Friday, December 29, 2017

Steak in Sister Carrie // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. And it turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This eleventh installment is a book set in Illinois.

Oh, Desire. With a capital "D." There you are. Haunting around Chicago and New York (and their restaurants) in this old chestnut from the turn of the century.

I picked up Sister Carrie in the Chicago History Museum gift shop while I was wiling away some time before catching my plane from O'Hare back to San Francisco. I needed a book set in Illinois, and there was no way I was going to write about one of my most loathed books Augie March (with apologies to my father-in-law, who is a big fan) or about the meat exposé The Jungle (a great book, but it seemed, well, a bit inappropriate for a food blog). I thought about going to two books that I love: Native Son and House on Mango Street, but I have read both already, and I wanted to explore something new to me.  So I considered some more contemporary books (including Then We Came to the End and I Sailed with Magellan), but then there she was, our heroine Carrie, staring at me from the Penguin paperback, and I had a four-hour flight in front of me. And so, that is how we landed on this eleventh chapter of Cook Your Books.

Okay, for those of you who have never read Sister Carrie, or just need a refresher from your high school days, this Theodore Dreiser book was published in 1900 to the weak reception of only 456 copies sold. In a coming-of-age, American dream tale straight out of the history books, Carrie Meeber leaves behind the doldrums of Columbia City, Wisconsin, boards a train (with "a small lunch in a paper box," no less (1)), and lands in Chicago, home of numbing jobs, cold winds, a disapproving sister, middle-class heartthrobs, and a ticket to fame and (comparative) fortune. Of course, on said train from small town America to the big city, innocent and naive Carrie meets the dashing and urbane traveling salesman Charles Drouet, who leans forward and offers Carrie familiarity with an overwhelming city and assistance as she disembarks the train (and, oh so much more). Of course, ever the proper Midwestern maiden, she refuses, disembarks alone (but under Drouet's watchful eye), moves into her sister's home, and takes a tedious and coarse job. 

However, Carrie gets sick, loses her job, and happens to encounter Drouet on a downtown street, of course. Because Carrie is a looker straight out of provincial dairyland, he takes her to a fancy restaurant--the Windsor Room (which can still be found in Chicago, here)--and over sirloin and potatoes, he convinces her to take $20 for new clothes, and eventually to leave her sister and move in with him. That seems fast. But let's slow down and take a closer look.

Previously, when Carrie was out searching for a job, she had entered into a restaurant with prices so high that all she could order was a bowl of soup (21). Thus, restaurants seem fraught for her; they are places of exclusion and consumption. They are reminders of what she desires but cannot have. The Windsor Room is "a large, comfortable place, with an excellent cuisine and substantial service" (61). It is, for Drouet, a place "to see and be seen as he dined" (61) and he is completely at home here among its pageantry and wealth. But, Carrie is overwhelmed and full of desire: "She was very hungry, and the things she saw there awakened her desires, but the high prices held her attention" (62).  But Drouet has no worry about the prices, and he quickly commands the situation, ordering sirloin with mushrooms ($1.25), stuffed tomatoes, hashed brown potatoes, asparagus, and a pot of coffee.

I, on the other hand, served my steak with sweet potato fries and creamed broccoli rabe.

And oh how Drouet becomes more attractive over that meal:
Drouet fairly shone in the matter of serving. He appeared to great advantage behind the white napery and silver platters of the table and displaying his arms with a knife and fork. As he cut the meat his rings almost spoke. His new suit creaked as he stretched to reach the plates, break the bread, and pour the coffee. He helped Carrie to a rousing plateful and contributed the warmth of his spirit to her body until she was a new girl. He was a splendid fellow in the true popular understanding of the term, and captivated Carrie completely. 
That little soldier of fortune took her good turn in an easy way. She felt a little out of place, but the great room soothed her and the view of the well-dressed throng outside seemed a splendid thing. Ah, what was it not to have money! What a thing it was to be able to come in here and dine! Drouet must be fortunate. He rode on trains, dressed in such nice clothes, was so strong, and ate in these fine places. He seemed quite a figure of a man, and she wondered at his friendship and regard for her. (63)

There he is in all that finery and abundance and pageantry (seeing and being seen, particularly by Carrie), and he comes out all the better. She notices that his suit is new, he wields cutlery in such a way it draws attention to his body, his rings almost speak. In this moment, he is the promise of Chicago: American. Masculine. Wealthy. Comfortable. Urbane. Generous. It's no wonder she's willing to take the "two soft, green, handsome ten-dollar bills" (66) he later presses into her palm. As out of place she feels in the gleaming Windsor room, he impresses her with his ease with money and with the city. He is all she desires to be, all that she longed for back in Columbia City, Wisconsin. And all of this done over a hearty, American meal of steak and potatoes. This is it, the American Dream. And the longing for wealth and ease.

