Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Graphic Novel Update and a Pop-up Haiga

 Since the last post ( ) things have changed. The #1PicProject has morphed into a Graphic Novel. The only things that have remained constant are the tools (Sensu and Brushes ).
I don't know much about the storyline yet (I am finding out as I go along) but it has a lot to do with language in a postapocalyptic world, inspired by an idea of one of my virtual best friends (a real person). Find a sample panel below. (Am only 5 panels down) and a pop-up #1PicHaiga. (it just popped up this afternoon in my mind.)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Literary and Culinary : Chalk & Cheese?

Note: This was written for a culture e-zine long back and was never published. Images sourced from the internet. None of the image rights are mine.

 "For years, I have eaten newspaper and have recently started eating Reader's Digest.  Why do I have such a craving?  Am I lacking some mineral in my body or is this some mental problem that I have?" moans an anonymous entry in an online medical forum. While the doctors will immediately diagnose Pica, others might dismiss it just as bad literary taste. It can’t be called the most bizarre meet-up of literary and culinary, though. Cooking, Eating, Reading and Writing are tangled in several ways more unexpected than the above: dovetailing, diffusing, intersecting, influencing, inspiring and becoming one another. Here are a few licks. Cheese and chalk.

Lit Love Eat, Write Read Prey

You don’t need any kind of authority in either to see the parallels between the process of writing / cooking and reading / eating. If you have spent enough time with pens and pots, or book and bites, you will know why ‘cooking up a story’ or ‘devouring a book’ are not just turns of phrases.

Though even chefs create their very own ‘magnum opus’ and new flavours are ‘launched’ on gourmand’s taste buds, the literary arts seem to have borrowed much more from the culinary than it can pay back. Though both are crucially dependent on ingredients (a tired verb being as useless as wilted greens); both improved a lot by feedback and both encourage tinkering, there might be more complex relations between the two than first cousins.

For example, according to
Dr. Heribert Watzke, a nutrition savant, cooking is actually the mother of writing and not just because she came first. Learning to cook was a huge leg-up to brain development because it made the release of calories from the raw food that much easier, giving a major boost to the size of our brains, leading to literary and all the other fancy human faculties.

It’s no coincidence then, that our guts are much smaller and the brains much bigger than the monkeys. It’s also the reason that no monkey with typewriter has written any Shakespeare, yet.

Dr. Watzke’s findings put a completely different spin on the phrase ‘starving writer’. And to add to that, we find out that the most accomplished writers seem not only to eat well, but cook well too. Hemingway shouldn’t be of any surprise because he always had access to fresh fish and game thanks to his hunting habit. Making pan-fried fresh trout wrapped in bacon was no big deal to him. Emily Dickinson was a devoted baker. There is even a bakery contest in her name that runs till date. The glorious two page description of boeuf en daube in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ could not have come from just research. From Mark Twain’s taste for raccoon meat to Sylvia Plath’s sweet tooth for avocado with grape jelly to Julian Barnes’ cookbook pedantry, authors seem to have much more than a casual acquaintance with cooking.

But the question remains, is this merely coincidental? Do writing and cooking have such remarkable similarity in structure that they attract the same kind of minds? Does the frustration of editing mirror the tedium of doing the dishes? Does the excitement of spotting a rare cheese reflect the joy of chancing upon a brilliant plot line? Or does the methodical solace of cooking unclog the writer’s blocks, ease up the nervous energy and gently bring the authors out of their cerebral rabbit holes? There might not be an easy answer to this.

In ‘The World according to Garp’, Garp, an author and an enthusiastic cook, gives us an answer as good as any.

“If you are careful,' Gap wrote, 'if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. … Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”

Amen and Bon Apetit to that.

A lightly sauteéd noun, a demi-caramelized adjective

A dear friend, equally devoted to food and writing, puzzlingly, has no interest in food writing. “Food is meant to be eaten”, she scoffs, “not to be read about.” But if we can read about films, which are to be watched and art, which is to be seen, what’s wrong with reading food? Readers sure don’t complain about luscious fictional descriptions of food, both real and imaginary, neither do they get tired with cookbooks, the most basic form of food writing. They seem to be pretty game with restaurant reviews also. Only when food writing walks the middle path of fiction and non-fiction, investigates an ingredient, analyzes a chef’s work, pores over the socio-cultural context of food, it tends to zone out a lot of readers. Should it because food, one of the simplest and purest joys of life, be free of intellectualizing ? Or is it because something which will literally go down the drain in a few hours, not worth wasting ink for? It might be neither.

