Thirsty Thursdays & Hungry Hearts: Her Body Was Magnificent

In my last post I wrote about reading Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye. It contains some rather vivid descriptions of ham, which, like Leonora Penderton, are presented as too much, too rich, too juicy.

‘Susie,’ said Mrs. Penderton, ‘do people have gizzards like chickens do?’

The Captain stood in the doorway and was noticed neither by his wife nor
his servant When she had been relieved of her boots, Mrs. Penderton moved
about the kitchen bare footed. She took a ham from the oven and sprinkled
the top with brown sugar and bread crumbs. She poured herself another
drink, only half a jigger this time, and in a sudden excess of vigor she
performed a little shag dance. The Captain was intensely irritated with his
wife, and she knew it.

‘For God’s sake, Leonora, go up and put on some shoes.’

For an answer Mrs. Penderton hummed a queer little tune to herself and
went past the Captain and into the living room.

Her husband followed close behind her. ‘You look like a slattern going
around the house like this.’

A fire was laid in the grate and Mrs. Penderton bent down to light it. Her
smooth sweet face was very rosy and there were little glistening sweat beads
on her upper lip.

‘The Langdons are coming any minute now and you will sit down to
dinner like this, I suppose?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘And why not, you old prissy?’

The Captain said in a cold, taut voice: ‘You disgust me.’

Mrs. Penderton’s answer was a sudden laugh, a laugh both soft and
savage, as though she had received some long expected piece of scandalous
news or had thought of some sly joke. She pulled off her jersey, crushed it
into a ball, and threw it into the corner of the room. Then deliberately she
unbuttoned her breeches and stepped out of them. In a moment she was
standing naked by the hearth. Before the bright gold and orange light of the
fire her body was magnificent. The shoulders were straight so that the collar
bone made a sharp pure line. Between her round breasts there were delicate
blue veins. In a few years her body would be fullblown like a rose with
loosened petals, but now the soft roundness was controlled and disciplined by
sport. Although she stood quite still and placid, there was about her body a
subtle quality of vibration, as though on touching her flesh one would feel the
slow live coursing of the bright blood beneath. While the Captain looked at
her with the stunned indignation of a man who has suffered a slap in the face,
she walked serenely to the vestibule on her way to the stairs. The front door
was open and from the dark night outside a breeze blew in and lifted a loose
strand of her bronze hair.

She was halfway up the steps before the Captain recovered from his
shock. Then he ran trembling after her. ‘I will kill you!’ he said in a strangled
voice. ‘I will do it! I will do it!’ He crouched with his hand to the banister and
one foot on the second step of the stairway as though ready to spring up after

She turned slowly and looked down at him with unconcern for a moment
before she spoke. ‘Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out in the
street and thrashed by a naked woman?’

The Captain stood as she had left him. Then he put his head down on his
outstretched arm and rested his weight against the banister. From his throat
came a rasping sound like a sob, but there were no tears on his face.

The ways ham affects some men …

Leonora Penderton enjoyed her warm bath that evening. She dressed
herself slowly in the clothes she had already laid out on the bed. She wore a
simple gray skirt, a blue Angora sweater, and pearl earrings. She was
downstairs again at seven o’clock and their guests were waiting.

She and the Major found the dinner first rate. To begin with there was a
clear soup. Then with the ham they had rich oily turnip greens, and candied
sweet potatoes that were a transparent amber beneath the light and richly
glazed with sweet sauce. There were rolls and hot spoon bread. Susie passed
the vegetables only once and left the serving dishes on the table between the
Major and Leonora, for those two were great eaters.

I do like a woman who likes to eat.

‘Listen!’ said Leonora, and her fresh rosy face flamed suddenly with
anticipation. ‘I just wish you could see my kitchen now. Here’s the way it will
go. I’m putting in all the leaves in the dining room table and everybody will
just mill around and help themselves. I’m having a couple of Virginia hams, a
huge turkey, fried chicken, sliced cold pork, plenty of barbecued spareribs,
and all sorts of little knickknacks like pickled onions and olives and radishes.
And hot rolls and little cheese biscuits passed around. The punchbowl is in
the corner, and for people who like their liquor straight I’m having on the
sideboard eight quarts of Kentucky Bourbon, five of rye, and five of Scotch.’

Ham sandwich, anyone?


Thirsty Thursdays & Hungry Hearts: A Mystery Covered in Minced Golden Ginger


I have just finished cooking lunch: braised pork, potatoes and brown tofu; French beans stir fried with dried prawn sambal; both dishes served with steamed rice.

Home-cooked Chinese food is my favourite kind of food. I try to reproduce the dishes my mother used to cook for us, but my efforts pale in comparison.

Here is a short paragraph from Shanghai Redemption, one of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The books are full of descriptions of the  the Inspector’s meals. He is a foodie and enjoys gourmet cuisine as well as simple hawker fare. The following excerpts describe a meal prepared by Peiqin, the wife of his partner Detective Yu:

Pouring a small cup of sesame oil into the wok, she started on the three-cup chicken by frying the chopped chicken. As it fried, she set up a cup of yellow rice wine, a cup of soy sauce, and a pinch of fresh basil on the kitchen counter.

‘A penny for your thoughts,’ Peiqin said, slicing the thousand-year egg with a thread for a cold dish. Another cold dish – tofu mixed with sesame oil and green onion – would be prepared once the guest arrived.

When Old Hunter finally appeared, the table was set with dainty cold dishes and tiny porcelain cups. Yu poured a cup of tea for him. Peiqin hurried to the stove, lifting the wok lid, adding a handful of chopped green onion and then drops of sesame oil to the slightly browned chicken.

