My two cents

Books, Writing, and Reading Free Associations

Writing As An Adventurous Foodie: Delectable Dishes in Fiction I've Written

Many book promoters tell women writers to occasionally blog about food and recipes. The idea is to make us more accessible, more like our readers. It’s part of that “branding” game we’re advised to play.


Except for one post a few years ago, I’ve never been much tempted to write about food in my author website. Not that it’s a topic I don’t care about.


Actually, I do love food and concocting dishes and I share this love with characters in my books. Justin, the culinary whiz-nerdy hero of Welcome Reluctant Stranger (Book 3, Between Two Worlds) takes after his mother who is a great cook. The mother is the heroine in Hello Agnieszka (Book 2, a prequel set in the seventies) where, true to her Polish roots, she makes bigos—a beef stew—and pierogis—like potstickers but often boiled and can have either sweet or savory fillings.


I used to write about food in the first blog I started in 2010, but that blog mysteriously went AWOL. I’m slowly resurrecting those posts in my new blog Artsy Rambler. Many of those posts were not on cooking but about the food I find in places I’ve traveled. I wrote a series of posts, for instance, on my experience eating and cooking in Paris when I was there for a few months in 2012.


I seldom give recipes when I write about specific dishes. Why? Well, I’m something of an adventurous foodie. This is what that means to me: I will taste many things strange to the American palate at least once (though I drew the line on chili grasshoppers in Oaxaca—actually I think I tried one teensy piece with my eyes closed). Smelly cheese does not make me pinch my nose (despite my very sensitive olfactories) and animal entrails do not make me puke. I am also an eyeball-it, use-what-you-have, taste-as-you-go kind of cook so I take chances when making any dish. Except in baking cakes, this approach often works for me.


Justin (Welcome Reluctant Stranger), like me, is an adventurous foodie. Despite his Polish mother, for instance, he adapts to Leilani’s (the heroine) palate and makes a fusion dish of meatballs with Indonesian peanut sauce on fetuccini. In Hello, My Love (Book 1), his mother Agnieszka serves tagine, a Moroccan dish. She’s also an adventurous foodie.


class=My foray into food in fiction reaches a new height in my latest novel, Sugar and Spice and All Those Lies. Gina , the main character, cooks for a restaurant that serves haute cuisine.


I have eclectic tastes in food as do several of my characters. It’s actually easy to be sucked into the foods of many cultures if, like me, you live in an area enriched by many ethnic groups.


Cooking As High Art, Eating As Sensuous Experience And Food in Fiction

Babette's Feast & Other Anecdotes of Destiny - Karen Blixen, Isak Dinesen

In the film Babette’s Feast, based on a story of the same title by Isak Dinesen a highly-gifted chef schooled in cooking as high art escapes war-torn Paris. She finds herself living in gentle servitude to two good and pious  but dour, nearly  joyless, sisters.


With no inkling who Babette is, the sisters instruct her on preparing their diet of long-simmered dried fish.  Definitely not cooking as high art and probably offensive to the talented chef.  Babette says nothing and does not show off what she knows.  Until she wins money in a lottery.


She doesn’t take the money to live a little more luxuriously elsewhere. Instead, she spends it on the makings of a feast that she prepares with much care.  The feast is an unexpected gift to the people of this cold and gray seaside village. It’s nothing like they had ever known and something they’ll never forget.


I have watched this film a few times, mostly for its memorable dinner scene. The expressions and comments of diners show them clearly savoring the dishes, allowing tastes to linger sensuously on their taste buds.  No one rushes to gobble up dishes. Instead, diners pause and pay attention. The dishes fill them with wonderment.


But the sumptuous dinner does much more than  celebrate food’s appeal to the senses. Depending on their orientation, readers/writers have  interpreted  Babette’s Feast in religious, artistic, or psychological terms (for example, this article by Priscilla Ferguson).


At infrequent dinners we’ve had at a local restaurant I find myself replaying the dinner scene in Babette’s Feast.  Only, my version of it is more intense and full of happy surprises:  Our feast is, after all, real and not vicarious.


The menu is inventive and includes uncommon ingredients used in uncommon ways. Once seated, diners have to put their fate in the chefs’ hands. You don’t get a printed menu (you do get one with the bill). You learn what you’ll have next when the server brings and describes each dish.  This may intimidate someone who likes to always be in control or isn’t adventurous about food.