Most readers, it would seem, want the promise of a meal when they come to food writing. Either by following a recipe, a meal they can taste for real, or aided by moist adjectives and toothy nouns, a meal they can taste in their mind. Not an unfair demand, really.

But the mental meal seems to be the easier choice, as Julian Barnes discovers in his series The Pedant in the Kitchen . Cooking up a dream guided by a recipe can soon turn into a multi-stage nightmare. He whines, “How big is a lump, how voluminous is a slug or gout, when does a drizzle become rain? Is a cup a rough-and-ready generic term, or a precise American measure? Why tell us to add a wineglass of something, when wineglasses come in so many sizes? Or - to return briefly to jam - how about this instruction from Richard Olney: "Throw in as many strawberries as you can hold piled up in joined hands." I mean, really. Are we meant to write to the late Mr Olney's executors and ask how big his hands were? What if children made this jam, or circus giants?”

But then eventually he learns to live with everything not being just right and his prepared dishes looking nothing like food porn.

“You are discovering - painfully, a little humiliatingly - that you are not up to this, and you are not up to this because you are not a professional chef and you don't have a larderful of Jamies all panting to deseed tiny tomatoes and being paid to do so. You are by yourself, at home, under pressure of time, and you would very much prefer not to make a hash of dinner.”

Then he goes on to add “ Kitchen shops sell a lot of useful gadgets and time-saving equipments. One of the most useful and most liberating would be a sign that the domestic cook could place to catch the eye in moments of tension: "This is not a restaurant."

Only if it was so easy to follow.

All said and done, everybody should be allowed their personal taste in food, and food writing. Everybody should have the right to equally love or hate the taste of food writing in the form of recipes, journalism, memoir, travelogues, poetry or fiction. It will be quite draconian to lay down the law for liking or disliking food writing when the word itself is yet to be defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, unlike sports writing or nature writing.

Ignoring food writing is one thing but saying that reading about food will never equal the joy of eating it is quite another. This excerpt from M. F. K. Fisher will make those non-believers swallow their own words.

“Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat. ... I discovered little dried sections of tangerine. My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. I can only write how they are prepared.
In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, ...Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. ...While the chambermaid mutters of seduction and French bicyclists who ride more than wheels, tear delicately from the soft pile of sections each velvet string. You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful.
Take yesterday's paper (when we were in Strasbourg L'Ami du Peuple was best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on top of the radiator. The maid has gone, of course - it might be hard to ignore her belligerent Alsatian glare of astonishment.
After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but -
On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.
All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension's chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o'clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.

The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.”


Table for one

Reading while eating is a surefire way of being accused of disrespect: of the food and the fellow diners. Even when you are eating alone and reading, you are warned of indigestion (for making your brain multitask).

All these, of course, from the encyclopaedia of motherly wisdom.

But as a person who likes both eating and reading a little too much, I can assure you doing them together means disrespect to neither. But as far as the fellow diners are concerned, they would only understand only if they are fellow readers. Though nutritionists warn against distractions while eating, (apparently you end up overeating) I will take that advice only for TV and newspapers. While my gut is flooding with goodies, I don’t want my mind to go hungry.

Reading during eating is not just about having imaginary company of choice or not being able to put down the book. It is also about having something for your eyes that is more interesting than the tablemates stuffing their faces. That’s why in the absence of books, cereal boxes and newspapers, do nicely. Even reading before eating, especially titillatingly illustrated cookbooks, works out great for some people, as appetizers.
But no matter what you are reading during what you are eating, doing both with success takes some planning. Sandwich seems to be the easiest choice, the simpler and flatter, the better. Soups, cereals, noodles and semi-liquids are not so good unless you have above average hand-mouth-eye coordination. Curries are good if you mix them with a lot of rice and make them into baby-bite-sized balls. But then again if you turn your food into baby-bite-sized pieces in advance, you can eat anything you want. Except, of course, Subway sandwiches. Even two hands, two eyes and full attention are not enough to eat one of those with grace. Even then “the pages with be besmirched, spotted, dotted, splashed, smeared, glued together and otherwise sullied by a variety of edible substances.” Let that be a memory key for the next time you visit the same pages.