So she, our sin-loving sister, moves in with him. How can a country girl resist? But then Drouet introduces her to George Hurstwood, who is ever more dashing than Drouet (it just might be his healthy employment as the manager of Fitzgerald and Moy's, a saloon in Chicago). And isn't that just it? The American Dream, Dreiser suggests, is something we touch on, but then we want more. We desire and then we desire and then we desire.

Thus, Hurstwood and Carrie begin a flirtation that turns into more, despite Hurstwood being married (a small detail he fails to mention to Carrie). Through a series of events (most of which include Drouet being humanly incapable of letting people down and always wanting to look a bit more debonair and sophisticated than he is), Carrie ends up on the stage of the Elks Club theater.

The next day, all hell breaks loose: Drouet learns of the affair, as does Hurstwood's wife, and Carrie learns that Hurstwood has a wife. Heavy drinking (on Hurstwood's part) ensues, as does a bit of thievery from an unlocked safe at Hurstwood's employer's, and a lie to Carrie lures her onto a train, and both Carrie and Hurstwood abscond in the middle of the night to the wilds of Montreal. A guilty conscience leads to Hurstwood returning most of the money but not guilty enough to keep him from committing bigamy (and Carrie agreeing to it) and whisking her away to the even bigger city of New York. 

Oh, New York. You provide more desire than even that burgeoning cow town of Chicago, and Carrie's desire is fueled further by Hurstwood's ability to provide for her, at first, a sumptuously decorated apartment with a view of Central Park and her fancy neighbor, Mrs. Vance. But Hurstwood, who had achieved his wealth through hard work and perseverance, loses it all through his inability to find another manager's job at a reputable saloon. All that desire. All that inability to find contentment.

After some steps down the social ladder, a hiatus on Carrie's and Mrs. Vance's friendship, and a real beating to the pocketbook, Carrie comes across neighbor Mrs. Vance again, who introduces Carrie to her cousin, Robert Ames. And they go out to a fancy dinner in a fancy New York restaurant (sound familiar?) where Ames suggests that there is more to life than a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant. And that something is art.  Let's zero in again (This time Sherry's in New York):

Carrie, down on her luck again, is hyper-aware by the prices on the menu, attuned to what food is worth. Soup is 50¢ or a dollar (which is about $27 in 2017) and entrées cost the same as a night in a hotel:
Carrie noticed [the prices on the menu], and in scanning it the price of spring chicken carried her back to that other bill of fare and far different occasion when, for the first time, she sat with Drouet in a good restaurant in Chicago. It was only momentary — a sad note as out of an old song — and then it was gone. But in that flash was seen the other Carrie — poor, hungry, drifting at her wits' ends, and all Chicago a cold and closed world, from which she only wandered because she could not find work. (335)

And just like that we're transported right back to the Windsor Room, that world that she longed to belong within but did not. Right back to who is included and not, and all of it based on money. But then Ames bursts this reverie:
"Do you know," he said, turning back to Carrie, after his reflection, "I sometimes think it is a shame for people to spend so much money this way." 
Carrie looked at him a moment with the faintest touch of surprise at his seriousness. He seemed to be thinking about something over which she had never pondered.  
"Do you?" she answered, interestedly.  
"Yes," he said, "they pay so much more than these things are worth. They put on so much show." (336-337)

Which, of course recalls Drouet and his love of the Windsor Room, as it was a place to see and be seen.  Ames surprises her that there could be another relationship one could have with money. That maybe there could be something more than having it. And so, our Sister Carrie begins her great awakening. And the end of the book entirely depends on how you read this:
"I shouldn't care to be rich," he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; "not rich enough to spend my money this way."  
"Oh, wouldn't you?" said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.  
"No," he said. "What good would it do? A man doesn't need this sort of thing to be happy."  
Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her.  
"He probably could be happy," she thought to herself, "all alone. He's so strong." (339)
Just after this moment she and Ames speak about the theater, and she vows to return to the stage, in part to impress him and in part because he has inspired in her the desire for something more. The juxtaposition of the over-priced meal in a too-fancy restaurant and this purity of art are troubling for Carrie, but she is "beginning to see" (341) Yes, she wants to be seen by Ames, or someone like him, and thus gain his approval. But she also wants more than just pageantry. So, return to the stage she does. And she gains oodles of money as she works her way up from Chorus Girl to Star. And Hurstwood finds himself a scab, driving a Brooklyn streetcar, then abandoned by Carrie, then homeless. He dies alone and unhappy, truly fallen from the pinnacle of the American Dream we saw him embracing early in the novel.