The whole dinner unfolds in the manner of a full course French menu, You get small servings of amuse bouche, fish and meat courses, palate cleansers and dessert.  Each dish is a symphony of flavors, textures, and colors, with unexpected twists and ingredients.  For instance, a very light bay leaf mousse spooned over a mélange of variously textured citruses. Or tiny slices of sweet tart red beets on top of melting cauliflower puree. Or a sweet oyster shrouded in sea foam and contrasted with tiny slices of crunchy potatoes. Baby shrimp is fragrant with pea tendrils, chrysanthemum, and rhubarb. All dishes are created from a belief in cooking as high art.


Babette has been reincarnated at this restaurant, where chefs treat cooking as high art. It’s the only restaurant in the area with two Michelin stars.  Maître Chef James  and his staff love what they do. Like all gifted artists passionate about their medium, they push cooking as high as they can take it.


My experience at this restaurant has inspired my latest novel, Sugar and Spice and All Those Lies.


Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris: Celebration of Food or Satire?

The Belly of Paris - Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, Émile Zola

Les Halles in Paris—do you know it? Unless you’re into a bit of French history, you may not. It doesn’t exist anymore, demolished in 1969/70, its centennial year. It was a huge market, much of it housed in at least ten pavilions of glass and iron designed by Victor Baltard. Plus a big domed central pavilion that later became the Bourse de Commerce, the French stock exchange. Everything you could imagine to be edible could be found there, from fish, meats, and cheeses to fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

View of Les Halles in Paris taken from Saint Eustache upper gallery, c. 1870-80 (colour litho) by Benoist, Felix (1813-1896); Private Collection, out of copyright interior of dome

Les Halles has been called the “belly” of Paris, a name owed to Emile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), published in 1873, three years after the opening of Les Halles. It should be no surprise that the novel contains descriptions of the market’s offerings. Descriptions that are some of the lushest I’ve read and probably in greater profusion than in any other book. For those who love food, it’s a joy to read.

But the book isn’t just about the bounty (or glut) of the products the market yields. It’s, in fact, just one in a series of twenty books—maybe the largest of all time—chronicling the lives of the Rougon-Macqquart family. According to Brian Nelson’s Introduction to The Belly of Paris (Oxford World’s Classics). Zola intended the series to

“illustrate the influence of heredity and environment on a wide range of characters and milieus.”

Sounds like a psychological study (here’s another of another Victorian character)? Sure does, but in the form of fiction. The cycle or series places various members of this particular family at the core of each of the twenty books. In The Belly of Paris, that Rougon-Macquart is Lisa, the plump and beautiful, rosy, self-assured woman married to Quenu, the owner of a successful charcuterie. While her relatively simple-minded fat husband labors in the kitchen to make the products for the store, La Belle Madame reigns behind the counter.

The book, is so much more complex than it may appear on the surface and, like any great piece of art, each reader can potentially see in it something that’s unique to her particular perception. For me, one character that stood out is the young artist Claude, Lisa’s nephew, who returns as the main character in a subsequent book, L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece). He wanders around the markets in early mornings, admires the luscious colors of the produce and imagines painting them.

Claude may have been modeled after post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne, Zola’s friend from their childhood in Aix-en-Provence. Besides being a painter, Claude is something of a philosopher—a mouthpiece for Zola—as he theorizes about fat people swallowing up the thin ones. This clash of Fat vs. Thin is, in fact, a major theme throughout the whole book.

While the Fat prevails in Les Halles, some thin people do live around there. Aside from Claude, there is Florent, the unlikely hero. He brought up his younger half-brother, the fat charcutier Quenu who is devoted to him. Having escaped his exile in the prison of Cayenne (Devil’s Island) where he suffered constant deprivation of food, company, and sensory stimulation, you might think Florent would fatten himself up and thrive in Les Halles. But the abundance of food doesn’t make him salivate. It makes him want to puke. He’s a conscience-ridden ascetic who spends his hours thinking and writing about how to change things for the better. He threatens the status quo and the things that Lisa values. She becomes his silent, but powerful, enemy. In the end, Zola describes her:

She was a picture of absolute quietude, of perfect bliss, not only untroubled but lifeless, as she bathed in the warm air. She seemed, in her tightly stretched bodice, to be still digesting the happiness of the day before; her plump hands, lost in the folds of her apron, were not even outstretched to grasp the happiness of the day, for it was sure to fall into them. And the shop window beside her seemed to display the same bliss. It too had recovered; the stuffed tongues lay red and healthy, the hams were once more showing their handsome yellow faces,

The Belly of Paris is just as much about the characters—as richly-drawn as the produce—that inhabit Les Halles as it is about its life-giving (for the fat) but also nauseating (for the thin) bounty.