In fact, Julian Barnes’s advice on cookbooks apply equally to ‘eat books’. “The more decorated their pages are with stove-splash, peel-drip, edible Rorschach stains, oil starbursts, beetroot thumbprints and general incoherent dribblings,” he says, “the more you have honoured them.”

But we have just taken care of half the problem. How do you turn the pages, while you eat, of an especially strong-spined book? What if you don’t have the luxury of a table and you have to hold a big fat hardcover in your left hand? Should you resort to reading only  Flipbacks or those vintage naughty books which you read holding in one hand? Wish I knew the answer. To find out we must keep reading and turning pages as quickly as we can.

Even though attempts to make dining alone in fancy restaurants easier to swallow, we know its easier said than done. One can take the edge, and gaze off by taking one’s ongoing book out for a date. It is a much better option than so many of those human first dates. So many people, halfway through a miserable date, have looked longingly at the gentleman in the next table, completely enthralled by the company of his book and soup. For best results, make sure you are well into the book before you take it out fancy dining, though.

But for people like me and that San Francisco gentleman reading his way out of a break-up, those of us who read for sustenance, every reading is as essential as a meal.

Out of the head, into the plate

Have you met Ana or Mia lately? If you have not, don’t. Ana and Mia are personifications of the two most common eating disorders Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. While making them more human can be endearing to some and sickening to others, Ana and Mia are dark mistresses when they take over your body and mind.  But both of them are excellent muses, like all other kinds of dark creatures.

Take music inspired by them for example, from Alanis Morisette’s Mary Jane to Manic Street Preachers’ 4 st 7 lb to Filter’s Skinny to Save The Day’s Cars and Calories to Silverchair’s Anna’s Song the Ana-stricken plead “Please die, Ana / For as long as you're here we're not.” yet “I need you now, somehow”. And not just Ana-Mia music, the tell-all memoirs of destructive relationships with Ana and Mia touch hearts, makes eyes well up and most importantly sell like hot cakes, pun unintended.

That brings up an interesting question. When these fictionalised memoirs cut too close to the bone, do they unknowingly become a validation of these disorders? Or even worse, a guide book? This allegation is not in the same vein as accusing thriller writers of spreading violence or horror writers of corrupting minds. Apparently, reading about any kind of similar experiences can trigger fresh bouts of anorexia. That’s why some even have accused this explosion of eating disorder books as damaging as Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia movements. These movements refuse to acknowledge Ana and Mia as disorders but sport them proudly as lifestyle choices and a higher state of being above “carnal desires”.

‘Thinspiration’, anyone?

On the other extreme are the shifting definitions of gourmet food culture and the food writing that is an integral part of it. Gourmet food at both its ends, no-holds-barred-filthy-rich and zero-carbon-footprint-designer-shades-of-greens are just a thin line away from the obsessive culture of a gated community. While the increasing ennui of modern life drives us closer to the simple human joys of food, our ADHD scramble for l’exotique always comes in the way. More often than not, we get caught up in who is cooking what than just what’s for dinner. In short, the simple joy of food is transformed into hankering for food porn.

Through the perfectly art-directed, unattainable food shots are generally called the culprits, the luscious food writing, bordering on erotic is also widely blamed. Apparently, they serve as a substitute for food for much of the eating disorder community.

But who says that they can’t be substitutes for food when you are on a diet? It sure beats hanging around and sniffing about a pastry shop, drool barely under control.

Apparently you can blame all this food porn-obsession on the newfangled gourmand syndrome, “a strong association with a lesion location in the right anterior part of the brain involving cortical areas, basal ganglia, or limbic structures ...a further evidence of a correlation between right hemispheric damage, eating, and other impulse control disorders.”

Though food writing is not a proven cure of the above, it can be a healer. Especially when it comes to writing down about your daily eating habits and moods. It is known to be a long-standing aid in dieting and treating eating disorders. Expressive writing and diary keeping apparently makes it even more effective.