But Carrie's end is also solitary, wanting, and ambiguous. Some argue this ending is tragic. Others, not so much.
Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she should be led forth among dreams become real. Ames had pointed out a farther step, but on and on beyond that, if accomplished, would lie others for her. It was forever to be the pursuit of that radiance of delight which tints the distant hilltops of the world.
Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows.... In your rocking chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel. (527)

But Carrie ends the book alone, wanting, desiring, and never really in the reach of that "halcyon day" when her dreams have become real. She is going to keep striving, keep desiring for happiness, and from the looks of it never really find it. But let's hold tight for a second. We have a woman who has engaged in a pre-marital affair with a man in Chicago, knowingly committed bigamy with an on-the-lam man in New York, and she leaves both of them for a life of theater. Perhaps, totally ho-hum to the 21st-century reader, but a true scandal for an early 20th-century reader. And (gasp!) she's not punished for these relationship. Let's consider other options for such a woman in 1900. Dreiser could have written her in the hackneyed way where the sinful woman with a heart of gold still has to end in suicide or despair (see Maggie, Girl of the Streets). But no, she sits alone just as Ames suggests, aching for more, yes. But Ames suggested that being alone is actually not so bad. 

Her failure to find happiness in the end has nothing to do with her extra-curricular activities. Instead, that failure to find happiness is wrapped up in that ever-consuming desire to consume. Girlfriend loves money. More than she loves George Hurstwood or Charles Drouet or, one might guess, the stage. 

So, unlike Edith Wharton's Summer (which I wrote about here), wherein the fallen woman gets the apple, this time we get the fallen woman who just desires to consume and consume. Just like any other character in this book. Just like any other man. And she gets the Windsor Room, The Chicago Opera House, the Elks Lodge, Sherry's, and the Broadway stage. Ain't nothing going to keep this consumer down.

P.S.  (Totally a sidenote and not at all related to food in this book.) John Berryman asserted that Dreiser "wrote like a hippopatomus," an apt (and perhaps my favorite) description if ever there was one. While this book is a bit pedantic, it is a great look at early 20th-century Chicago, where one was able to have a full lawn in downtown Chicago. Totally worth any hippo-plodding.


Marinated Steak from Ad Hoc

"She was very hungry, and the things she saw there awakened her desires, but the high prices held her attention" (Sister Carrie 61).

Very liberally adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home

Keller does a lot more wonderful things to this steak than we did.  We grilled it, because we live in California and can grill in December. I suspect that basting it in the oven in a very cozy home (say, in Illinois) would be just delightful. As for your cut of meat, use whatever you want. He uses skirt steak. I served this with sweet potato fried and a glorious creamed broccoli rabe, found here.

4 Steaks


For the Marinade: 
3 sprigs of fresh thyme 
1 long sprig of fresh rosemary 
2 fresh bay leaves 
1½ teaspoons black peppercorns 
3 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on 
1 cup extra virgin olive oil 

For the Steaks: 
24 ounces steak (your choice: Keller uses skirt, but any steak is fine)
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper 
Olive oil 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
4 sprigs of fresh thyme 
2 garlic cloves, smashed with skins left on

For the Marinade
1. Combine the 3 springs of thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, peppercorns, 3 garlic cloves, and olive oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let the cool to room temperature. 

2.  Place steaks in a large, shallow dish and cover with the marinade. Cover the dish and marinate for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator (or preferably overnight). Turn the steaks in the marinade half way through the waiting time. Thirty minutes before you are ready to cook the steaks, remove the meat from the marinade and let sit at room temperature. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Discard the marinade. 

For the Steaks
3.  So this is what Keller says to do:  
Preheat oven to 350°F, set roasting rack in a roasting pan. Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over high heat. (Have a splatter screen ready.) When the oil shimmers, add half the meat and quickly brown the first side. Turn the meat and, working quickly, add 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 thyme sprigs, and 1 garlic clove, and brown the meat on the second side, basting constantly; the entire cooking process should only take about 1½ minutes. Transfer the meat to the roasting rack and spoon the butter, garlic, and thyme over the top. Wipe the pan, and repeat with the remaining steaks. Place the baking sheet into the oven and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the steaks rest for about 10 minutes in a warm spot.
4.  Here's what we did:
(Okay, to be more specific, grill for about 8-10 minutes over a medium high heat.) 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Lamb Stew with Winter Squash in The Hour of the Land // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food.  It turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This tenth installment is a book of essays.

