Rutab Mu'assal: Poached Khustawi dates stuffed with almonds and served in a honey-saffron sauce.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It takes me about an hour to get to work. The good thing about this is that G & I (we travel together) have discovered the most efficient way of getting to the office which also almost always secures us a seat on the DLR. It's good. We catch up on the local news (a la Metro), listen to London gossip, plan the weekends away ... and we read.

Right now, I'm reading one of the most hilarious books I've ever set my hands on. I don't think the author is intentionally being side-splittingly funny, but I've found myself reading it out aloud to my colleagues as I wander in the door in the mornings, or thumbing back pages to find that quote which I can't get out of my head; and I haven't done that in ages. I'm not sure yet what I'm laughing about, but I'm enjoying it thoroughly.

The book is In the Devil's Garden by Stewart Lee Allen (available here). He investigates the history of food-and-taboo, "forbidden foods", through an analysis of food's relationship with the decidedly Christian concept of the seven deadly sins. It's really very loosely-based on historical accuracy, and more solidly founded in Allen's own empirical investigation. He intersperses historical accounts with his micro-fictional narratives (real or not; it's not clear, but I don't think it matters) as well as recipes for the outlandish, sinful dishes he describes. He also substantiates much of what he says by referencing "a contemporary poet" or "conventional wisdom" - amongst other vague and insubstantial sources - but therein lies the pure delight of his extravagant construction: it's just that. It is presented as a history, but if you read it as a novel, or approach it rather as a work of delightful fiction, it's rather charming.

He is enthusiastic and involved in his narrative investigation of his problematique, and transforms his writing style to mimic the cardinal sin or mind-set he is unravelling. He argues that the 'forbidden fruit' of the Garden of Eden is not an apple, but the tomato, the "slut-red fruit oozing lugubrious juices and exploding with electric flavours" (2003:18). Should you doubt him, his colourful language and emphatic writing style might convince you otherwise.

In the introduction to the chapter on Pride, he writes:

What I found surprising while researching the sin of pride was how wrong I was. I mean, I'm usually right about everything. The idea of my being wrong is absurd. I am always right and invariably superior in every way to my peers, above whom I reign in a cloud of jasmine-scented perfection constantly flickering with the lightning flashes of my creativity. (2003: 81)

What I particularly love about this extract is the epiphanic moment when I realised that Allen was being facetious and not merely the Californian journalist-cum-novelist-cum-grape-picker. Yes, that really is almost believable given the construction of his narrative voice.

I'm about half-way now, so I won't rant or praise or frivolously nit-pick through his story just yet. I'll leave you with a delightful quote that made me laugh out loud on the train. Remember, this is not a novel, but a history.

Some people like to grow flowers. Some like cacti. I grow herbs. Right now I'm looking at my little basil bush. It stands only about six inches tall, but smells divine - sweet and deep and green. I water it carefully, and, when I pluck a few leaves for my tagliatelle, I make sure to scream obscenities at its fuzzy little head just like the Italians used to. (2003: 24)

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