Books have always been my friends and as far as I can remember, I’ve always read a lot. I can conjure Mum’s voice calling up the stairs, “Are you reading again? I’ve been calling and calling. Get down here right now to help me with [choose a minor household task]!”
Novel Food No. 40
Has it really been just seven months since we’ve felt a little as though we are under house arrest?! Mercifully, food sources haven’t been depleted. Even flour is back on store shelves.
Over the past seven months, I feel as though all I’ve been doing is reading. Cookbooks, textbooks, non-fiction, fiction…. Short stories. Novels. More novels. It’s the great escape, isn’t it?
Not all the books I’ve read recently are centered around food though. “Son of Trickster” by Eden Robinson most definitely is not. Or rather, none of the featured food is quite the kind of food that we would ever choose to eat. But it’s a good book; it’s no wonder that it was on the shortlist for Canada’s 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as being 2020’s first runner-up in CBC’s annual “battle of the books” competition, Canada Reads.
I really liked the first half of this wonderfully written novel. I liked the boy, Jared, who took care of the senile man Mr. Jaks next door, and travelled by bus to give the money from selling special cookies to his father so his father, new wife and their baby would not be evicted. I liked Jared, in spite of his alcohol abuse and drug taking. And I liked his neighbour’s Mrs Jaks’ granddaughter Sarah, in spite of her blue hair, drug taking, and alcohol abuse. I liked her defiance.
I even liked Jared’s mother and boyfriend, in spite of their really poor choices in what they consumed (the description of making KD for dinner is really scary!).
And then things got quite surreal, with shape shifting and ravens and sea otters and talking fireflies and grizzly bears that could walk through walls and…. Still, it held my interest to the end, and I’m eager to read the second part of the Trickster trilogy.
There are not many references to food to prepare in the book. And, to tell the truth, the few food references there are really do leave quite a lot to be desired (fish nuggets dipped in ketchup, cookies, cocoa, popcorn and rootbeer, Lucky Charms, and KD).
Son of Trickster by Eden Robinson
His tiny, tightly permed maternal grandmother, Anita Moody, had never liked him. As far back as Jared could remember, she’d watched him suspiciously with her clear black eyes. […]
“Wee’git,” she’d say if his parents left them alone. “If you hurt her, I will kill you and bury you where no one can resurrect you. Get, you dirty dog’s arse.”
“I’m Jared,” he’d said.
“Trickster,” she’d said. “You still smell like lightning.”
[1. Nanas I Have Loved]
They watched the water boil. His mom shook in the macaroni. She paused to light a menthol and blew the smoke towards the ceiling. He turned and hopped onto the counter. He offered her an empty beer bottle and she tapped her cigarette ash in it. After a bit, she tucked her cigarette into the corner of her mouth, used the lid to drain the macaroni and then shook the powdered cheese in the pot. She globbed in a generous spoonful of margarine and mixed until it was uniformly orange. She poured some in a cup, handing it to Jared. He squirted some ketchup on it. She poured herself a cup and they toasted.
“Same shit, different year,” she said.
“You should write for Hallmark, Mom.”
[12. New Year’s Weltschmertz]
Our bodies are transitory vessels built from recycled carbon like every other living being on this planet. Bits and parts of you have probably been a cricket or a dinosaur or a single blade of grass on the prairies.
With all the power of technology and science in the world, I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that you still trust a human face to be a human. But come closer and let me speak to the creatures that swim in your ancient oceans, the old ones that sing to you in your dreams. Encoded memories so frayed you think they’re extinct, but they wait, coiled and unblinking, in your blood and your bones.
[20. The Human Manual]
[spoiler alert]→ And then Jared was crying. It was sudden and he couldn’t stop it and the ache of everything, everything, everything, the sadness of it, the unfairness of it.←[/spoiler alert]
[33. The Shadow of Your Existence] (To view the blank area, use your cursor to highlight between the arrows.)
When I was thinking about Novel Food #40 and the fact that there really aren’t any dishes from Eden Robinson’s novel to make – or at least none that we’d really want to eat, I suddenly thought about shape shifting. Because that’s really what we do with ingredients, isn’t it?
Ignoring the lurid orange colour of the powder in a KD box, the contents are just noodles and cheese. The KD instructions say to add milk and butter (or eeeeeeek margarine) at some point. Aside from the really unfortunate colour of the cheese – or is it “cheese product”? – there isn’t all that much difference between macaroni and cheese from scratch.
Except the taste. And the texture.
It’s true: I’m a snob. I have rarely eaten KD and since adulthood, only under duress. Mum always made macaroni and cheese from scratch – except for the very brief period in the 1960s when she indulged us by allowing us to have Deluxe KD that came with a tin of not-quite-liquid cheese sauce instead of a packet of cheese powder.
And ketchup? I loathe it. Okay, maybe “loathe” is a little strong. After all, I can swallow it. But it is awfully sweet….
