Monday, August 1, 2011

You can check out any time you like...

Robert Aickman is known for "strange stories," and "The Hospice" is, yep, a strange story. The protagonist, Mr. Maybury, gets into a bad car accident and ends up stopping for food and lodging somewhere between The Magic Mountain and The Twilight Zone.

There was an enormous quantity of soup, in what Maybury realized was an unusually deep and wide plate. The amplitude of the plate had at first been masked by the circumstance that round much of its wide rim was inscribed in large black letters, THE HOSPICE; rather in the style of a baby's plate, Maybury thought, if both lettering and plate had not been so immense. The soup itself was unusually weighty too: it undoubtedly contained eggs as well as pulses, and steps had been taken to add "thickening" also.

Maybury was hungry, as has been said, but he was faintly disconcerted to realize that one of the middle-aged women was standing quietly behind him as he consumed the not inconsiderable number of final spoonfuls. The spoons seemed very large also, at least for modern usages. The woman removed his empty plate with a reassuring smile.

The second course was there. As she set it before him, the woman spoke confidentially in his ear of the third course: "It's turkey tonight." Her tone was exactly that in which promise is conveyed to a little boy of his favorite dish. It was as if she were Maybury's nanny; even though Maybury had never had a nanny, not exactly. Meanwhile, the second course was a proliferating elaboration of pasta; plainly homemade pasta, probably fabricated that morning. Cheese, in fairly large granules, was strewn across the heap from a large porcelain bowl without Maybury being noticeably consulted.

"Can I have something to drink? A lager will do."

"We have nothing like that, sir." It was as if Maybury knew that perfectly well, but she was prepared to play with him. There might, he thought, have been some warning that the place was unlicensed.

"A pity," said Maybury.

The woman's inflections were beginning to bore him, and he was wondering how much the rich food, all palpably fresh, and homegrown, and of almost unattainable quality, was about to cost him...

Obviously it would help the catching-up process if Maybury ate no more than two-thirds of the pasta fantasy. But the woman in the dark blue dress did not seem to see it like that.

"Can't you eat any more?" she enquired baldly, and no longer addressing Maybury as sir.

"Not if I'm to attempt another course," replied Maybury, quite equably.

"It's turkey tonight," said the woman. "You know how turkey just slips down you?" She still had not removed his plate.

"It's very good," said Maybury firmly. "But I've had enough."

It was as if the woman were not used to such conduct, but, as this was no longer a nursery, she took the plate away.

...His slab of turkey appeared. He had caught up, even though by cheating. It was an enormous pile, steaming slightly, and also seeping slightly with a colorless, oily fluid. With it appeared five separate varieties of vegetables in separate dishes, brought on a tray and a sauceboat, apparently for him alone, of specially compounded fluid, dark red and turgid. A sizeable mound of stuffing completed the repast. The middle-aged woman set it all before him swiftly but, this time, silently, with unmistakable reserve.

The truth was that Maybury had little appetite left. He gazed around, less furtively, to see how the rest were managing. He had to admit that, as far as he could see, they were one and all eating as if their lives depended on it: old as well as young, female as well as male; it was as if all had spent a long, unfed day in the hunting field. "Eating as if their lives depended on it, he said again to himself; then, struck by the absurdity of the phrase when applied to eating, he picked up his knife and fork with resolution...

..."Eat up, sir. Why, you've hardly started!" His tormentor had quietly returned to him...

"I've had enough. I'm sorry, it's very good, but I've had enough."

"You said that before, sir, and look, here you are, still eating away." He knew that he had, indeed, used those exact words. Crises are met by cliches.

"I've eaten quite enough."

"That's not necessarily for each of us to say, is it?"

"I want no more to eat of any kind. Please take all this away and just bring me a black coffee. When the time comes, if you like. I don't mind waiting." Though Maybury did mind waiting, it was necessary to remain in control.

The woman did the last thing Maybury could have expected her to do. She picked up his laden plate (he had at least helped himself to everything) and, with force, dashed it on the floor. Even then the plate did not break, but gravy and five vegetables and rich stuffing spread across the thick, patterned, wall-to-wall carpet. Complete, in place of comparative silence followed in the whole room; though there was still, as Maybury even then observed, the muted clashing of cutlery. Indeed, his own knife and fork were still in his hands.

Falkner returned around the bottom end of the long table.

"Mulligan," he asked, "how many more times?"...

