Monday, March 12, 2012

To Eat or Not To Eat

Traditionally, Lent is a time of fasting and repentance that is commonly practiced by giving up a favorite food or habit. When I think of this behavior, I always have the image in my mind of the mayor of the little French town in which Vianne Rocher opened a chocolate shop just across from the church during the weeks before Easter in the movie Chocolat. In my mind's eye I can see the suffering man eating his measly dinner, then finally caving in and almost drowning himself in chocolate in the store window. Giving up a little food would be a good thing for me in many ways, and if I did this incredible thing I would also have to avoid reading books about delicious cooking.

The Cooking School Murders and The Baked Bean Supper Murders by Virginia Rich were the first books I remember reading with recipes in the back. This was back in the early 1980s. A decade later I found Tamar Myers's Pennsylvania Dutch series that featured Magdalena Yoder, the owner of a Mennonite inn in Hernia, Pennsylvania. She made me laugh when she said that she came from a family with so much intermarriage that she was probably her own aunt, niece or cousin and could have a family picnic if she went outside to eat all by herself. I did try one or two of the recipes that Myers included in her early books, but they all failed dismally. The one I wanted to succeed most was a form of chocolate pie.

Spaghetti in Ink
It is always intriguing to read about the food my favorite protagonists eat and some of it would be perfect Lenten fare because I would have no trouble passing it up. Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano loves his seafood but I would give his pasta with squid ink a pass. He always names his dinners in Italian which I always look up, sometimes to my dismay.

On the other hand, Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur Sveinsson loves his boiled sheep's head, which I initially took for a cauliflower dish, but the real thing is quite popular in Iceland. Yes, put that on my menu for Lent.

Gerald Samper, in the book Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson, declares that a good dish must remind us that the world is an unexpected place full of unfamiliar challenges. Some of his recipes include kidneys in toffee, lychees on toast with peanut butter and hard cheese, and any animal or other creature you might see in your back yard skinned and eaten with a mixture of a variety of fruits and veggies, some of which should be getting old and possibly maggot-ridden. For the extra flavor and protein, you know. These recipes would put me on a starvation diet and it would be so great for my body and soul.

The most curious cuisine that I have come across in my reading was in the book Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong. I knew that food is an important aspect of Chinese life, but what I learned in this novel was that sometimes people ate certain foods to produce certain moods and to reinforce the power in their life.

Mandarin Dress
In this story, a young woman has been found on the safety island in the middle of a busy Shanghai road. She was wearing a red mandarin dress made a few decades past. Police Inspector Chen Cao is engaged on a case of real estate corruption and, at the same time, he is trying to pursue his literature studies. The case is turned over to Detective Yu Guangming, who is Chen’s partner. Everybody is startled when a second young woman is found dumped and displayed in a similar fashion. A serial killer is the first one of his kind in Shanghai, and the public is stirred by the loss of two women in their flowering age. Chen must put his mind back on the job at hand, and a friend arranges a meal at a special restaurant that he will share with several successful men.

This unusual dinner that Chen Cao was invited to in order get him on the right path was a cruel food experience. This was a multi-course meal that took several hours. The menu included fried sparrow tongues followed by live caged monkey brains. The diners apparently enjoy the live brain fresh and bloody. The live caged monkey with shaven head was brought to the table. There was also live shrimp in wine. In this dish the shrimp become intoxicated as they swim in the wine. They are fried alive at the table and they hop about on the skillet. There are a few more dishes in this vein, but these few choices are also enough to put us off food for a while.

Drunken Shrimp
This is the best of the Inspector Chen series so far in my reading of the series. Chen's approach to solving this case has less to do with forensics and more with history. This version of traditional Chinese dress that originated in the mid 1600s was created in the 1920s, restyled from the original baggy outfit for courtesans and celebrities.

For those of you who have chosen to give up a favorite thing for Lent, I hope it wasn't reading. Whatever you are denying yourself, hang in there. Before you know it, the 40 days of penance will be over and menus can return to comfort food and satiety.


  1. MC, RED MANDARIN DRESS is in my TBR pile, but skimming over that dinner seems a good idea.

    Your Tamar Myers comment reminded me of the old vaudeville refrain "And I'm my own grandpa." Much to my surprise, both WikiPedia and Youtube list it.

  2. I just checked out one of the youtube selections and it was done using sim figures to explain the relationships. It was a howl! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I would paste the link here if I was on my Mac but here at work that would befuddle my computer. Maybe it is I that am befuddled. It is not fair to put blame on inanimate objects.

  3. Interesting post. I always appreciate your writing - thank you.