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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Beige Wall of Fiction Foods
In writing classes, I have sometimes asked students to jot down a brief description of a meal—no scene or story or characters consuming it, ideally no editorializing or narration, just a succinct description of food on a plate or table. Often the students resist at first, suspicious of the focus, but after a few questions their expressions sharpen slightly and they get to work, most of them already planning where this stripped-down start will take them. The catch is that when they are done they are told to pass their descriptions to another student, and write a scene based on what they’re given.
The fun of this exercise is that even the most deliberately uninspired student ends up finding plenty to extrapolate from the most basic list of ingredients. Still, out of sheer perversity I began to wonder if I could come up with foods that could appear in fiction but be total blanks and say absolutely nothing, the beige wall of fiction food.
I started off basic. How about pasta? Practically everyone eats it. Not even spaghetti and meatballs, which might say Italian-Americana—if a character cooking pasta alla puttanesca, does it really tell us anything about her? That turned out to be a bad example, since puttanesca means “whore-style.” Well played, subconscious. And in fact this was how it turned out every single time. I was totally unable to avoid grafting a series of assumptions onto every single food. I tried foods that are trendy-common and dated-common, fairly specialized foods, and foods that are so outdated no one eats them and foods so ubiquitous that almost everyone eats them and no one cares. Each one led me down a path.
Observe: Bill sat down to a bowl of soup. Translation: Bill is lonely and the soup is canned, or else I would have told you it was spinach-lentil and then you’d know that Bill is still lonely, but also vegetarian, meaning he will always have the friendship of the animal kingdom if only he were wise enough to realize that.
Bill enjoyed a slice of cake. Translation: Bill is a child, and/or it is his birthday. Worse, it was recently his birthday but now that’s finished, and the cake is leftover and probably a little stale. Now everyone is depressed, not just that lonely guy with the bowl of canned soup.
Bill drank a glass of water. Translation: Bill is obviously in recovery. Or thirsty. Or hot. Or maybe dying. We have no way of knowing in which state of extremis Bill is languishing, but bothering to tell us he is drinking something only to have that something be mere water calls more attention to itself than saying he drank a glass of gin. It’s actually a pretty hostile move on the writer’s part when you think about it.
Bill is eating pig’s ear salad. Once upon a time this would have told us Bill was a poor hog farmer, wasting not and wanting not. Now it tells us Bill is the sort of guy who sports a pig tattoo and whose girlfriend has bangs and pickles her own rhubarb.
On Wednesday, Bill rolled out pasta for pumpkin ravioli, which he planned to serve with sage and browned butter sauce. Bill is unemployed, but making the most of it.
Bill rubbed the chicken all over with a stick of butter, then placed the chicken in the oven to roast. Bill’s been reading Julia Child, either the first time in the Sixties, or during her more recent resurgence, when everyone remembered how much we love Julia Child before we got sick of people blogging about her and forgot it again. Either way, the whole stick of butter marks both Bill and the chicken as sybarites. Frankly, I am a bit concerned about his recovery.
In short, Bill had a harrowing time at my hands. By the end I was just imagining him sitting at an empty table and staring into space, but that just made it worse, so I gave him a slice of bread.