In this aspect of the challenge, I really did think about choosing a wonderful Wendell Berry collection, but I knew there was an essay on food in that collection, so that seemed to be stacking the deck in my favor. So I went for something that seemed less obviously connected to food.  And I am going to admit, there were a few moments of panic that I would be making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to pack on the trail.

In Terry Tempest Williams' latest collection of essays The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, she explores 12 national parks and what they mean to her personally and, one would hope from her urging, what they mean to us nationally. The very first national park, Yellowstone, was signed into law in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant; less than a decade previously, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant into law in 1864, protecting Yosemite Valley (and it later became a national park in 1890). Williams starts us off with the question of just precisely from whom was Lincoln protecting the land?. The government itself, which as Williams details throughout some of the chapters, encroaches on some of these national parks with a gusto and glee? From the very white frontiersmen who sent back pictures of El Capitan and the Merced River, as they displaced the indigenous people so that tourists who would later travel to the parks would not encounter the hostility of someone wanting to protect their homelands? From industry and westward expansion? From frontierspeople with visions of McMansions in their eyes? She doesn't answer the question, but she certainly suggests that the answers are complex.

Williams writes that the purpose of her book is to bring a "fuller and more honest narrative" of our national parks, considering the "particularity and peculiarity" of the national parks which will "show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect" (12). In order to do so, we must move to restoration--not the restoration of self-serving myths, but of integrity in a fragmented nation, moving from independence to interdependence (12).  Williams admits that she is "not a historian or a scientist or an employee of a federal land agency privy to public land policy and law. My authority is simply that of a storyteller who lives in the American West in love with this country called home" (13). However, this authority is the authority we all can have, or was at least entrusted in us as a nation with each national park. 

And so Williams journeys to a dozen parks, some of which she was visiting for the first time, and others of which she considered home (she does live in Southern Utah, home of five national parks (Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce)). I feel a connection to Williams (on a side note, I once sold her a book at the bookstore I was working in while I lived in Utah myself, and there was a little bit of a starstruck quality to the exchange. I was 22), and this collection of essays, which at times is a bit uneven, truly is a great read for any naturalist, nature-loving, camping or hiking enthusiast you know. It's a beauty.

From her gorgeous rumination on the oil industry in North Dakota and its effect on Theodore Roosevelt National Park to her musing on American politics and racism in Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, this is not a book for the politically shy. Williams will take it all on--from drug addiction to the economy, from latent racism to energy independence--but she does it in a complex and often poetic way, celebrating the mythic qualities of the land itself. This is an American heritage--filled with an ugly history of destruction and a spiritual connection to the restorative qualities of the land. She writes in layers, recognizing the desire for sweet simplicity in our solutions but acknowledging that such simplicity is a myth in itself. 

This is also  an idiosyncratic book about near miss tragedies and personal losses: she survives a near forest fire in Glacier National Park in Montana and laments the addictions of both herself and her brother in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska (in possibly the most beautiful of the essays). But she comes back, time and again, to the communities we need in order to restore our individual selves, our land, our sense of nationhood, and ultimately a much larger global community. And along the way, she eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Until her ninth essay on Canyonlands National Park in Utah, her own backyard: finally, a lamb stew with winter squash. Served with cornbread, a Southwestern coleslaw, and apple slices with caramel sauce, all served with a Cabernet.  But let me tell you how we got to this feast.

In this essay, she details the letters she has written--some of them never sent--to eleven people or organizations in order to save the southern part of Utah, which is '[d]ownwind from nuclear testing. Downwind from the state lawmakers who want to sell public lands to the highest bidder so they can develop them. Downwind of shale oil and gas extraction that threatens to erode the very beauty that defines America's red rock wilderness" (255). These letter recipients include the environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey, her neighbors and friends, multiple newspapers and media outlets including The Los Angeles Times, the great western explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell, the environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, and the former secretary of the interior Sally Jewell.  Her net is wide. 

She writes to the Los Angeles Time, worried that the land adjacent to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks (as well as to the national monument of Dinosaur, where the husband and I once spent my birthday) will be sold for oil and gas drilling back in 2008. She details the outcry, and the subsequent backing down of the BLM, as well as the auctioning of the land which involved DeChristopher (who was convicted of two felony violations and for making false statements). Williams holds the government--under Bush and subsequently under Obama--to task. She pulls no punches, saying in 2013, "I write to you [Major John Wesley Powell] from the banks of the Colorado River at a time when the landscape before me feels much like the political landscape in our nation's capital. Both are collapsing. Both are experiencing a state of drought: one involves a lack of water; the other involves a lack of vision" (285). 