And if Amanda-Jane Hazelwood, MSc, MA, PGDip, BSc, DipHEd, RMN is to be believed, texting, the latest whipping boy for behavioural disorders, is highly beneficial to treating eating disorders. Because of its low thresholds for disclosure, texting effectively works around the body shame, secrets and isolation of the patients.

But texting doesn’t seem so benevolent when you can do it through the mobile apps of fast food chains to order away, bypassing the effort of even dialing a number. It quickly becomes a culinary version of online binge shopping.

While eating and writing have a love-hate relation in case of eating disorders, for writing disorders like Dyslexia, food seems to play quite a benevolent role. Teaching the alphabet in the form of familiar food shapes - a pie for an O, a cantaloupe slice for a C - seem to really clear things up in tender brains. There is no shame in going Pavlovian in teaching, if it’s for a good cause.

Getting food into the curriculum is not just effective for dyslexic kids. A closer connection to cooking and eating healthy food when growing up develops respect for food, not to mention life lessons like healthy eating, independence, teamwork, creativity, and the pride of a job well done. The most important one being, eating your own words when things go wrong.

Here’s to a Jamie Oliver in every country.

Proust’s Tiramisu, Austen’s Eggs

In every junction where the literary and the culinary meet, you will inevitably bump into Julian Barnes. And two steps behind him, you will see Hemingway. Sometimes you might meet them together.

In his short story named ‘Homage to Hemingway’, Julian Barnes brings in a moveable feast of comparisons and conjectures.

“Novelists, who were in it for the long haul, were temperamentally equipped for stewing and braising, for the slow mixing together of many ingredients, whereas poets ought to be good at stir-fry. And short-story writers? someone asked. Steak and chips. Dramatists? Ah, dramatists—they, the lucky sods, were basically mere orchestrators of the talents of others, and would be satisfied to shake a leisurely cocktail while the kitchen staff rustled up the grub.

This went down well, and they started fantasizing about the sort of food famous writers would serve. Jane Austen and Bath buns. The Brontes and Yorkshire pudding. There was even an argument when Virginia Woolf and cucumber sandwiches were put together. But without any discord they placed Hemingway in front of an enormous barbecue piled high with marlin steaks and cuts of buffalo, a beer in one hand and an outsized spatula in the other, while the party swirled around him.”

But when it comes to putting literary greats in the kitchen, author Mark Crick doesn’t stop at just cooking up possibilities, he gets right down to it with pen, brush and a well-stocked imagination in his book Kafka's Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes It’s full of gems like Lamb with Dill Sauce a La Raymond Chandler; Tarragon Eggs a la Jane Austen; Tiramisu (no, not Madeleine) a la Marcel Proust; Cheese on Toast a la Harold Pinter; and Onion Tart a la Geoffrey Chaucer. And as an able reviewer calls him, Mr. Crick, like a true ‘literary ventriloquist’ writes each recipe in the voice of the author. His pairing of recipes and authors show heavy-duty knowledge about the personality of the author and the dish, which he delivers with a light touch.
For example, this is Raymond Chandler, cooking Lamb with Dill Sauce. “I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board… I needed a table at Maxim’s… what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues.”
Chaucer tells us his signature onion tart is kind of elementary, with simple steps like “Melt the butter and oyle in an heavie panne, / Covered wiv a lidde, as knoweth every man.”

Now Mr. Crick is ready with his next book The Household Tips of the Great Writers where Virginia Woolf is baking a French Cherry Pie for us. “The dome becomes a circle, the cherries surrounded by the yeasty mixture that would cradle and cushion them, the yeasty mixture that surrounded them all, the house, the lawn, the asphodels, that devil Nicholas running past the window, and she put it in a hot oven. In 30 minutes it would be ready.”

If we can wait that long to eat.

But when it comes to imaginary meals, the readers have as much right to cook them up as the authors. There have been many a Indian kid who have hankered after scones a la Enid Blyton without having the faintest idea about what they are. The Book Lover's Cookbook come to their rescue. Armed with this, you can wake up to start your day with Mrs. Dalby’s Buttermilk Scones, courtesy of James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful, progress to Nearly-a-Meal Potato Soup (Terry Kay’s Shadow Song) and wrap it up with  Carrot Pudding (Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol) with a light snack of C.S. Lewis's Turkish Delight from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Even when you are dining alone, your favourite authors will always be your invisible dinner guests.