‘The three-cup chicken smells irresistible,’ Old Hunter said as Peiqin opened a bottle of yellow rice wine.

‘But he knows that Yu is a friend of Chen?’ Peiqin cut in, pouring more wine for Old Hunter.

There was no answer to that. Old Hunter stared at a slice of the thousand-year egg, which was shining darkly, like a mystery covered in minced golden ginger.

I don’t eat preserved egg, but the descriptions above make it sound delicious, just as Elizabeth David’s descriptions of mayonnaise make me salivate although I dislike the taste of that dressing.

I have made my own version of three-cup chicken, inspired by the descriptions in Qiu’s novel, but I don’t know if my dish tastes as it should. Then again I think every family’s recipe is slightly different.

This link is to one of the many recipes you can find online. Like most recipes, you should try it out and then tweak it to suit your tastes. I like more ginger and rice wine in my three-cup chicken than the amounts listed in most of the online recipes. Still, I love my mother’s three-cup chicken best.




Thirsty Thursdays & Hungry Hearts: The Papery Taste of Despair


(It’s probably not the done thing to feature a scene describing the consecration of the communion Host in a meme about food and drink.)

As a young Roman Catholic, I struggled to accept transubstantiation. I didn’t think it was disgusting (as some do — my sister, who attends a Brethren church, says RCs are cannibals O_o), just unlikely. I accepted what I was told though and didn’t think much about what it meant. These days, I view that aspect of Roman Catholic doctrine with fascination. I am not required to believe, as I am an atheist, but I do think its a mysterious, awful (in the old sense of the word) and beautiful idea.

(We used to sneak unconsecrated communion wafers out of the tin, but they are not satisfying as snacks,being too thin and disintegrating almost immediately once inside the mouth.)

I wasn’t impressed by the priest played by Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds, but I still have a hopeless (and wholly chaste) crush on Damien Karras (the younger of the two Jesuits in The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty) who is the one saying Mass in the following scene from The Exorcist. I believe its his crisis of faith and the intense sadness that enveloped the character. I am currently creeping through the book , and so far (the possession has not begun), the writing is mostly schlocky and stilted, but I like this bit, especially ‘pain in a black valise’.

‘Et clamor meus ad te veniat,’ he prayed with murmured anguish. ‘Let my cry come unto Thee …’

He lifted the Host in consecration with an aching remembrance of the joy it once gave him; felt once again, as he did each morning, the pang of an unexpected glimpse from afar and unnoticed of a longlost love.

‘He broke the Host above the chalice.

‘Peace I leave you. My peace I give you …!

He tucked the Host inside his mouth and swallowed the papery taste of despair.

When Mass was over, he polished the chalice and carefully placed it in his bag. He rushed for the seven-ten train back to Washington, carrying pain in a black valise.

Thirsty Thursday & Hungry Hearts: Champagne for the Fish Course


I am reading The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald. I have had this book for years, and tried reading it several time, but it’s never ‘stuck’ til now.

Here is a description of dinner at St Angelicus, the fictional Cambridge college at the centre of the novel:

They drank manzanilla imported for them from San lucar, until the butler came in. ‘The Master is on his way.’ Everyone got to their feet. With his chair drawn back for him to exactly the right distance, the Master needed no guidance, and none was offered. The Chaplain pronounced a grace which was used on domestic occasions by Benedict XIII himself, followed by the menacing Spanish words — El Juicio Final descubrira las secretas de la Historia. All the chairs trundled back, and those who had dropped their napkins disappeared for a moment, recovering them. The manzanilla continued with the soup, and changed to champagne for the fish course only. After that it was claret at St Angelicus. At the end the guests were always offered preserved fruits, of the kind which failed to poison their Founder.

I am only at Chapter 5 and food has not been mentioned much, but I like this small passage. I can taste the manzanilla and would like champagne for my birthday next month.

Thirsty Thursdays & Hungry Hearts: Deep-Fried Party Treats


I’m trying to feature food from books I’m currently reading instead of resorting to paragraphs from old favourites. (I realise the best food passages, or at least the ones I remember, are all from children’s books.)

I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed at the moment and this description of party food stands out because it reminds me of parties from my student days, especially the greasy nibbles.

The night before he left for Abbenay his fellow students gave a party for him.
Parties were frequent, on slight pretexts, but Shevek was surprised by the
energy that went into this one, and wondered why it was such a fine one.
Uninfluenced by others, he never knew he influenced them; he had no idea
they liked him.

Many of them must have saved up daily allowances for the party for days
before. There were incredible amounts of food. The order for pastries was so
large that the refectory baker had let his fancy loose and produced hitherto
unknown delights: spiced wafers, little peppered squares to go with the
smoked fish, sweet fried cakes, succulently greasy. There were fruit drinks,
preserved fruit from the Keran Sea region, tiny salt shrimp, piles of crisp
sweet-potato chips. The rich plentiful food was intoxicating. Everybody got
very merry, and a few got sick.

Several paragraphs on there’s this passage and the last line really gets to me. I want to wipe her mouth and chin with a wet wipe. Actually, I want to wipe my mouth because I can feel the oily residue left by the greasy fried cakes!   

“Suffering is a misunderstanding,” Shevek said, leaning forward, his eyes
wide and light. He was still lanky, with big hands, protruding ears, and
angular joints, but in the perfect health and strength of early manhood he was
very beautiful. His dun-colored hair, like the others’, was fine and straight,
worn at its full length and kept off the forehead with a band. Only one of
them wore her hair differently, a girl with high cheekbones and a flat nose;
she had cut her dark hair to a shiny cap all around. She was watching Shevek
with a steady, serious gaze. Her lips were greasy from eating fried cakes, and
there was a crumb on her chin.