She then writes in 2014 to Sally Jewell about a dinner she held in Castle Valley, Utah, with Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo-Diné spiritual leader from Monument Valley, her friend Gavin Noyes, and fifteen students from the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities Program (291). There, they discussed the proposal to protect the Bears Ears National Monument. Together, they witness a rare horizontal rainbow, a sight both part of Navajo-Diné stories but also just plain beautiful. Amongst the 18 of them, there is a sense of hope, that this is land that can be protected and preserved and held onto for one another. 

A week later, she held a dinner party of Yellowman, Noyes, and leaders from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Grand Canyon Trust, Canyonlands National Park, the Nature Conservancy, and San Juan County officials. These were not all people who could agree on the boundaries of Bears Ears. These were people who had different stakes in this race. These were people not in agreement.  However, a student from the previous dinner party made a lamb and winter squash stew, and there is a sense of blessing and togetherness, despite the disparate viewpoints of those around the table. "Politics were set aside. The conversation was lively and spirited, full of wit and affection and stories" (293). 

After dinner, they pulled together maps, all of which had different boundaries for a national monument; however, despite these differences they all realized they were "gathered around one common table of concern" (293). In this letter, Williams then chastises Jewell for recommending that the Navajo not work with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In other words, Jewell suggests tht each of political sides not work with the others--even if Jewell ostensibly seems to be siding with Williams in calling for the creation of the monument. Instead, Williams calls for alliance, connection, and continued communication with all, including those who are opposed to the monument. She does not want division and politics; she calls for a sit-down meal. She calls for conversation and community, even with those with whom we disagree. Such was her optimism in 2013.

This book was published on May 31, 2016.

On December 28, 2016, President Barrack Obama signed Bears Ears into a National Monument (with full support from Sally Jewell and Terry Tempest Williams!). 

Only to be undone on December 4, 2017, when President Donald Trump slashed the size of the monument by 85%. 

This past spring, Williams had a few more things to say about it:
No amount of money is a substitute for beauty. No amount of political power can be matched by the power of the land and the indigenous people who live here. If we do not rise to the defense of these sacred lands, Bears Ears National Monument will be reduced to oil rigs and derricks, shining bright against an oiled sky of obliterated stars.
I suspect this conversation is far from over for Williams. I just wonder if it's going to take a lot more than a large, albeit pleasing, pot of lamb stew with winter squash.


Red Wine Lamb Stew with Parsnips and Butternut Squash

[A] student... offered to make the meal for the dinner party. Her menu was simple, thoughtful, and local: lamb stew with winter squash; cornbread; a southwestern coleslaw, and for dessert, apple slices with a communal caramel sauce for dipping. A Caste Rock cabernet was served with the inner. Jonah gave a blessing on the food. We broke together as neighbors and friends. Politics were set aside" (The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, 293).

Adapted from A New Way to Dinner 

Oh my. My, my, my. This is a wonderful little stew, filled with umami countered by sweet parsnips and nutty butternut squash. The original was beef stew with carrots and parsnips; however, this rendition is delightful, and you will love the lamb. No, you will. Oh, and if you have the wherewithal to whip up a batch of mashed potatoes, you would do yourself well. But why bother? Because this works just fine on its own.

Serves 4

1½ pounds lamb, cut into 1½-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1½  Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, diced
8 ounces (about 1 cup) peeled and ½-inch cubed butternut squash
2 medium parsnips, peeled and sliced into ½-inch chunks
½ large onion, diced
1 celery stalk, cut into ½-inch slices
½ large garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef stock
½ cup canned chopped tomatoes
2 thyme sprigs
1 small rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf

1. Heat the oven to 350℉.

2. Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper/ Warm ½ Tbsp of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Working in batches, add the lamb, being careful not to crowd the pot. Cook the lamb on all sides until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer the browned meat to a plate and keep warm while you Brown the rest.

2. Pour off all but about ½  a Tbsp of the fat in the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low, and add the remaining 1 Tbsp of olive oil an the pancetta. Cook until it starts to crisp, about 5 minutes.

3.  Add the parsnips, butternut squash, onion, and celery, and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic an cook for a minute more.

4. Add the wine, stick, tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, bay leave, and 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the lamb, submerging it in the liquid. Cover, and bake until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours.