If you want them to stay back longer than just one meal, you better like the company of Mark Twain and Earnest Hemingway. With books like Twain's Feast or The Hemingway Cookbook you can go on whole literary-culinary trips that will span across states, decades and species. Choose Twain and try out Lake Trout, from Tahoe. Hot biscuits, Southern style. Canvasback-duck, from Baltimore. Black-bass, from the Mississippi.

Follow Hemingway and gorge on  Dorado Fillet in Damn Good Sauce, Woodcock Flambé in Armagnac, Campfire Apple Pie, and Fillet of Lion washed down with Campari and Gordon’s Gin or a cool Cuba Libre. Either way, you will be served equal measures of history, memories and deliciousness.

Even the armchair gourmet, who would rather read and order in than get his hands dirty in the kitchen can take comfort in the textual equivalent of comfort foods, The Art of Eating bt M.F.K. Fisher, or Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl. They will fill your mind and the kitchen with imaginary flavours, silent laughter and the visions of lives rich and filling enough to unbutton yourself.

If the full-time authors can make you eat out of their hands, imagine what chefs can do when they wield the pen. Just don’t expect it to be all mellow and soft-focussed. In most of the Chef tell-alls, especially those in the ‘Marxist Gastronomy’ genre of Anthony Bourdain, we see the raw side of food’s journey to our plate. And  we are somehow more thankful for it. As Times journalist Lev Grossman says about Bourdain, “He changed our whole cultural idea of what a kitchen is. Pre-Bourdain, it was a warm, cozy, maternal place. Now it's a profane, brutal, masculine crucible, where human frailty is rendered away like so much tasty bacon fat.” To echo this, in Cooking Dirty, Jason Sheehan writes, "I am God of the box. The brain-damaged Lord Commander of a kingdom of fifty feet by five and made entirely of stainless steel, industrial tile, knives, sweat and fire."

While for some readers, “to put aside these books after a few chapters is to feel a sense of liberation; it’s like stepping from a crowded, fetid restaurant into silence and fresh air.” For people who like their steaks and literature medium raw, it’s a lunatic joy, as deeply satisfying as a food coma.

Editing Sober, Writing Drunk

Whenever a little girl or a little boy wants to grow up to be a writer, their parents fear them to grow up to be drunkards and lushes. Like all cliches, there are a few pegs of truth in it.

Nancy J. Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa with a PhD in English, did a 15-year study of 30 creative writers on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where students and faculty have included well-known writers like Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor. She found  out that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of non-writers.  

And then there is this. “Of America’s ten literary Nobel laureates, five were lushes.”

The internet is frothing and bubbling with lists of alcoholic literary greats. Those lists could have been titled just literary greats. The heavyweight regulars in these lists are Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Dylan Thomas, O Henry, Edgar Allen Poe, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzerald, Jack Kerouac and of course, the omnipresent Mr. Hemingway. It seems that becoming a great American writer is equal to hitting the bottle, hard.

But the question remains, do the writers drink in order to write or do they drink because they write? Is it a cause or an effect? Is alcohol the true creative juice or a tonic to dull the pains of creativity?

Donald Goodwin in his book Alcohol and the Writer attempts to explain: “Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence. Writing is lonely work; alcohol assuages loneliness. Writing demands intense concentration; alcohol relaxes.”

To add to that, alcohol loosens the grip of social conditioning, writing always tries to wrest free of social conditioning. Alcohol takes away the sense of time, writers want to kill idle time. Alcohol helps you open up, writers are always trying to pry open minds. Alcohol eases pain. Criticisms and rejections are painful.

If that’s the excuse for writers, the excuse for journalists must be boredom, being stuck in strange places or the cliched ‘one for the road’.

But there might be deeper reasons at play. According to psychologists, Freudians at least, the triggers for writing and alcoholism are kind of similar. Neurosis and anxiety due to repression of emotional pains and sexual urges apparently make for red hot creativity. It is also a good starting point for pitch dark alcoholism.