For a long time, French cuisine has been celebrated all over the world for its superior quality and craftsmanship. Every chef worth her salt wanted to master French culinary techniques. French gastronomy has been such an institution that UNESCO declared it an intangible cultural heritage in 2010, citing it as a “social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups.” A ritual and festive event using know-how linked to traditional craftsmanship.

Les Halles, I think, is both at the root of and an embodiment of French gastronomy, one that Emile Zola immortalizes in this sumptuous, biting book.


Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See is a modern day existentialist novel. A book in the tradition of Dostoevsky, although that may not be obvious right away.


The title alludes in different ways to the juvenile main protagonists of the novel, Marie Laure and Werner. For Marie Laure, the allusion is more literal. She is blind, from a congenital vision disorder. Nurtured by a loving father, she sees, not with her eyes, but with her ears, her nose and her fertile imagination.


For Werner, an orphan and part of Germany’s World War II youth indoctrination program, the allusion is more figurative and a little more complex. He chooses to be blind to the destructive effects of war because the program promises a way out of the coal mines―his inevitable future, asserted orphanage officials.

These two characters meet only at the end, but in so many ways, they are connected from the beginning. By time, if not by place. By their youth. By their intense need to know. By their extraordinary gifts. Finally, they meet as kindred spirits, drawn together by an illegal radio broadcast that cuts through prejudices and stereotypes, suspicions and enmities that divide people.

You cannot think of this novel in terms of a sweeping plot with several subplots. All the individual stories carry about equal weight, if not equal appeal: Marie-Laure moving through and surviving the war; Werner curbing a role in the war using his native gifts for electronics; the trajectory of the Sea of Flames diamond and the search for it by an obsessed German officer desperate to believe it would cure his decaying body; the healing of Marie-Laure’s great uncle, traumatized by his experience in the previous world war.

The setting for the story, the catastrophic event of the second world war, fits the meditative mood of the narrative. The characters live inside their heads a lot, not only about what they’re experiencing (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling), but also about what those experiences mean, what each individual life really means. The prose flows effortlessly and images are vivid. The novel reminds me of Terence Malick’s atmospheric, meditative war film, The Thin Red Line.

Ultimately, though, what I took away from the book is the author’s view of what life is all about, woven into the many themes of the novel and often expressed in the musings of characters. You feel the author throughout the story, editorializing about events, characters, scenes, time. For example:

That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?

Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? Deliverance? Extirpation?

To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.

But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?

The book is rich with such passages. A book to be read and savored more than once. As I intend to do and as I did with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamasov. Timeless and unforgettable.

The Portrait o a Lady: Henry James's Case Study of Isabel Archer

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James, Patricia Crick

When we first meet Isabel, she is in the prime of her youth—beautiful, irresistible to men (every male character seems to eventually fall in love with her), intelligent, poised, vibrant, hungry for life, and marching to her own drums. She has all the potential to be an exceptional woman. To remove the obstacles of poverty that can hinder realizing that potential, her admiring dying cousin, Ralph, shares half of his inheritance with Isabel who, of course, is unaware that she owes her wealth to him, instead of his father. Ralph believes that with this money, Isabel can do what she wants—marry (or not) as she pleases and live in a style and manner based only on her good judgment.


Isabel travels to satisfy her curiosity and to learn about the world in order to grow her mind. After a year or so of travel, she seems to think she has seen and learned enough. She thinks of marriage. She has already rejected the suit of a fine-looking Lord with “radical” views and who is liberal with his tenants—“half of England,” as someone joked. Among the eligible candidates, you get the feeling James might have considered him the best match for her own exceptional characteristics.


But Isabel chooses Osmond, a man who looks polished and impeccable on the surface but whose shallowness is evident to many people including her cousin Ralph. Although Isabel, generally values his judgment, she dismisses it in this case because Ralph confesses to being in love with her. Osmond is not rich and not seemingly interested in doing great deeds—someone relatively ordinary. It is a choice that seems out of character for Isabel. Is she afraid to be outshone by Lord Warburton? Does she think he is too good for her? Or, is there simply no physical attraction towards him?


In fact, Isabel has been duped into marrying Osmond by her friend, Madame Merle, with whom Osmond had an intimate history. Isabel proves to be naïve enough not to know that charming and worldly but calculating Madame Merle has worked her like a pawn. In this decision—probably the most important one in her life—Isabel appears to have squandered her gifts and exhibited poor judgment.