5.  Remove from the oven. Let the stew cool slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Discard the herbs.  (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the stew, gently reheating over low heat for 10-15 minutes when ready to serve.)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Steak and Cheese Pie in Grendel // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. It turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This ninth installment is a book published in the 1970s.

Aghem. I am not sure what possessed me to choose this book, given what we know about its source material.

So John Gardner's wonderful little novel Grendel is a retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the beast. But here's the rub. The beast eats humans. Both in Beowulf and in Grendel, and I should have known that. I knew that. I took "Beowulf to Dryden" in my first semester in college. I knew that. But I have promised myself I wouldn't preview books to ensure that they have a connection to food (that would sort of ruin the project); but seriously. I have a graduate degree in English. I probably should have thought this one through. 

So, to be quite clear, I am not making human. I promise. I am, instead, focusing on what those 10th-century Brits who retell stories about 5th-century Danes may have eaten (because we don't really know). And so we're having steak and cheese pie. That makes reasonable sense, right? It seems like the best compromise, I think.

I will tell you this: the resulting steak and cheese pie is actually quite good. However, if your belly is a bit squeamish, you might just want to skip ahead to the recipe.

Alright, let's recap Beowulf to prep us for Grendel, and then let's get down to business, my friends.  Beuwulf goes something like this: we have a Danish king (Hrothgar) who is plagued by the monster Grendel. Nightly, Grendel attacks the meadhall, killing and eating (of course) the Danish warriors. This goes on for some time (okay, 12 years), with Grendel snatching up the men and eating them, until the remaining warriors are scared to sleep at night. Declining with age, Hrothgar accepts the help of the Geats (a seafaring people from the south of Sweden), specifically our hero, Beowulf. That night, there is feasting, as can be expected. Grendel attacks Heorot Hall, and Beowulf fights Grendel in hand-to-hand combat, tearing the monster's arm off at the shoulder (and subsequently displaying it in the mead-hall). Grendel flees into the wilderness and dies. Festivities ensue. Let's imagine it is here that meat and cheese pie would be served. However, the story is not over. 

Grendel's mother arrives to avenge her son's death. As the warriors are sleeping off a night of mead and ale, she attacks. Panicked, she retreats to her lair, a cave beneath a lake. Not to be outdone, Beowulf follows, dives into the lake, slays her with a sword he finds in her mountains of treasure, and returns to the surface of the earth with her severed head. Again, much partying ensues. Perhaps more meat and cheese pie. Beowulf heads home, eventually becomes the King of the Geats, and rules for fifty years. However, Beowulf has one last battle in him: he goes after a village-slaughtering dragon who doesn't take kindly to thieves. With only one man, Wiglaf, at his side, he defeats the dragon, but suffers his own wound, thus shuffling off this mortal coil. Funeral follows. Earthen memorial mounds are built. Perhaps more meat pie is eaten. Hard to say.

Enter in John Gardner's retelling of this epic, this time from the monster's point of view. Nearing the end of his 12-year run on terrorizing the Danish meadhall, Grendel has sort of had it with all things Danish. Each year is the same as the last, and like any eye-liner wearing, existentialist teenager, he cannot see the point of any of it. He fancies himself the intellectual philosopher, stranded in a lonely world, and the humans are the base consumers. It's as if he's dressed all in black and just carrying around Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Yes, he eats people, but it's the part he has to play: even he says, "I had to eat them" (33). Sure, he has eaten an old woman who tasted of "urine and spleen, which made me spit" (7), and "[M]y belly rumbles, sick on their sour meat" (13). This is duty, this is fulfilling one's role in a society. This is fate, but not some fate from the gods. No this is a human-inflicted fate. 

Twelve years prior, Grendel merely lurked around the meadhall, fascinated by The Shaper, who takes the reality of a brutal world and retells it as poetry ("he stares strange-eyed at the mindless world and turns dry sticks to old" (49)), where monsters, such as he, are to be feared. While the beauty of the songs enrapture Grendel, they remind Grendel that he can communicate with no one, including the meadhall goers, whom he pleads for "Mercy! Peace!" (51) as he tries to join them, and they do not understand his language, as they scream and flee in terror.  Nor can he communicate with his strange mute mother who smells of "wild pig and fish" (29). And when he returns to the meadhall two days after killing those who attacked him when he asked for peace, the Shaper sings of how the brave dead fought the monster (54). Grendel comes to understand that language is just another way to create the world, and currently the Shaper is creating a world where one race is to be saved, and another--Grendel's--not (55). Tormented and lonely, Grendel does not know what to believe--the Shaper, who prophesies a life of loneliness or his own understanding of reality, where he is also tormented by loneliness. No way this monster is going to win. 

