A Book Lover’s Cookbook

Gourmet Girl - April 10, 2013

'This unique cookbook pairs recipes with a dizzying array of excerpts about food from great books'

Stuck at home recently due to a spring snowstorm, I came across a cookbook an old friend had given me one Christmas years ago that I had never properly looked at before.

I thumbed through its pages, full of recipes reflecting passages in celebrated works of literature, and I began to muse over the way that good writing has inspired great cooking. Not just the writing of Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin and other acclaimed food writers, but works that feature food as a main ingredient, at least for a paragraph or a page or two.

There are, of course, famous passages in books that are filled with enticing descriptions of food, from most of Dickens' sprawling novels to Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," Jane Austen's English teas and balls and the Southern feasts before the famine in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind.'

But this book, I realized, was unique. This book contained passages about food from a dizzying array of books—E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" and Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," Lewis Carroll's "Through The Looking Glass" and more—and  paired them with recipes inspired by each selected writing. Brilliant.

"The Book Lover's Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages that Feature Them," by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen (Ballantine Books, 2003) is the perfect book, if you're a bibliophile or a cook. It's filled with unique, often regional, recipes that I haven't seen anywhere else, like traditional Southern crackling corn bread, almond bacon wraps, Sober Shepherd's Pie, glazed onions with rosemary and honey, green tomato pie and orange marmalade layer cake.

"When characters deal with food, whether they're eating, cooking, dreaming, manipulating or suffering, they step off the page and connect with the reader," the authors write in the book's itnroduction. "These connections can evoke feelings of pleasure, admiration, revulsion or disgust depending on the situation... We delved back and forth between library and kitchen, amazed at the wealth of literature that offered scrumptuous derivations in food and pleased to find authors who cared enough to feed their characters well."

Here's a just a sampling from this wonderful book. Happy reading… and eating!

"When they had run and danced themselves dry, the girls dressed quickly and sat down to the fragrant tea. They sat o the northern side of the grove, in the yellow sunshine facing the slope of the grassy hill, alone in a little wild world of their own. The tea was hot and aromatic, there were delicious little sandwiches of cucumber and of caviare, and winy cakes." ~ D.H. Lawrence, "Women in Love"

Summer's Day Cucumber-Tomato Sandwiches

1 loaf sourdough or French bread, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch thick rounds
3 tomatoes, thinly sliced
Lemon pepper
¼ pound Swiss cheese, thinly sliced

Brush oil on each bread slice and layer with one slice of cucumber and one of tomato. Sprinkle with lemon pepper, add one slice of Swiss cheese and place the open sandwiches on a broiler pan lined with aluminum foil. Broil for just a few minutes, until cheese is melted.

"When the last crisp slice of bacon was gone, and the last allowance of corn pone devoured, the boys stretched themselves out on the grass, filled with contentment. They could have found a cooler place, but they would not deny themselves such a romantic feature as the roasting campfire." ~ Mark Twain, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"

Traditional Southern Crackling Corn Bread (Serves 6 to 8)

1 pound country-style bacon or pork rind, cut 1/3-inch thick
1 ½ cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 10-inch cast iron skillet, cook the bacon or pork rink over moderate heat until crisp, about 7 minutes. Drain on paper towels and chop when cool. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the drippings.

Wipe out the skillet and set it over low heat. Add the drippings and swirl to coat pan. In a medium bowl, combine cornmeal with flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, combine milk and eggs and add to the cornmeal mixture along with the butter. Stir just until cornmeal is moistened. Fold in bacon and pour the batter into the warm skillet.

Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden and toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm.

"In (Mammy's) large black hands was a tray upon which food smoked, two large yams covered with butter, a pile of buckwheat cakes dripping syrup, and a large slice of ham swimming in gravy. Catching sigh of Mammy's burden, Scarlett's expression changed from one of minor irritation to obstinate belligerency. In the excitement of trying on dresses she had forgotten Mammy's ironclad rule that, before going to any party, the O'Hara girls must be crammed so full of food at home they would be unable to eat any refreshments at the party." ~ Margaret Mitchell, "Gone With the Wind"

Fill "Er Up Buckwheat Pancakes (Makes 8 large pancakes)

1 cup buckwheat flour
½ cup oat flour
2 tablespoons cornmeal
½ cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons molasses stirred into 1 2/3 cups milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 egg yolks
2 egg whites, whipped until stiff but not dry
Fresh blueberries
Maple syrup

Combine all ingredients in order listed up to the egg whites and mix well. Fold in the whipped egg whites. Spoon batter onto greased griddle. Flip pancakes when batter is bubbled and edges are slightly dry, after cooking 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook until browned, about 1 minute. Serve topped with butter, blueberries and maple syrup.

"We decided to have a country Christmas, without any help from town…Grandmother hunted up her fancy cake-cutters and baked gingerbread men and roosters, which we decorated with burnt sugar and red cinnamon drops." ~ Willa Cather, "My Antonia"

Gingerbread Men (Makes 3 dozen cookies)

½ cup sugar
¼ cup butter or margarine, softened
¼ cup applesauce
½ cup molasses
¼ cup water
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon allspice
Raisins or red cinnamon candies, for decorating

Beat sugar, butter, applesauce and molasses in a large bowl. Add water and remaining dry ingredients and beat at medium speed until well blended. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out dough on a floured surface to ¼ inch thick and cut cookies using a gingerbread cookie cutter. Place cookies on ungreased baking sheet and decorate with raisons and/or cinnamon candies. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool then decorate with vanilla or lemon icing.