I am actually rather appalled and incredulous to see someone described as having superior attributes prove herself so dense. How is that possible? It seems to me inconsistent, from a psychological perspective. James does not enlighten us too much on Isabel’s choice. Maybe, to him, it is also a puzzle, but he does suggest that by this marriage, Isabel might think herself benevolent by bringing wealth to the man she is marrying. Does she, in fact, feel that she can maintain a certain level of freedom by marrying someone not quite so superior? Will marriage to a nobleman stifle her?


Once married, of course, both Madame Merle and Isabel’s chosen one show their true colors. He wants to conquer her spirits in the name of being the all-knowing authoritative husband. She does not take to that kind of treatment well, as we may expect, and a psychologist may say she responds by being passive aggressive. That is, by word and deed, she seems to comply with her husband’s wishes but by failing to produce what he wants of her, she actually undermines them.  It is a tug of war, barely disguised.


Isabel is profoundly unhappy—again, as we may expect—and her unhappiness is aggravated when she confronts the truth about why her husband married her. And yet, in the end, unhappy as she is, she chooses to suffer because she believes in the sanctity of marriage and considers herself bound to it. Remaining married to this man is looking more like the sacrifice of her life, although in her mind, it may be a heroic and romantic one. To my admittedly more modern view, Isabel is a coward. Not at all what I would expect from someone intelligent, vibrant and with a mind of her own.


I find it curious that Henry James would title his book The Portrait of a Lady. That definitive article “The” is what bugs me, especially coming from a man who never married and who may not have had lasting relationships with women. Why not A Portrait…?. Surely, Victorian ladies were not all like Isabel Archer.  Two of them, in fact, are relatively well-drawn in the novel—Madame Merle and Henrietta Stackpole.


Maybe, the point Henry James is trying to make is this: That the real Lady of Victorian times was, in fact, a tragic figure, possessing contradictions that can confound us. She could have wonderful attributes or, at least, wonderful potential, but she could waste them and sacrifice her own happiness in the name of being a lady.


My interpretation of the end of the novel does not jive with the more optimistic one of some who believe that Isabel, in fact, will finally be delivered from her misery, after an earlier suitor, Caspar Goodwood, shows her escape is possible (see, for instance, The Reading Life: Henry James in a Panic. Much has been made of this passage:

She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

To me, “a very straight path” embodies the sense in which James thought of Isabel as the lady—one so exquisitely attuned to society’s standards of demeanor that she would follow them at all costs and reject the chance she has to leave a disastrous existence. By dint of personality and/or circumstance, Henrietta Stackpole and Madame Merle could not or did not choose to be so bound with those conventions. So, perhaps, by James’s—and Victorian society’s—definition, neither could have been “the lady”.


Victorian novels have heroines with more chutzpah than Isabel. Some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s heroines, for instance. You may argue that they are not in the same privileged class and, therefore not as beholden to conventions. But if you look at real figures, you’ll find some women of the period with feminist leanings, including a few who inherited money. Were they “ladies?” If Isabel Archer was “the portrait of a lady,” then perhaps they were not. Thankfully.


Heartache and the specter of revenge follow when sparring partners spend the night together two days before he weds someone else. This modern-day pastiche of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell novels is an engaging romp into deep powerful love, with a good dose of realism and a twist of mystery.


click here for more info on the book

Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Shadow of the Wind. I’ve puzzled over this title. Technically, a wind would not have a shadow. Or, maybe, it does; but we need a sixth sense to see it. If so, this title is the best anyone could give this novel, although I must confess, I did not feel that way until I got almost towards the end of the book, 358 pages later, to be precise. I found my initially strong interest waning and actually nearly lost about 300 pages into the book. I put it aside and wondered if I’d pick it up again.

Spanish writer: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona...

Spanish writer: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, there was something about the beginning of the novel by Carlos Ruis Zafon that intrigued me. It hints at a mystery. But more than that, the novel is multi-layered, from the story within a story to the layers of subtext about life, about people, and about books of fiction and our relationship to them.

So, I picked it up again. I am glad I did. This novel reminded me once more of the ways in which fiction could be great. And why I read it. This is one of the best I have come across in a long time and yet, I cannot necessarily explain why. Greatness is probably impossible to understand and explain, anyway. If I read it a second time, I’m likely to find something in it I did not see before; or I might interpret the book differently.