But apart from reinforcing the stereotype of suffering geniuses, how  else does drinking help in writing? A screenwriter scoffs, “You will have a lot of great ideas when drinking, but you will be too drunk to write them down.” Though Hemingway advices writing drunk and editing sober, the latter is more painful to go through without drinking. But for most writers, drinking eventually gets in the way. Be it in the form of Hemingway’s liver protruding from his belly “like a long fat leech” or or the inability to write anything but absolute drivel.

Jack London solved this problem with a unique flourish. He refused to drink until he had done his thousand words. Soon he learned to get a “pleasant jingle,” after his first thousand before lunch. Then he craved for another “jingle” before dinner. And then the plan fell apart. The  drinks started chasing down the words faster and faster.

Flipping through Hemingway & Bailey's Bartending Guide to Great American Writers  
(cocktail recipes from literary greats and tales of drunken writerly escapades) or
The Hour (“One part celebration, one part history, two parts manifesto, on how and why we drink — properly.”) might be a lark but living those anecdotes might not be that much fun.

But to find out how integral drinking is to writing, we can try reverse psychology and study the effect of sobering up on writers. Tom Shone, who has studied that species extensively for his latest book In the Rooms , has some definitive observations.

“Minimalists tend to do better than maximalists. Flinty and workmanlike seem to win the day. (Elmore Leonard said that attending AA meetings had made him a “better listener”.) It is the self-proclaimed geniuses who suffer. Writers of long sentences seem to do worse than the writers of short ones—Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s endless clauses being the epitome of the drunken style. Comparing yourself to Tolstoy is a bad sign. (If it has to be a Russian, Chekhov is a much better bet.) Americans do much better than Brits (a recent biography of Kingsley Amis lists drinking under “Activities and Interests”). Americans from the north seem to do better than Americans from the South. Prose-writers fare better than poets. If you are an American poet from the South, you might as well walk into a bar right now. And don’t, whatever you do, write a novel about recovery.”

If you are tired of looking for reasons why writers drink even though drunks don’t always write, here’s a fun diversion from Geoff Nicholson. He proposes a ‘drinking game’ of words.

“When you think about it, rules for drinking are not so different from rules for writing. Many of these are so familiar they’ve become truisms: Write what you know. Write every day. Never use a strange, fancy word when a simple one will do. Always finish the day’s writing when you could still do more. With a little adaptation these rules apply just as well for drinking. Drink what you know, drink regularly rather than in binges, avoid needlessly exotic booze, and leave the table while you can still stand.

You could also substitute “drink” for “write” in these well-known examples of writerly wisdom. “An author ought to write for the youth of his generation” (Fitzgerald). “Write, damn you! What else are you good for?” (Joyce). “Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To leap. To fly. To fail” (Sontag).”

Perhaps we should leave any further investigation to who have been exploring the connection between drinking and writing since October 17, 2002.

Or we can just suck on this. Because, Holy Fucking Shit, the first draft, that’s why.”

Fripperies are served!

Dining out is not all fun and games for those who dread making up their mind. And by ‘those who dread making up their mind’ I mean most people. Even stepping out to the neighbourhood coffee shop means choosing between small, large, medium, hot, cold, with ice cream, crushed ice, ice cubes, without chocolate sauce, brown sugar, white sugar and millions more. It can drive an indecisive soul up the wall, and right out of the door.

Imagine his plight when he goes to a ‘fine dining’ establishment and encounters a choice of fifteen main courses including ‘Roasted Garlic-Marjoram Risotto With English Pea Crème Brûlée, Crosnes, Turnip-Collard Green 'Lasagna' and Black Truffle Vinaigrette.’ He will simply break down and resort to  ‘What’s good today’ or ‘I’ll have what they are having’. This avalanche of choices in most menus is ironic, considering the word "menu" is from the Latin - minuere, to diminish. A good chef doesn't try to cook everything, or to appeal to everyone's tastes. A menu should not force you to write your own algorithm in order to order successfully. The ‘multi-cuisine’ tag and tome-like menus should set alarm bells ringing in a diner’s mind. If his mind is not already bent out of shape by the ultrapurple prose of the menu.

