Goblet of Fire party. So I either connect to the moment that I feel enters you into that world really nicely, or I can connect with the food specifically where it feels like the right meal for these characters. But there's also levels of practicality to it where there are lots of roast chickens in literature and there's lots of toast for supper meals in literature; and there are some things that you don't need a recipe for, and some things that you do and some things that I could say that the recipes from 15 different stories. So the seed cake from The Hobbit could just as easily have been the seed cake from Jane Eyre or the seed cake from it pops up in loads of things because it's a pretty common thing.
HZ: Classic 19th century cake.
KATE YOUNG: Classic 19th century cake. It is also in At Bertram's Hotel, the Agatha Christie novel, and it's this sort of homage to an older England, an older time.
HZ: The trouble with the food in Agatha Christie books is that it might be laced with poison.
KATE YOUNG: Quite often it is, and that is a tricky thing that you have to get around.
HZ: Do you ever add a bit of almond extract to get that cyanidey flavour?
KATE YOUNG: Agatha Christie is one of my favourite things and so I do come back to her quite often, and because so many of her stories are about families and about domesticity, there is loads of food in them. Not just the food that poisons people, but there are lots of meals where people sit down and and all around the table there's accusations flying or there's this sort of tension brewing but people have to sit down and eat. The wonderful thing about reading books about people interacting in daily life is that there pretty much is always going to be some food.
HZ: And Poirot is often at fancy dinners.
KATE YOUNG: He loves a fancy dinner. Big fan of it. Big fan of a country house and a fancy dinner and somebody paying his way.
HZ: He's just a grifter isn't he?
KATE YOUNG: He is a grifter. He goes from house to house grifting.
HZ: So then what's the process when you've when you thought, "Oh, I'd like to eat what they're eating in those pages," how do you then develop that? Because sometimes it's just a passing mention.
KATE YOUNG: Often it's just a passing mention. I've had a couple of like quite embarrassingly like silly connections to a passing mention, one of which has made its way into the next book, which is the five orange pips that get sent to a character in a Sherlock Holmes story became a blood orange cake because the five orange pips represented death and I was like "Oh blood oranges, oh cake, oh this is great." The characters aren't eating cake. There is no reason that should be a thing. I try and have a balance between something that is faithful and feels like the right interpretation of that recipe but also is something you're going to want to cook in 2019 with ingredients that are readily available in a regular supermarket. So it is a hard balance to strike because any literature that is pre-19th century, and even in the 19th century, cooking methods were quite different. So the roast goose that the Cratchits have on Christmas Day when Scrooge is looking in through the window with the Ghost of Christmas Present, that goose would have been cooked on a spit. Nobody's going to cook goose on a spit if I say to do that in a recipe. And also I'm not going to build a spit and cook a goose on a spit to test that recipe. That's just not how my life in a flat works; it's just not the reality today. And so although I went back and read cookbooks from the time and looked at how people were doing things and looked at what ingredients were available, I then have to make it work now. And that feels like the most important thing. Because I'm not a food historian and I don't want the book to be full of recipes that sound good but you never cook because they're not accessible. I want it to work. And so as much as possible I go back and read and have all that research behind it. But I know that my main thing is just making it something you want to eat.
HZ: Occasionally accessibility goes out the window, like with Kate’s complicated recipe to make Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight bars as featured in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, complete with hand-made wrappers.
KATE YOUNG: It's a lot of fun to serve my 12 year old self who is desperate to try that thing - and that nobody sells because it is a magical thing. It is a nonexistent entity. And the thing about the Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight is nobody has written to me and said that recipe on the blog works, it's great, because it takes like four hours, nobody is going to make it. But that particular post is as much about the sort of wonder and joy of that as it is something I actually expect somebody to make.
HZ: When you do things like recreate the Wonka bar, that's a magical thing to do. It felt like the sort of rip in between reality and fantasy.
KATE YOUNG: Yes. And that is a lot of fun. Food is such a good entry point, even in a fantasy land, because you can recognize those bits - I've never eaten dinner with some anthropomorphic beavers, but I have had fish and potatoes on a cold night. And so there's a way into those stories that are quite fantastical and I think that way is food.
HZ: It's amazing to me how you managed to use food to cross like time and huge geographical distances and enter into fictional worlds.
KATE YOUNG: Yeah. I think that's been the most fun, this sense that I can travel through what these characters are eating and what they're doing, and travel to places, to countries I've never been, but also to fantastical worlds that I've never been to and versions of this world that feel very different to my own or are 200 years older than this or one hundred years in the future or any of those things, and now, reading books, regardless of what I'm reading, I am reading it with a slight eye of "Where's the food?"
HZ: Kate Young is a writer and cook. Her recipes will make you want to read a lot of books and cook a lot of things, and you can find them at the littlelibrarycafe.com, her book The Little Library Cookbook is out now, and her new book The Little Library Year will be out in a few weeks’ time, so preorder your copy now.
And in today’s Minillusionist, we find out how Kate handles it if the food in the novel is disgusting, or poisonous, or illegal.
HZ: What if the food's kind of horrible? Do you think, "Can I reclaim this?"
KATE YOUNG: One of my favourite recipes in the first book is the crab and avocado salad from The Bell Jar.
HZ: That turned out badly. They all had a bad lunch.
KATE YOUNG: They all got food poisoning. And it's because they laid out these beautiful platters of avocado and crab salad and then put them under hot lights and took photos of them, and then everybody got food poisoning and were really ill. And I went, "I'm going to make that better."
HZ: Finally going to right that wrong.
KATE YOUNG: Yeah, absolutely.
HZ: But in extreme cases, she couldn’t make the food now - it’s illegal. But Kate didn’t let that deter her from trying to cook the meal from one of her favourite novels, Babette’s Feast.
KATE YOUNG: What is really interesting is how food is talked about in books and how much you can take from a word or a vague description of a meal compared to how complex it is to recreate, for example, Babette's Feast, which is an entire novella about one meal; it's got a couple of small chapters of introduction but essentially the entire book is this woman from France who's become a refugee, who moves to another country and wins ten thousand francs in the French lottery and makes this extraordinary feast. And the whole book is the story of her making this feast. And so that's been quite an interesting thing to try and honour that, as well as to honour the one line or one word mentions of food - because there's such specificity in the ingredients she uses, in where she sources them from, in how long that part of the recipe takes, in all of those things. But also lots of the food she makes is illegal now. So she makes a turtle soup, which you can't do. She makes ortolan in pastry, which you can't do any more because that's a horrible way to kill a bird.
HZ: Ortolans were a delicacy in France. The small birds were captured and kept in dark cages, gorging on grain until they doubled in weight, then drowned in Armagnac, roasted for eight minutes, then eaten feet first by diners wearing cloths over their faces as their own blood, scratched from their gums by the bird’s bones, commingled with the mouthful. Killing ortolans is now illegal across the European Union.
KATE YOUNG: Yeah. it's quite a full on thing to go. But the meal, the description of the meal and description of what it does to the characters is so extraordinary that I think it's a meal I wanted to recreate, and it's what we did for my 30th birthday. I had twelve friends round for dinner and we had a version of Babette's Feast that was legal. The food specifically we had to shift and change, and it's hard to do that when there's so much detail and and retain that sense that I'm honouring the book. But it felt like the right thing to do.
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