Monday, October 19, 2009

Keep the tarts coming

Fair warning: these pictures of a plum tart have little to do with a large chunk of this writing. (Let's say, in keeping even with the visuals, they represent less than one-quarter of the whole thing.)

Two of my favorite fiction writers are, incidentally, two of my favorite writers of food. (This is probably not as incidental as indicated by those commas.) They are, in particular order, Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway. Their writing styles are completely different: Nabokov's filled with fat, thick prose you have to wade in, for which you are constantly rewarded in the form of puns, portmanteaus, and subtle humor; Hemingway's shorn clean of excess adjectives, adverbs, and helpful hints as to whom is speaking in extended dialogues. Both, though, in their unique and ever-imitated but never-equaled styles, have managed to write, I think, some of the best damned descriptions of food and drink in the English language.

When I think back to For Whom The Bell Tolls, for instance, I think of, of course, the bridge-blowing-up-plan and the "did the earth move for ye, too?" part, but I also remember the wild rabbit stew and the brutal red wine of the Spanish mountainside. In The Sun Also Rises we have the infamous Lady Brett Ashley (what a cool name, good god), the woman who has "curves like the hull of a racing yacht", who eats little but can drink enough Champagne to put Churchill to shame. And then there's The Garden of Eden, published posthumously and thus never polished, or even finished, ostensibly the story of a young, recently married couple honeymooning in France and Spain, but really, I suspect, just an excuse to talk about poached eggs, fresh fish, absinthe, and lots of gin.

I've already mentioned one of my favorite food passages from one of my favorite books, Ada. That book is so full of food-lust I almost feel naughty carrying it around in public. From standard American cuisine ("'And you, Garden God, ring up room service -- three coffees, half a dozen soft-boiled eggs, lots of buttered toast, loads of--'") to high Russian fare (". . .zelyonϊya shchi, a velvety green sorrel-and-spinach soup, containing slippery hard-boiled eggs and served with finger-burning, irresistibly soft, meat-filled or carrot-filled or cabbage-filled pirozhki -- peer-rush-KEY, thus pronounced, thus celebrated here, for ever and ever"), Nabokov, like his bed-blog-fellow here, captured the Eating Abroad experience so well.

Hemingway lived in America, in France, in Italy, in Cuba, in Switzerland. Nabokov lived in Russia, in Germany, in France, in America, in Switzerland. I'm not sure about Hemingway's feelings towards Nabokov, but Vladimir was quite scornful of his American-born contemporary. I once read somewhere that Nabokov said that Hemingway's prose was a joke, and that his only good piece of writing was a description of someone urinating. (I tried to back this up, via Internet research, but am rather lazy and really, should not be surprised that a Google search for "Nabokov Hemingway peeing" yielded nothing of practical value.)

Both writers (regardless of what either one of them thought about the other, because I'm just writing about how I regard them) were fantastic at describing the guttural, visceral sensations of a good meal. Their characters' interactions with food and drink made them, well, more alive. I used to make fun of my boy friends in high school who loved Hemingway, those who after reading A Farewell to Arms, wanted to go out and fight wars and make love to beautiful blonde nurses. It took me a while to come around, but after all, if Hemingway can develop those urges, for a familiar experience never actually experienced (for example, a strange and solid hunger for warm biscuits and soft butter in the snowy Swiss mountains) that's not clichéd -- that's really good writing.

And now onto the tart.

It's an ugly little thing, isn't it? It was so much better looking a week ago, when I made it. The plums were purple-er, the crust was crustier. The fruit looked so proudly rustic in its concentric circles, which you can only really see now if you round up in your head. But that's okay. I actually like that it's kind of ugly.

It was good-looking, once. When I pulled it out of the oven, last week, I was so giddy with myself, a certain pride completely disproportionate to the talent expended. I suppose I could have taken a picture in its wholly circular shape, but I was too greedy to get out the camera. And the first few bites -- tangy, sharply sweet, with a soft crumb and gentle glaze -- were totally worth a hundred pictures.

I can't wait to make it again. Once I do, I'll put up the recipe -- the pie was originally inspired by this one, and I changed a few things (some lemon juice here, a sprinkling of polenta there), but neglected to note them. I'm excited to keep the tarts coming. It's spring here, after all.

(My favorite green grocer at the nearby indoor market has started to ask me what I'm making with everything I buy from him. He also asks, after every selection, "Qué más?" ["What else?"] and even though I shake my head and say "Nada más" ["Nothing else"], he shakes his head in response and has to wait just a few seconds before I add something else to the gi-hugic kilogram scale.)

1 comment:

  1. Hahahahaha of course I googled up Hemingway - Nabakov - Urine!