--Robert Aickman, "The Hospice," Cold Hand In Mine

Faerie banquets: Not as much fun as they sound

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has a number of characters that could be called "narcissistic," arguably none more so than the nameless "gentleman with the thistle-down hair." As he is a faerie in the classic tradition-vain, selfish, whimsical, and either amoral or possessing a morality completely alien to normal humans-this is pretty par for the course, for him. Also classically, he's extremely ancient and powerful, so essentially this is not someone you want to get on your bad side.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, being the special favorite of an entity like this isn't something to wish for either. Poor Stephen Black, a manservant, has received this dubious honor. As a result, he is showered with gifts and invitations that he doesn't want but can't refuse...

One evening at the beginning of December Stephen Black was polishing silver in his room at the end of the kitchen-passage. He looked down and discovered that the strings of his polishing-apron were untying themselves. It was not that the bow had come loose (Stephen had never tied a lazy bow in his life), but rather that the strings were snaking about in a bold, decisive way like apron-strings that knew what they were about. Next his polishing-sleeves and polishing-gloves slipped off his arms and hands and folded themselves up neatly upon the table. Then his coat leapt from the chairback where he had hung it. It took firm hold of him and helped him on with itself. Finally the butler's room itself disappeared.

Suddenly he was standing in a small apartment panelled in dark wood. A table took up most of the space. The table was laid with a cloth of scarlet linen with a deep and ornate border of gold and silver. It was crowded with gold and silver dishes and the dishes were heaped with food. Jewelled ewers were filled with wine. Wax candles in gold candlesticks made a blaze of light and incense burnt in two golden censers. Besides the table the only other furniture were two carved wooden chairs draped with cloth of gold and made luxurious with embroidered cushions. In one of these chairs the gentleman with the thistle-down hair was sitting.

"Good evening, Stephen!"

"Good evening, sir."

"You look a little pale tonight, Stephen. I hope you are not unwell."

"I am merely a little out of breath, sir. I find these sudden removals to other countries and continents a little perplexing."

"Oh! But we are still in London, Stephen. This is the Jerusalem Coffee-house in Cowper's-court. Do you not know it?"

"Oh yes indeed, sir. Sir Walter would often sup here with his rich friends when he was a bachelor. It is just that it was never so magnificent before. As for this banquet, there are hardly any dishes here I recognize."

"Oh! That is because I have ordered an exact copy of a meal I ate in this very house four or five hundred years ago! Here is a haunch of roasted wyvern and a pie of honeyed hummingbirds. Here is roasted salamander with a relish of pomegranates; here a delicate fricassee spiced with saffron and powdered rainbows and ornamented with gold stars! Now sit you down and eat! That will be the best cure for your dizziness. What will you take?"

"It is all very wonderful, sir, but I believe I see some plain pork steaks which look very good indeed."

"Ah, Stephen! As ever your noble instincts have led you to pick the choicest dish of all! Though the pork steaks are indeed quite plain, they have been fried in fat that was rendered down from the exorcised ghosts of black Welsh pigs that wander through the hills of Wales at night terrifying the inhabitants of that deplorable country! The ghostliness and ferocity of the pigs lend the steaks a wonderful flavour which is quite unlike any other! And the sauce which accompanies them is made from cherries that were grown in a centaur's orchard!"

Taking up a jewelled and gilded ewer, the gentleman poured Stephen a glass of ruby-red wine. "This wine is one of the vintages of Hell-but do not allow yourself to be dissuaded from tasting it upon that account! I dare say you have heard of Tantalus? The wicked king who baked his little son in a pie and ate him? He has been condemned to stand up to his chin in a pool of water he cannot drink, beneath a vine laden with grapes he cannot eat. This wine is made from those grapes. And, since the vine was planted there for the sole purpose of tormenting Tantalus, you may be sure that the grapes have an excellent flavour and aroma-and so does the wine. The pomegranates too are from Persephone's own orchard."

--Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

To begin with

This blog is one of those cases of "I can't find it anymore, so I decided to make my own."

Specifically, I had just discovered a blog whose very concept delighted me-all literary food porn, all the time-but, sadly, the authors appear to be no longer updating. So I'm going the fangirl route and picking up more or less where they left off: to wit, quoted passages of "delicious descriptions of food from literature," with commentary.

As "lashings and lashings of ginger beer" suggests, the authors Over There had a particular pash for classic childrens' lit, particularly British, along with a nice selection of classic and contemporary "straight" literature. I've got a nostalgia tooth myself, and BritKidLit certainly has a lot of the best food writing ("porn" seems icky in this context), so there may be some of that here as well, along with more "adult" fantasy and SF. Eventually, I may branch out toward more general SFF geekery, not necessarily all food-related.

There's another also defunct food-and-fic blog that's more wide-ranging, Readable Watchable Edible Potable. (The author folded it back into his main blog). If anyone comes across any other blog that does This Sort Of Thing, please do let me know.