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Writers and Food

Day 095/365: Burn Baby, Burn!A recent conversation with Jeffery Deaver revealed details of a survey he had undertaken. Whereas I had found a strong link between writing and music (and hence a great number of writers also turn out to be musically inclined), he had discovered that a great number of writers like to cook. I have to count myself among that happy crew, being both writer, musician and cook.

Count Orsino, beginning Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with the words “If music be the food of love, play on…” perhaps best summarizes the relationship I now perceive between food, writing, music, even art in general.

When considering the subject of food, I thought immediately of home, of the large stone-floored kitchen, the marble island that centers it, the wide black cooking range. It is here that I prepare food for friends, for transient visitors. Most of all, it is here that I now prepare food for my family, and rare is the day when I am not to be found there in the early evening. There are times, of course, when touring and literary engagements take me away for a few days, sometimes a week or two, and always I am eager to return, not only to the company of my family, but to my familiar ground: the kitchen.

Orphaned at an early age, I did not know a family kitchen in the house. My brother and I—separated when he was eight and I was seven—stayed apart and away from home until we were teenagers, and even then—returning from school as teenagers—we suffered the loss of our maternal grandmother, the woman who had raised us. My mother and father already gone, my maternal grandfather dead many years before in a drowning accident, we were left to fend for ourselves.

It wasn’t until many years later, married with a child, that I started to appreciate the kitchen as the heart of the house. The warmth, the fellowship of friends and visitors, but most of all the awareness of the family itself—these things were new to me, and I began to appreciate them greatly.

The first marriage ended, and then I met my second and current wife, and last year we finally moved to a house that was large enough to provide a sizable kitchen, one where we could prepare food for ten or twelve people at a time, and now the day is rare when I do not cook.

And as I cook, I listen to music. I am a musician as well as a writer, and a deep and profound passion for music has always been an inherent part of my life. I listen to blues, jazz, soul, to classical music, to whatever suits my mood, and the music is both loud enough to enjoy, quiet enough to continue the tremendous conversations that always seem to fill the kitchen.

Stove Knobs - SolarizedIt is this room that people seem always to gravitate toward, a natural progression toward the center of things. Whether we eat great English roasts with parsnip and cabbage and potatoes basted in goose fat; perhaps Italian dishes—Cacciatore, Fish En Papillote, Caponata, Veal Piccata; often curries—Chicken Dhansak, Kashmiri Korma, Hyderebadi Lamb…the meal does not seem to matter. It is always prepared as a pleasure, never as a chore, and often the more adventurous and unusual, the better it turns out. Among friends and family we are earning a reputation for providing fine dinners, and often, as guests leave, they are already making tentative inquiries as to how long it will be before they can return. This, above and beyond everything, is the best compliment of all for a cook.

My son, now thirteen, spent the first years of his life with a Bangladeshi child minder. She would collect him from school and look after him each day for a few hours until my wife and I had finished work. She was a truly wonderful cook, and she helped cultivate in him a wide appreciation for all things. He does not have a “sweet-tooth,” preferring always spiced and savory foods instead of cookies, cakes, and desserts. And he enjoys to cook also, though is perhaps not as patient as he should be, caring more for the exciting flash-frying and basting over the tedious preparation of endless mange-touts! But he is—as a child—much as I am as an adult. He will try anything.

Many children, certainly in England, have been accustomed to bland and plain foods, but my son wants to eat squid and octopus, bream, Camembert, Stilton. He wants to sauté finely sliced Savoy cabbage in garlic and caraway seed. He wants to purée cannellini beans with onions, Cheshire cheese and swaths of black pepper as a bed for parsley and thyme-encrusted roast pork, and he will always ask for a taste of “Chardonnay,” “Merlot,” or “Cab Sav”—whatever it is that we happen to be drinking with our meal.

Perhaps most important, it is this that I appreciate most of all: The fact that I have another small legacy to leave with my son. The appreciation of good meat and vegetables, an understanding of fine cuisine, of good home-style cooking, the joy of spending time preparing something that everyone can enjoy, and then opening the door to one’s house, to one’s kitchen, and gathering friends together for something special—great conversation, great philosophy, great music, great company. After all, is this not life?

I am so often asked where I find the time to answer every letter, every e-mail, and I receive many, many such communications on a daily basis. My answer is always the same—if you have no time for people, then you have not time for living. And in considering those words of Count Orsino, I am tempted to plagiarize and amend to this setting: “If love of food and music be our play, then perchance we should live forever…”

R.J. Ellory is the author of eight novels including the bestselling A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, which was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Barry Award, the 813 Trophy, the Quebec Booksellers’ Prize and was winner of the Nouvel Observateur Crime Fiction Prize. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages. R.J. Ellory currently lives in England.