One could see Gothic elements in the story, both in its plotlines—mystery, menace, obsessive romance—and, occasionally, in the style of narration. But, even in its translation to English (from Spanish), that sprinkling of Gothic seems to be thoroughly appropriate to the tale that is told. And it is told, not shown: You do not get a narrative of events as they unfold. What you get are recollections by people the narrator seeks out in his search for truth. This method served me quite well, at first, but it became increasingly frustrating to the point where I found myself reluctant to go back to it after setting it aside for the night.

My estrangement from the book lasted for some time. And yet, when I finally did finish reading it, I was awed by how engaging and masterfully written this book was.

Shadow Walk

Shadow Walk

The story within the story spans several decades from circa 1919 to 1955 and emerges from the quest of the narrator who, as a boy of ten immediately after the second world war, is allowed to choose one, and only one, book from a place called Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He selects Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, an unknown author. The choice is not at all fortuitous, as it will turn out. The book so intrigues the boy that he wants to find more books by the same author and, of course, to learn as much as he could about him. (Strikes a chord?) Here is, in fact, where the book begins as a story within a story.

This obsession by the youthful narrator continues into adulthood to about ten years later when most of the puzzles he comes across in his quest are understood, if not tied together. The enlightenment begins on page 359 (print copy) with the telling shifted to a female character who knew Julian intimately.

Impatient souls might balk at having to wade through so many pages first before the truly exciting part but this is where you begin to feel, in your bones, the greatness in this book. And you might find yourself eagerly devouring the remaining 150-some pages.

At the Summit of Tibidaboo

At the Summit of Tibidaboo

You also realize why the first 358 pages are important. They present the characters in the story (about Julian) within the story (the quest) of the narrator. Not only are these characters useful devices for the telling, they also work up your anticipation for the remainder of Julian’s tale. But probably more than those reasons, you see the ravages of time on these characters—ravages that, in one form or another, descend upon all of us, if we live long enough. Thus you see: This story within a story is ultimately about time, about how each person’s life spins across it; how events beyond our control can propel lives forward into a miserable existence; how time wreaks its havoc and memories are all we’re left of past time. In those dark wet days in Barcelona, in the shadow of fascism, a civil war, and a world war, misery visits nearly everyone; and time is unkind to them.

But this is also a story of hope. Hope that infuses three love stories: Obsessive and tragic between Julian and his Penelope (allusions to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey?); fresh and audacious between the young narrator and his Beatriz (allusions, perhaps, to Dante’s Beatrice?); and mystical and poignant between the author Julian and the narrator.

The last connection is the type that occurs between kindred spirits and reveals itself fully to the narrator only towards the end. It invites interpretations of reincarnation; or, maybe, it merely alludes to cycles of life repeated across time.  As repeated in the story of the narrator, so like Julian’s.  As it may be when  the narrator’s story comes to a full turn and he takes his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The novel ends in a phrase, by now full of meaning: “their steps lost forever in the shadow of the wind.”


The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

About three months ago, I got a copy of The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor. No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. The other Elizabeth Taylor. These are a couple of published reactions when articles are written about that other Elizabeth, a British writer in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, that shared name may be one big reason so many people have not heard of her. I, for instance, only discovered her, as I was googling for writers who write like Jane Austen.


Yes, she has been called the Jane Austen of the 50s and 60s by at least one other British novelist (award-winning Anita Brookner). I imagine she’s earned that comparison for her preoccupation with the ordinary domestic lives of the British middle class of her time, as well as for her incisive vision.

Ms. Taylor manages, in spare but elegant language, to tell you so much. To wit, the opening sentence of The Wedding Group:

The Quayne ladies, adjusting their mantillas, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.

She could have written this sentence several ways. For instance:

The Quaynes were a closely-knit family of Catholics, whose women went to church regularly. The Quayne ladies, observing the traditional custom of wearing veils, hurried across the courtyard to the chapel.

While this second version conveys what Ms. Taylor writes in her one sentence, her construction is arguably more graceful and pithy. Besides, it does more showing than telling and also exemplifies what Francine Prose calls energetic, specific (I would add “efficient”) use of language. I also think the choice of the word mantillas (from which I infer “Catholic”) is quite extraordinary. It is more evocative than veil, suggesting exoticism and grace.

Nothing truly sensational happens in this story about a Quayne daughter who attempts to escape the constricting atmosphere of her family and its tyrannical patriarch. It is a sort of coming of age, but you never feel that this young woman really matures. She does change, within her own limitations.

The other principal characters are just as intriguingly undefinable. You could say complex. They change, too, but not necessarily from their own initiative. Somehow that is all right because most of us don’t fully know ourselves and life does find us just bopping along. Life is like that. Or as the French say, “C’est la vie.”