Potent Ingredients

The writer and unregenerate hedonist Norman Douglas concocted dishes designed to stiffen an old man's romantic resolve
This post is the first in a series of articles that explore the stories behind history's more peculiar cookbooks. The courtship rituals of Southern Italy captivated the writer and notorious sybarite Norman Douglas. Each evening he watched as young Calabrian men would lean against the railing of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a promenade that skirts the south side of the old town, their backs to the sea and their eyes fixed on the houses across the road. There even younger women would pose in front of windows or on balconies to display their charms. Not a word did either side exchange; the men only stood staring like lovesick dogs, while the women afflicted them. (more…) Read More...

The Sage of Brooklyn

Illustration from William Hamilton Gibson’s Our Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms and How to Distinguish Them (1895) I have an essay on The New Inquiry’s main…
I have an essay on The New Inquiry's main site on mushrooming in Providence, Rhode Island, wilding in Brooklyn and the work of now largely forgotten (but once beloved) illustrator William Hamilton Gibson. Read More...

Hog Heaven

At the Cajun festival known as the boucherie, every participant takes home the bacon
Like the saint, the philosopher and the poet, the pig enjoys only posthumous appreciation. While alive, he finds himself scorned and derided. The public considers him vile, a creature of appetites and odors -- and little besides. "In aspect and general form he is not merely uninviting, but absolutely repulsive," writes H.D. Richardson in Pigs; Their Origin and Varieties (1847). "[E]very moment of his life-time is seemingly devoted to the attainment of sensual or disgusting objects, which constitute his enjoyments." Such apparent abandon to base pleasures explains his pariah status. Better tasted than seen or heard was the attitude most folks had toward him. (more…) Read More...

A Bit Peckish

"The birds are of many varieties, beautiful, grand, horrible, preying ..."
"Norman Bates: You -- ... you eat like a bird. "Marion Crane: [Looking around at the stuffed birds while eating] And you'd know, of course. "Norman Bates: No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression 'eats like a bird' ... it-it's really a fals-fals-fals-fals-fals-ity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But I-I don't really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know ... taxidermy." -- From Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) Read More...

Going with the Grain

Everything Russia's Mennonites grew turned to gold
In 1786 Russia's Catherine the Great invited the Mennonites to leave their West Prussian farms and settle the vast, empty steppes she had seized from the Turks. She knew their reputation for hard work, which they made evident by excelling in dairying, crafts, trade and farming, and so prospering when others failed. Industriousness they had in spades; what they lacked was religious freedom. To sweeten her offer the good czarina promised them tolerance and the liberty to worship as they pleased. For good measure she also exempted them from military duty and granted them license to operate breweries, flour mills, stores and bakeries. (more…) Read More...

Northern Exposure

A retired American judge learned that the summertime blues are unheard of in the land of the midnight sun
Emboldened by the tales of kings Harald and Olaf, of their rude castles perched atop cliffs and their great fleets of small vessels, excited by their feats of valor and violence amid forests and fjords, former Illinois Supreme Court Justice John Dean Caton decided to set off for Norway. At the time of his decision in London for the first leg of what would become a months-long adventure, he asked how a body traveled to this rugged land. Only with difficulty, people told him; not too many journey as far north as he intended. (more…) Read More...

Blind Ambition

The sightless bell-ringer of the Scottish burg of Dumfries pursued a vision of industry that left his fellow townspeople blinking with disbelief
Doonhamers (as the natives of Dumfries are called) marveled at the devotion and exactitude Tom Wilson displayed as he rang the mid-steeple bell of the town's belltower. The chief ringer, he braved winter freezes, summer storms and autumn deluges to discharge his duty three times daily, even on holidays, when other bell ringers hid under their bedclothes. (more…) Read More...

A Tragedy in Suet

Author and diet guru Vance Thompson believed that fat writers stood a slim chance of finding happiness
We don't often hear of writers wrangling with their weight. But diet and fast they often did. Virginia Woolf never took a second helping. Fearful of his "morbid propensity to fatten," Byron subsisted on dry biscuits and soda water. Anaïs Nin merely nibbled. Franz Kafka adopted the advice of nutritionist Horace Fletcher, who advised his followers to chew (one hundred times per minute, to be exact) their way to optimal health. Kafka lost so much weight from this routine that he remarked, "I am the thinnest person I have ever known." (more…) Read More...

A work of art by any standards …

"Everything on a Japanese menu, from the soups to the hors d'oeuvres to the raw fish, is beautifully conceived."
"Not a single Western food has a color that could be called beautiful -- the only exceptions I can think of are salad and radishes. I'm in no position to speak of its nutritional value, but to the artist's eye it is a thoroughly uncivilized cuisine. On the other hand, artistically speaking, everything on a Japanese menu, from the soups to the hors d'oeuvres to the raw fish, is beautifully conceived. If you did no more than gaze at the banquet tray set before you at an elegant restaurant, without lifting a chopstick, and then go home again, the feast for the eyes would have been more than sufficient to make the visit worth your while." -- Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura (1906) Read More...

Full Fathom Five Thy Father Dines

The maiden voyage of the submarine The Argonaut represented to its passengers a submersion of the ordinary.
A New York newspaper (the exact one is unknown) reported that one evening in the summer of 1907 a dinner was given thirty-five feet under the sea by the inventor of a submarine christened The Argonaut. Along with thirteen guests, he boarded the vessel, which was was anchored at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and sank below the waves to travel several miles along the ocean floor. Postprandial entertainment consisted of two divers exiting via a special compartment in order to display the virtues of "the patent diving suits" they had donned. (more…) Read More...