September 14, 2012
I’ve never understood the appeal of counting sheep. When I can’t sleep, what I need is something safe, totally free of anxiety, with which to occupy my mind. And the key here is occupy: If my mind doesn’t have something to chew on, something to play with, something with which to occupy its little self, it will slip all too easily into some bad old habits, asking why I didn’t do X, why I did Y, what on earth I’m going to do about A and B and C. Those habits are powerful. They would eat the sheep for breakfast, with a nice Chianti.
For a long time, my secret weapon has been children’s books. I know there is a vogue, particularly in YA literature, for “problem” novels – my mother drinks, my best friend has a gambling problem, and so on – but I don’t read those books. I like books about children who are forced to take dancing lessons. Noel Streatfeild wrote jillions of them, and they’re all enormously soothing, because the worst thing that ever happens is something like blowing an audition for “Babes in Toyland.” Since I myself have blown any number of auditions and yet lived to tell the tale, I am able to empathize with Our Heroine’s despair while confident that the episode will not scar her permanently. As I said, very soothing. Twenty pages, and I’m nodding.
I also like old-fashioned English books about children who have adventures — magical or otherwise — in large part because these books always seem to involve picnics, and there is almost nothing more relaxing than reading about other people’s meals: All of the food-thoughts, none of the guilt.
But notice I said almost nothing. Some months ago I had a bad bout of anxiety-riddled insomnia, and it coincided with my recognition of a depressing factoid: Most of the meals described in these books are pretty awful. Hard-boiled eggs — with no mention of salt — feature prominently, as do bottles of lukewarm lemonade that someone has been lugging around for hours in the wan rays of an English sun. Faced with a meal like that, I would tend to seize the opportunity to lose a few pounds.
I love these characters. After all, I have been reading and re-reading their stories for almost my entire life. And friends do not let friends eat unsalted hard-boiled eggs. Clearly, someone was going to have to feed these people better.
The most important rule I set for myself was that all food had to be period- and place-appropriate. So no Gummi Bears for the early-20th-century Railway Children, no sushi for the kids in Knight’s Castle, packed off to their Midwest relatives in 1956. And no strawberries for scenes set in a London January. I realized fairly quickly that in creating meals for characters in the English books I love, the rationing of World War II and the post-war period represented a real challenge: I just couldn’t get excited (or sleepy) about fish paste and powdered eggs. In fact, working my way around the privations of Austerity Britain proved to be just a bit more mental occupation than I wanted. So sadly, I left my Noel Streatfeild books behind. It’s true that in Movie Shoes, the children in question travel to Southern California, home of the cheeseburger and the double chocolate shake, but since they are modest, disciplined English children (rather than, you know, sloppy, hedonistic American ones), their parents insist that they eat only “the simple foods they are used to.” Where they found fish paste sandwiches in 1940s Los Angeles I can’t begin to imagine.
My second revelation was that there was no need for me to be constrained by the meals mentioned in the books. After all, characters are people, and people have to eat, even if the author has somehow neglected to mention that it’s dinner time. For my first foray of this kind, I sent Miss Elizabeth Bennett to lunch at a hotel in Bath, with her friend Charlotte Lucas. What would these two supremely well brought up young women be doing alone in Bath and lunching on their own? Damned if I know. Not my problem. The question is: What would they eat?
Something very tidy, I decided — no messy salad leaves, no dripping sauces. And something fairly plain: Lizzie enjoys food, but doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to it. (Her mother, by contrast, both greedy and a status-whore, would be torn between the richest and the most expensive things on the menu, and would wind up ordering too much of both.) Miss Lucas, I think, gets a certain amount of satisfaction from denying her own desires; she would order something so meager — a bowl of broth? With a bit of bread and butter on the side? — as to be just a little ludicrous. But Lizzie, having eaten a lamb cutlet and new-season asparagus, would persuade her friend to indulge a little at dessert, insisting that she order some stewed plums with the luxury of custard.
Sorting out the lunch menu had taken me a few nights, each time sending me off to an untroubled sleep. I was onto something. For quite a while I combined this new technique with my old favorite, feeding the people in some of my best-loved children’s books. I threw out the hard-boiled eggs and gave the Five Children and It some genuinely tasty picnics, in which cheddar cheese and crisp apples played starring roles. I let Harriet the Spy keep her lunchtime tomato sandwiches, but spent several peaceful evenings determining what she’d like for dinner. My greatest triumph involved sending Nancy Drew and her best galpals to lunch in Paris. Nancy, I decided (rather like Lizzie Bennett) would opt for something tasty and tidy: Artichoke vinaigrette, grilled trout, creamed potatoes, fruit tart. Bess, eternally on a diet, would spend the entire time gazing longingly at the pastry trolley. And beanpole George, with a teenage boy’s appetite and the metabolism to accommodate it, would indulge in a glutton’s wet dream: Pate trowelled onto lengths of crusty bread, shellfish stew with more bread to mop things up, green salad with runny cheese, a vat of chocolate mousse.
At shamefully long last it occurred to me to feed my Felonious friends. Easily my favorites in this regard are Gianni and Guastafeste from The Rainaldi Quartet and Paganini’s Ghost. Old-school Italians, they welcome a splendid lunch. I’m thinking some salami and olives, pasta tossed with fried zucchini, chicken with thyme and lemon, and to finish, a perfect pear and a glass of moscato.
Fat Andy Dalziel, by contrast, doesn’t much care what you put in front of him, so long as it’s simple, ample, and accompanied by a barrel of best bitter. Sadly, I think we’re talking microwave lasagna on a good day, with the occasional lunch consisting in its entirety of potato chips and pickled onions. Peter Pascoe, his sidekick in the Dalziel and Pascoe series, has somewhat more sophisticated tastes, but I have a terrible feeling that Ellie, at least in the early books, fed him a lot of Tofu Surprise. Master Wong, the Feng Shui Detective, is passionate about dim sum, but he eats so well on his own (except when the office manager steals his dumplings) that he doesn’t really need my help. The same cannot be said of Faith Zanetti: My favorite line of dialogue in her series (from Vodka Neat) is “The dead twins stole my chicken!” But to be honest, I’m not really persuaded that she would have cooked the chicken very well if they hadn’t. It’s tough to get her to concentrate on food, especially when there’s alcohol within reach, but I did once get her to sit down to some mince and mashed potatoes; she got all teary and said it was like the tea her Nana used to make.
In recent weeks, I’ve regressed a bit, going back to Harry Potter (and spending happy hours imagining just what those magical end-of-term banquets involve). But very soon, I’m going to be headed back Felony way. My next stop, I think, is a reread of The Accomplice, by Elizabeth Ironside. As it happens, it’s a book I love. But even more important, it offers scope for both middle-class English and Eastern European meals. Mmmmm, cabbage soup. Smoked-salmon sandwiches. Friends, I’m getting sleepy already.