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Sun October 5, 2008
By Scott Vander Ploeg
Murray, KY – Where do I find hidden kitchens? mostly in the imagination. The fine meal has been a staple in literature since before Henry Fielding wrote that phenomenally sexy food scene in Tom Jones, ably if gluttonously depicted in the 1963 movie version staring an impishly young Albert Finney. When Homer sends Odysseys on his travels, the question of banqueting becomes the great determiner of the culture's ethical and political sophistication. When Telemachus visits Nestor, he finds the king and his minions at the beach:
Sacrificing sleek black bulls to Posiedon,
God of the sea-blue mane who shakes the earth.
They sat in nine divisions, each five hundred strong,
each division offering up nine bulls, and while the people
tasted the innards, burned the thighbones for the god.
and having a huge barbeque celebration. The cornucopia of alimentation had been a regular motief in poetry and drama before the novel was invented in the early 1700s, but here in the new millennium, we've been treated to quite a repastful narrative treatment, a veritable multi-course offering of literary examples in which the splendid table has been an important part of the story.
My favorite use or perhaps abuse of the dinner event is depicted in Johnathan Franzen's incisively ironic 2001 novel, The Corrections. The Dinner of Revenge is so vividly rendered here that I stopped all pretense of holding the traditional Ward and June Cleaver family gathering. In the novel, Franzen depicts the gruesomely perverse situation of the wife as cook getting back at the husband who did not kiss her goodbye on his last business trip by creating a meal so contrary to the husband's habitual preferences, that she gains considerable advantage in the family dynamics of dominance. This Dinner of Revenge, the flip-side of the elegant table, is rendered thus:
A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister. Boiled beet greens leaked something cupric, greenish. Capillary action and the thirsty crust of flour drew both liquids under the liver. When the lifer was lifted, a faint suction could be heard. The sodden lower crust was unspeakable the rutabaga smelled carious and was already cold it had the texture and temperature of wed dog crap on a cool morning .
The kids are the ones who suffer the most, though, one young boy forced to sit at table into the night until he cleans his plate and prevents starving Chinese multitudes from dying. You will be happy to know that his father rescues him, albeit after a good deal of anxiety has erupted.
This is of course the imagined dinner of horror the contrary image of the ideal meal. Another novel that uses this concept though happily in the positive presentation, is Richard Russo's dynamite depiction of small town grievances, EmpireFalls, in which Miles is the hero and restaurateur. Much is revealed when he and his daughter have dinner at the diner together, a dinner that innovates from the tedious fare found in blue-plate special restaurants emblematic of an era still with us if anachronistically so. In this scene Miles' brother, David, has concocted a dish called, Twice-Cooked Noodles with Scallops in Hoisin Sauce< certainly a departure from the Deep Fried Haddock with Tartar Sauce, Whipped Potatoes, Beef Gravy and side of Apple Sauce that had been the standard fare. The restaurant thrives as the menu grows, verifying for us that we approve of the improved culinary emphasis.
A third case in which the hidden kitchen is lurking is in Julia Glass' The Three Junes, a wonderful underrated novel from 2002. Here we have a narrator who lands in New York city and makes a to do about providing a good dinner for his various thwarted family and friends. The novel reverberates with what it means to live in the big city oh how unfortunate for the rest of us:
Through the doorwahy dances Richard, holding aloft the platter of steaming corn. Dennis follows, carrying, with equal flamboyance, the chicken and grilled asparagus. They set the platters at opposite ends of the table. Tony comes in last, with two bottles of wine and a loaf of garlic bread swaddled in a linen towel. Fenno lights the candles. The five of them stand back, somewhat shyly, regarding the table like an altar.
What all three of these fictions, these gastronomical novels, point to is the fact that recent authors recognize that our dining habits are an essential part of who we are. They posit a need for us to think of our dinners reverently, which I tend to do more now, because of having read contemporary fiction.