Grendel falls in with a bad crowd, mostly a dragon who encourages Grendel to make a choice--either be a hero or a monster. But no matter what he chooses, he should choose it fully. We're all going to die anyway. So Grendel chooses monster, in part, because when he returns to the meadhall, he hears the Shaper. The Shaper sings of the goodness of a god that blessed the Danes with Hrothgar, who accepts their toast with "bits of food in his beard" (77). A guard comes upon Grendel as he listens, "I'd meant them no harm, but they attacked me again, as always" (79). And so, Grendel devours the guard "with glee" (77). Thus, he begins his reign of terror on the meadhall, launching his first of many raids on the meadhall, killing seven and devouring them on the spot (79). He claims: 

I was transformed. I was a new focus for the clutter of space I stood in: if the world had once imploded on the tree where I waited, trapped and full of pain, it now blasted outward, away from me, screeching terror. I had become myself, the mama I'd searched the cliffs for once in vain. But that merely hints at what I mean. I had become something, as if born again. I had hung between possibilities before, between the cold truths I knew and the heart-sucking conjuring tricks of the Shaper; now that was passed: I was Grendel, Ruiner of Meadhalls, Wrecker of Kings! (80)
He has found it now: the ability to be something. To claim an identity. Yes, an identity of the destruction--ruiner, wrecker--but an identity nonetheless.

Upon realizing his own new identity, Grendel ends up in a conversation with Unferth, the best of Hrothgar's thanes. It takes some time, but eventually, Unferth understands, at least part of, what Grendel is saying: finally, the ability to communicate with language. They have a talk about heroism, or at least Grendel does, and he mocks it thoroughly because he comes to understand his role in others' heroism: "I went on polishing the apple, smiling. "And the awful inconvenience," I said. "Always having to stand erect, always having to find noble language! It must wear on a man."" (84). Heroism is itself as much destruction as Grendel's consumption is:
Ah, ah, it must be a terrible burden, though, being a hero—glory reaper, harvester of monsters! Everybody always watching you, seeing if you're still heroic... But no doubt there are compensations," I said. "The pleasant feeling of vast superiority, the easy success with women... And the joy of self-knowledge, that's a great compensation! The easy and absolute certainty that whatever the danger, however terrible the odds, you'll stand firm, behave with the dignity of a hero, yea, even to the grave!" (84-85)

This is not the glory that Grendel had hoped for in finally making the overtures with the Danes.  "So much for heroism. So much for the harvest virgin. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons" (90). And Grendel toys with Unferth mocking him and not even killing him, which would afford him a hero's death. He is beginning to realize the part he is made to play, and that they are dependent upon him always remaining monstrous: "My enemies define themselves...on me" (91). "So much for heroism," indeed. The Shaper dies. And Grendel is bored, so achingly bored by playing his role. He fancies that his killing gives the Danes as much meaning as it gives them--it gives them a sense of purpose and the opportunity to engage in battles and perform great deeds. His killing gives them their humanity, but it is so boring.  

And we're only in year two (of twelve).

Then a woman Wealthoew arrives as a gift from her brother to Hrothgar, and she is breathtaking. Wealtheow is new queen and meadbowl-bearer, and, of course, Grendel falls hopelessly in love with her. Or as much as a teen-aged monster with no real ability to communicate with his beloved can do. And he decides to kill her because he is a teen-aged monster with no real communicate that he is frustrated by the men's lack of ability to see her sorrow and her isolation in a community that is not her own. And just as quickly he decides not to kill her. Such is the fate of teen-aged love.  So he goes back to his more general killing and eating. "Tedium is the worst pain" (138). 

Then the Geats arrive. The Danes are embarrassed to have to be rescued by the Stranger (whom we all know is Beowulf), and even Grendel notices "Honor is very big with them; they'd rather be eaten alive than be bailed out by strangers" (159).  Much mead boasting ensues. And Grendel declares that Beowulf "was insane" (162). He one-ups Unferth in stories, and Hrothgar calls for Wealtheow to pass the meadbowl some more. They sleep, and Grendel enters the meadhall's "great cavernous belly" once more (169). The hall itself is the consumer of Danes, Geats, and Grendel alike, and Grendel merely an active agent. He ties a tablecloth around his neck as a napkin and eats one sleeping man and goes after another--Beowulf (168).  Then we learn that Beowulf is more monstrous than the monster. He rips Grendel's arm from his body. "I scream, facing him, grotesquely shaking hands—dear long-lost brother, kinsman-thane—and the timbered hall screams back at me--who is the monster? Who is the hero?" (168-69). He is Beowulf and Beowulf is he. Long lost brothers, ripping limb from limb. And Grendel realizes he will die, just as the dragon suggested, without a lot of fanfare or importance and merely out of an accident, a slip of fate (or in this case on blood). The only one who will mourn him is himself, in this indifferent world.

