Books provide meals for the mind. It’s a fact. I’m not talking about cookery books—although there can be and is great pleasure for me in reading a good recipe and anticipating its arrival on my table as real food. No, I’m talking about those sublime literary food moments which, once read about, stick in the memory forever. For me, many—but not all—of these moments occurred in the books of my childhood.I learnt to cook scrambled eggs from Swallows and Amazons. Susan’s admonition to ‘keep scraping the bottom of the pan’ is forever stuck in my mind, so that whenever I make them now, a small part of me is in a clearing on Wildcat Island, crouched over a campfire frying pan, stirring as if my life depended on it. Later on, at university, I discovered the recipe for a perfect soft-boiled egg (it may be apparent here that I rather like eggs), from the redoubtable Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. http://www.maths.tcd.ie/~rharte/yolk.pdf I have felt immense disappointment ever since if the carefully cracked top doesn’t reveal a result ‘like velvet’. Other of my memorable gastronomic milestones come from Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse, where Marmaduke Scarlet produces all manner of delicacies, from ‘pastry more like sea-foam than dough’ over a most succulent veal- and-ham pie, to a small blue box containing dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on. His glorious kitchen is squirrelled away in my mind’s eye as a long-held vision of what I might one day own for myself. An Aga is currently the best I can do in the way of ovens, but I have quantities of baskets alongside copious bunches of herbs hanging from my ceiling in a fragrant tribute to him. As a child, books introduced me to new and wonderful sounding kinds of food, which I longed to try for myself, and sometimes could. My mother and I often made the parkin from Little Grey Rabbit’s bonfire night—and I remember carefully picking a whole basket of primrose heads with which to make the primrose wine recipe from the same source. The delicate fragrance of those small pale flowers transports me back to that moment every Spring. Sadly I have never tried Mrs Webster’s little heart-shaped yellow valentine cakes, decorated with a chamomile flower and made from duck eggs and sugar and butter. I don’t know why not, really, because they would be perfectly easy to make.My perfect picnic is still Mole and Ratty’s feast from The Wind in the Willows. Well maybe not the cold tongue, but certainly the fat, wicker luncheon basket of coldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkins (deep breath) saladfrenchrollscresssandwiches pottedmeat (final deep breath) gingerbeerlemonadesodawater. My grandmother and I used to go on Badger Feasts—in honour of Mr Badger’s regrettable table manners—where normal rules of behaviour were suspended in favour of chewing with the mouth open, talking at the same time, and even (horror of horrors) the throwing of food. This is only the tip of my own food-lit iceberg—no more blog space for Frodo’s buttery stolen mushrooms or Blyton’s Faraway Tree Land of Goodies where everything is possible. I know there are many more meals for my mind waiting out there—and look forward to your helpful suggestions as to where to find them. Must go and whip up a mound of something delicious now, though—this chatting about food has made me dreadfully hungry all of a sudden.
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