Friday, April 10, 2009

Food in a Historical Novel

I just wrote about my positive reaction to Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye here: "The Pale Blue Eye: A Novel"

The author, as far as I can tell, did a very good job with historical details about military training, about the life of Edgar Allan Poe, and about rural 1830s America. I was quite interested in the many meals he described -- home cooking, tavern cooking, and the institutional food of the captive student audience at West Point. The food details illustrate the vivid way that the author creates the atmosphere of this enjoyable book.

Benny the tavern keeper, whose establishment is a frequent locale for the action, makes a "flip" -- "the hot iron had just been plunged into its eggs-and-ale bath -- and the air cracked with caramel, and a fire shivered in the hearth, and before I knew it, I was sitting at the counter, and the missus was slicing up her roast turkey, and Benny was pouring the flip into a pewter flagon..." (p. 54)

In the parlor of an officer, the narrator, Augustus Landor, is served "johnny cakes and beef dodgers," along with tea. (p. 69) In another officer's parlor, "we drank coffee larded with lumpy cream, and ate dodger cakes and pickled oysters. The scent of Molly's pot roast tickled the air." (p. 124) Note: Johnny cakes and various "dodgers" appear to be made from fried dough -- maybe like a light pancake, I think. Corn dodgers are still on menus from time to time.

The students also offered Landor a feast -- though in secret, with the windows covered with blankets. "Bread and butter had been smuggled from the mess hall and potatoes from the officers' mess, a chicken had been hooked from someone's barnyard, and a basket of speckled red apples had been claimed from Farmer de Kuiper's orchard." (p. 147)

The staff medical doctor -- a major character -- provides a contrast to the "dismal fare" in the cadet mess, according to Landor. "The hoe cakes and waffle cakes were of the first order and the pears, I was delighted to ascertain, were liberally spiked with brandy." (p. 165) At dinner with the doctor's family, Landor ate "roasted canvasback with cabbage, peas, and stewed apples. There must have been bread, too, for I have a distinct memory of Dr. Marquis cleaning his plate with it, and I remember, too, the way Mrs. Marquis, prior to eating, removed her gloves inch by inch, as though she were sliding out of her own skin." (p. 250)

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