So let's think about consumption in Grendel and by extension in Beowulf.  In this world, Grendel consumes and consumes, so let's recap three different ways this voracious consumption matters--

Identity: As much as he consumes these people he so wants to be accepted by, they will not recognize him as any more than monster. Yes, it's the consumption that makes him monstrous in their eyes, but he can be and is nothing else. Might as well consume the very thing he wishes desperately to be associated with.

The threat the the host/guest relationship: Grendel likes to crash a good feast. And in doing so, he serves as a threat between the host/guest relationship. Hosts welcome guests, provide them food, warmth, shelter, protection. Guests act accordingly with gratitude. Enter monster. Now everything is all awry. To not be a protective host is to lose your standing, and Hrothgar cannot protect his guests or even his kinsmen. He has no power, and Grendel, it seems, has it all. 

Power: There is certainly power in Grendel's consumption, but it is a nihilistic power that brings him nothing in the end. His power becomes tedious and predictable, and it doesn't have any meaning, or fulfillment for the teen-aged and petulant monster. From the well-stocked meadhall (filled with wine, mead, ale (and let's assume) meat and cheese pie) to Grendel's feasting upon the Danes, this is a world of blind consumption that gives a thin identity. What does all this consumption add up to save a nihilistic recognition that we are trapped in some cycle of celebrate, consume, mourn? We are completely dependent upon each other for binary power definition, breaking the power is nigh impossible, and again and again we slip back into the cycle, try as Grendel might to change the narrative.    

Oh John Gardner, you pessimistic but wickedly brilliant fellow (beyond this little blog post, apparently Gardner was interested in exploring "the main ideas of Western Civilization. . . and go through them in the voice of the monster, with the story already taken care of, with the various philosophical attitudes (though with Sartre in particular), and see[ing] what I could do"--go have a gander). 

Let's just go eat some meat pie, shall we? I should have served our nihilism with mead. 


Steak and Cheese Pie

She was brighter than the hearthfire, talking again with her family and friends, observing the antics of the bear. It was the king, old Hrothgar, who carried the meadbowl from table to table tonight. He walked, dignified, from group to group, smiling and filling the drinking cups, and you'dhave sworn from his look that never until tonight had the old man been absolutely happy. He would glance at his queen from time to time as he moved among his people and hers, the Danes and Helmings, and with each glance his smile would grow warmer for a moment and a thoughtful look would come over his eyes (Grendel, 106).

Doesn't it seem as if Steak and Cheese Pie would be served at such an event? If only I had purchased mead!

Adapted from The Cottage Kitchen 

This is a lovely steak and cheese pie. You might cut up some button mushrooms and throw them in for even more umami goodness.  Do watch the salt--we put a little too much in. Also this is delightful the next day, too.

2 Tbsp salted butter, plus more for greasing
2 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves
1½ pounds stewing beef, cut into 1-inch cubes
1½ cups chicken or beef stock
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp dry white wine
1½ Tbsp dried porcini mushrooms, roughly chopped
3-4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 Tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves
2 dried bay leaves
8 ounces frozen puff pastry, thawed
7 ounces Taleggio cheese, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2.  In a large ovenproof saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter with 1 Tbsp of oil. Working in batches, add the garlic and the cubed beef and brown the meat on all sides, about 3-5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Add a splash of stock to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until stock is evaporated, about 1-2 minutes.

3.  Add the remaining Tbsp of oil and the onion and cook, stirring, until lightly transparent, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the stock, wine, mushrooms, thyme, sage, and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. 

4.  Return the meat to the pan, and place the pan in the oven. Bake until the meat is tender, about 1½ hours. At this point, you can cool the filling and refrigerate overnight. Or you can sally forth. 

5.  Butter a 9½-inch round pie dish with a depth of 1½ inches.

6.  On a slightly floured work surface, roll out the pastry into 2 circles large enough to fit the pie dish. Place a circle in the bottom of the pie dish.  Add the meat filling and cheese pieces in 3-4 layers. Cover the dish with the remaining pastry, trim, and pinch the edges to seal. Cut a hole in the middle of the pie to allow steam to escape.

7.  Bake until browned on top and heated through, 40-55 minutes. If the pastry browns too quickly, cover with foil. Serve hot straight from the oven.