It’s possible that I cannot dissociate ketchup from the few nightmare lunches when Mum made a cheese soufflé. Reaching back into my memory of how it looked when she brought it from the oven to the table, I suspect it was a completely correct cheese soufflé. But everything about it offended my overly picky childhood sensibilities (I’m still not all that wild about eggy dishes). I remember spending the whole lunch-hour staring teary-eyed at the plate with its tiny amount of soufflé sitting and congealing, and hearing Mum say over and over, “Don’t be silly. Eat up. It’s almost time for school.” So I put a small portion on my fork, doused it in ketchup, took a deep breath, shoved the offending mess into my mouth and swallowed. Then took several gulps of milk to chase the horror down.
In fact, my KD experiences have been so rare that I had to google to find out how it is made. In my search, I came across the following.
Kraft Dinner is a much maligned food product, loved by some and mocked by many. In my observation, a big part of the problem comes from the fact that often when people have tried it and not liked it, they made it wrong. Well, even a good steak can be cooked poorly and become almost unpalatable; the same is true with this fine Canadian food staple. So here is my attempt to get you to give KD another try, cooked the right way.[…]
The Ketchup Issue: Some purists believe that KD should never be eaten with ketchup. Ketchup is in fact acceptable under the following conditions: 1) You have eaten more than half of your KD serving already and it is getting cold, and 2) The ketchup you use is French’s. (Anything except Heinz is acceptable. No true Canadian should ever use Heinz ketchup after what they pulled in Leamington.)
– Daren, DarenWride.com – I’d rather be outside… | The Right Way to Cook Kraft Dinner
I associate macaroni and cheese with chilly nights. And finally, after a particularly hot summer (with no AC), the nights are cooler.
J’adore macaroni and cheese. From autumn to late spring, I could eat it every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. But not macaroni and cheese out of a box. No. No. No.
It has to be from scratch, the way that Mum made it, starting with a béchamel – although Mum called it “white sauce” – and decent grated cheddar cheese. With rotini or penne or shells, just because I like them better than elbow noodles. And steamed broccoli if it’s for dinner. And toasted bread crumbs to go on top.
I don’t think Jared’s mother would approve….
Macaroni and Cheese
No measurements, I’m assuming anyone reading this will already know what to do
- good shot béchamel made with butter (and/or olive oil) and milk
- grated cheddar cheese (plus any bits of other hard cheeses that should be used up)
- salt and pepper
- grainy mustard, optional
- penne, rotini, or macaroni
- broccoli stems and florets, optional
- butter, optional
- toasted bread crumbs, obligatory
- preheat water: Fill a large lidded pot with cold water and put it over medium high heat.
- cheese sauce: Make the cheese sauce. Stir in grainy mustard, if using. Add salt and pepper to taste. (Go easy on the salt; there’s lots of salt in cheese.) Set the sauce aside if it’s done before the pasta. (It takes about 10 minutes to make the sauce.)
- pasta and optional broccoli: When the water is boiling, add a good handful of salt. Dump the pasta in and, if adding broccoli, set the timer for 2 minutes less than it takes for the pasta to be ready. Add the broccoli two minutes before the pasta is al dente. (Rotini take 12-13 minutes in our house, so 10-11 minutes for rotini and 2 minutes for the broccoli.) Drain into a colander.
- putting it all together: Put a blob of butter into the bottom of a serving dish and dump the still hot drained pasta over the butter. Pour the still hot cheese sauce overtop. Stir with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle toasted bread crumbs overtop.
To bake or not to bake: I like macaroni and cheese right out of the pot. But it’s good if it’s baked too. If baking, make sure that the pasta is really al dente. It continues to cook when being baked.
broccoli or no broccoli: If we’re having macaroni and cheese for dinner, I add the broccoli. But if it’s for lunch, I’m willing to omit the broccoli. Salad is a good alternative to have as a side, if there’s lettuce in the fridge.
Inspired by Adam Gopnik’s 2007 article in the New Yorker in 2007, Simona (briciole) and Lisa (Champaign Taste) launched “Novel Food”, looking forward to “hearing interesting literary and culinary stories” from other food bloggers.
There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.
Adam Gopnik, “Cooked Books: Real Food from Fictional Recipes”, New Yorker, 2 April 2007
Summer is quickly moving to fall in the Northern Hemisphere, which means it is time to launch a new edition of the culinary/literary event Novel Food, the 40th to be precise. Novel Food is a voyage of literary discovery and a party featuring literary-inspired dishes contributed by event’s participants. This is the 13th anniversary edition: this is a hard year for the world and for California right now it is even more so. Still, I think it is important to focus on the small joys of daily life and certainly reading and cooking have been a comfort to me in the recent months, even more than usual.
I hope you will join. I am looking forward to learning about a published literary work (a novel, novella, short story, memoir, bio, poem, etc.) that provided you with culinary inspiration.
– Simone, briciole
For more information on how to participate, please see Novel Food #40.
» béchamel tip
» Pasta with Nettles and Cream Sauce (Mmm…Canada)
» smoked penne and cheese (PPN #184)
» Raita inspired by “The Mistress of Spices” (Novel Food No.39)
» Grilled Cheese Sandwiches inspired by “All Our Wrong Todays” (Novel Food No.38)
» Vintage Wine and “A Gentleman in Moscow” (Novel Food No.37)
» Asparagus Gratin from “Rules of Civility” (Novel Food No.36)