Monday, 17 November 2014

Characters Must Eat, by Ian Watson

Group Chairman Ian Watson on all things culinary...

Photo credit: Enrique Corominas
Science Fiction and Fantasy cookcooks are an established tradition.

One of the inspirations of my 2-volume science fantasy saga The Books of Mana (Lucky's Harvest and The Fallen Moon) was Finnish cookbooks because now my characters would have something to feast upon.  More recently myself and my beloved Cristina (cookery author as well as Spanish translator of George Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire) co-wrote a cookbook about 50 meals named after famous people for the 50th anniversary of the leading Spanish book club Círculo de Lectores (Readers' Circle).  After a while meals began to cross-reference as though a secret history of the world was emerging gastronomically.  Here are the histories of a couple of "named" dishes, in English for the very first time.

Oysters Rockefeller
In 1840 Italian immigrant Antoine Aliciatore founded America´s oldest family-run restaurant in culturally French New Orleans after lack of success in New York.  In 1899 a shortage of imported French snails caused his son Jules to turn to the local oysters, resulting in a dish which he named after John D. Rockefeller (1839 - 1937), America´s first billionaire, because Jules´sauce was very rich too.
The sauce was also green, a purée of green vegetables famously scorning any use of spinach, though its exact ingredients were kept a family secret.  Since Antoine´s has sold 3.5 million Oysters Rockefeller between then and now, many chefs attempted copies, often courtesy of spinach.  In 1986 apparently a laboratory analysis showed the presence of parsley, puréed celery, chives, and capers as well as olive oil—one must imagine a diner suddenly running out of Antoine´s with an Oyster Rockefeller clutched in his hand and escaping in a waiting car to that laboratory.
Rockefeller grew rich by revolutionising the petroleum industry, and he was a pioneering philanthropist, endowing much medical research and two universities.  He was also a teetotaller, whereas Jules´ sauce was said to benefit by a dash of "the Green Fairy", absinthe, the preferred tipple of many French artists of the time.  So Rockefeller may never have tasted his namesake dish, or at least not in its full original glory...

Chicken Marengo
On 14 June 1800, having taken his army over the Alps into northern Italy like a latterday Hannibal, Napoleon brilliantly triumphed over the Austrians at Marengo, after which in a nearby farmhouse his cook Dunant improvised from the few items available a meal of chicken—diced by a sabre! and fried in olive oil—plus a tomato-based sauce topped with crayfish and fried eggs, a dish which became immortal, and a symbol of France.
Except for some awkward facts such as that... Dunant only began to work for Napoleon 2 years later, Napoleon didn´t eat in any farmhouse or old inn but went back to his headquarters, olive oil hardly existed locally, and Napoleon was extremely lucky to win, with huge casualties on both sides.
A master of spin, Napoleon had official maps of the battle destroyed and redrawn to conform with his vision, and was still revising the facts years later in exile.  A recent book in English, Napoleon´s Chicken Marengo: Creating the Myth of the Emperor´s Favourite Dish (2011) by Napoleonic expert Andrew Uffindell reveals fascinatingly how the name Marengo was spun for political reasons, as well as the meal itself till "Marengo" was simply a title covering a huge range of variations in the competing newfangled restaurants of Paris in the 1820s where a clever owner could make a fortune within 5 years. In 1988 the first French astronaut took tinned veal Marengo, adjusted for zero gravity, to the Mir space station, carrying this mythic meal beyond the Earth.

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