Lydia Davis, Harry Mathews: Stuffed Animals (Madras Press, 2013)

Cover art by Heather Alexander

Cover art by Heather Alexander

If she comes, I will smile and smile…. I won’t even be happy, because after the preparation of the meal I won’t have the strength. And if, with my sorry excuse for a first course resting in a bowl in my hands, I hesitate to leave the kitchen and enter the dining room, and if she, at the same time, feeling my embarrassment, hesitates to leave the living room and enter the dining room from the other side, then for that long interval the beautiful room will be empty.

~~ Lydia Davis, “Kafka Cooks Dinner”

Madras Press knows how to make me happy, in so many ways.

In this part of their 2013 collection we find two books in one (if teeny-tiny books), upside-down-back-to-back a la Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey; matte cover (go ahead, rub it against your cheek, you know you want to), five stories by Lydia Davis (who won the Man Booker prize a few months later) and one by sole American Oulipo member Harry Mathews… all about cooking and food. This perfectly coincided with my Science of Gastronomy course – though I suppose I should’ve waited for Top Chef season. But once I read it, I just couldn’t wait.

The stories are reprints from over the years, and most are available online, but it’s still nice to have them in a single thematic package. They’re all slightly absurdist, the kind of thing you smile at because people’s neuroses are, when you get right down to it, pretty funny. At least other people’s are; our own neuroses aren’t neuroses at all, of course, but the concerns of a careful, engaged mind. Or so I keep telling myself.

First, Lydia Davis:

The Mice

Mice live in our walls but do not trouble our kitchen.… Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen.
…In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it.… They are faced with something so out of proportion to their experience that they cannot deal with it.

It concerns me that I understand the shame of feeling one’s kitchen isn’t good enough for mice. And I definitely understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by bounty. It’s only a paragraph long, but it’s quite a paragraph, to go from here to there.

Meat, My Husband

My husband’s favorite food, in childhood, was corned beef. I found this out yesterday when friends came over and we started talking about food.… But I’m the one who cooks most of his meals now. Often I make him meals with no meat in them at all because I don’t think meat is good for us.
But generally he doesn’t like what I cook as much as what he used to eat in diners and certainly not as much as what he used to make for himself before he met me.

I’m pretty sure this story is about more than food. The metaphor “home cooking” comes to mind. Does this mean I’m unusually perverted?

Happiest Moment is a flash so short, and so perfect, that I won’t attempt to extract a quote.

Kafka Cooks Dinner

I am filled with despair as the day approaches when my dear Milena will come. I have hardly begun to decide what to offer her….
The thought of this dinner has been with me constantly all week, weighing on me in the same way that in the deep sea there is no place that is not under the greatest pressure. Now and then I summon all my energy and work at the menu as if I would be forced to hammer a nail into a stone, as if I were both the one hammering and also the nail. But at other times, I sit here reading in the afternoon, a myrtle in my buttonhole, and there are such beautiful passages in the book that I think I have become beautiful myself.

I suspect most people will find the situation funny. The angst-ridden overthinkers will not. Trust me on this. Sometimes the world can seem to ride on the choice between potato salad and bratwurst, but in the end, we finally realize it doesn’t matter if we do everything perfectly: no one’s going to like us anyway because we’re nervous wrecks.

Eating Fish Alone

I love fish, but many fish should not be eaten anymore, and it has become difficult to know which fish I can eat. I carry with me in my wallet a little folding list put out by the National Audubon Society that advises which fish to avoid, which fish to eat with caution, and which fish to eat freely.
When I eat with other people I do not take this list out of my wallet, because it is not much fun to have dinner with someone who takes a list like this out of her wallet before she orders. I simply manage without it, though usually I can remember only that I should not eat farmed salmon, or wild salmon, except for wild Alaskan salmon, which is never on the menu.

Or, “Kafka Dines Out.” Eating is very confusing these days, isn’t it? Not only does everyone have very rigid ideas of what is or is not ok to eat whether for reasons of health or morals, but everyone feels a need to explain their beliefs in detail and a mission to convert everyone else to their cause. That isn’t what the story is about, of course – it’s the “Alone” part that makes it fascinating, how we relate to others, how we fear we might be relating to others – but it’s a great hook. This story originally appeared in Tin House #29, and they just posted it on their blog last May to celebrate Davis’ Man Booker prize. I bookmarked it to use for a future Top Chef recap, but destiny has forced my hand in another direction.

Then we turn the book over and upside down, and lo and behold, we have yet a whole other story:

Harry Mathews, Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double), available online in text and audio.

Carefully lower the lamb into a 25-inch casserole. (If you have no such casserole, buy one. If it will not fit in your oven, consider this merely one more symptom of the shoddiness of our age, which the popularity of dishes like farce double may someday remedy.)

Cover Art by Sippanont Samchai

Cover Art by Sippanont Samchai

This should give you some hint that the piece is not entirely serious. I’ve observed (via the wonders of the internet and various Jeffrey Steingarten and Anthony Bourdain books) a fair amount of complex cooking in my time, from Grant Achatz making raspberry glass to French farmers cooking a pig in the Provence countryside, but nothing comes close to this recipe. It includes what might be every ingredient in the known universe – from the extremely common like parsnips and garlic, to the unexpected but not unusual like juniper berries, to the imaginary, like a mouthless fish captured by underwater boomerang. Not to mention the clay that must be molded to contain the quenelles. And for those unfamiliar with the kitchen: I’m pretty sure cooking anything at 445 degrees (445?) for five hours will reduce it to cinders.

Stuffed within this elaborate recipe is the plot of a folk song sung by the people of La Tour Lambert while the lamb roasts. The song follows a young man who, initiated into sex by his stepmother, goes searching for his dead mother via the beds of beautiful women of all hair colors, until he comes upon a humble shepherdess with the answer he seeks. You can see where the “farce double” of the title comes from now, right?

In a 2007 interview with The Paris Review, Mathews talks about his invitation into Oulipo:

He asked me if I’d be interested in joining. After all, he said, I had unwittingly written some purely Oulipian pieces. One of them was excruciatingly hard to do: I took two texts, Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and a cauliflower recipe from a Julia Child cookbook. I made a list of the vocabularies in each piece and I rewrote the poem using the vocabulary of the recipe and vice versa. It was agony. But I discovered something very important, which is that once you start on a project like that, no matter how insane it is, you rapidly become convinced that there’s a solution, which is, of course, nonsense. You have to make it happen. When I first visited the Oulipo, I told them about this. And what I had thought had been a shameful, secret habit was, to them, perfectly fine.

I’m not sure if this is that story or not – no cauliflower, and no Keats vocabulary – but it might be along the same idea. The interview also makes some connections I’m not sure I want made. Then again, he’s the author, I suppose he should know.

All in all, a wonderful little packet of culinary reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.