It would seem that the rules for menu writing are the Bizarro World versions of good English writing. Use as many adjectives as possible, stretch a sentence as long as you can, throw in an erotic flavour wherever you can, dump foreign words left, right and centre, ignore English Grammar as much as possible. Otherwise, how would you explain a  virile “duck confit climaxed with a sherry vinegar sauce” or vaguely sleazy “stacked and stuffed Hotcakes”? The finer the diner is, the flowerier it gets. But apparently it has always been like this. Paris, the city where the modern restaurant has come into being is also the source of the earliest menus. A culinary historian notes, “the culinary vocabulary of these menus was often a challenge even for those that spoke French.” Quite an achievement for something that started as a few scrawls of chalk on a blackboard.

But from where do this insatiable hunger to impress come from? History might have an answer. Taverns and boarding houses in the seventeenth and eighteenth century which were the predecessor of modern restaurants, had little to be recommended as far as food was concerned. They were for travellers, vagabonds, drunkurds and no-good-at-alls. The respectable folks ate at home.

The new avatars of those eateries, restaurants, hence had to work that much harder to lure those gentlemen and the ladies to dine out. The food and sauces started becoming more complex and ingredients more exotic. And honestly, it has never been easy to translate the orchestra of textures and flavours of a dish into words without turning a bit fruity or flowery and purple around the edges.

But not all menu writing suffer from purple fever. There are all kinds of ailments. Like Frenchitis. Agreed that the culinary lingua franca has always been lingua franca, we can do without ‘with au jus’ or "avec compôte de pommes" for pork chops with applesauce, a dish as American as an apple pie. Sara Dickerman from Slate digs deeper and comes up with a menu for categories of bad restaurant menus. But they have their reasons for being the way they are, she adds. “Menus are the Pavlov's bell of eating out. They are a literature of control. Menu language, with its hyphens, quotation marks, and random outbursts of foreign words, serves less to describe food than to manage your expectations.”

The hand-holder menu, mostly found at simple diners or fast food chains tells you exactly what to expect, sometimes even to the detail of weight and calorie content.

The traffic-jammer menu expects you to know nothing and analyzes every dish down to its last ingredients. Spaghetti with red sauce becomes ‘spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and chili flake.’

Then comes the Oh-What-Fun menu for which, “the use of such prosaic words as “appetizer,” “entree” and “dessert” just won’t do anymore and have been replaced by phrases like, “A little something to whet the taste buds,” “Bigger plates for the heartier appetite” and “For those with a sweet tooth,” as if the whole notion of three-course dining might be entirely alien to us.”

But no matter what the menu style is, the advice of Jan Moir from The Guardian is gold, when it comes to ordering from them.

“Watch out for too many competing flavours and a certain kind of fretfulness in the main courses; anything over-garnished is always indicative of a nervous kitchen overreaching itself... And always watch out for false sourcing claims. A Scottish restaurant in central London selling a dish called Highland Chicken, for example.

Avoid the following at all costs. Non-dairy ice cream. The Sharing Platter. Anything described as a 'Seafood Symphony' or 'A Poem In Pork'. The Chef's Special Egg Roast. Chicken Maryland. Songbirds, obviously. In this day and age, four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie is a no-no. Especially if they are non-organic. ...Any dish that comes equipped with its own 'joke'. Anything described as the Connoisseur's Choice; ... Anything grey, except oysters. Anything served in a potato basket. Anything served in a tuile basket, especially parsley sorbet. Anything that bills itself as an 'innovative interpretation' of anything.”

And then there are menu spelling mistakes. Which singlehandedly account for at least one sixth of online humour, aided by the dreadful Microsoft Word autocorrect which creates such gems as "the delicate sweet and salty balance of melon and prostitute."

It also gives rise to Correct-a-Girl, the imaginary alter-ego of Jane Black, a staff reporter of Washington Post.

She writes, “In my fantasy, I enter a restaurant, order and sweetly ask the waiter if I can "hold on to the menu" during dinner. Then, using a distinctive purple pen, I discreetly copy-edit the descriptions of the dishes.
"Who was that anonymous proofreader?" chefs would whisper to one another. Correct-a-girl strikes again! Eliminating menu mistakes, one restaurant at a time.”

Even though good old vegetable au gratin has given way to molecular gastronomy, all these familiar foibles of the menu are as enraging as they are engaging. Kind of like Ladies Menu, a living fossil of the patriarchal past, where the menu for the lady didn’t carry any prices because the man is supposed to pay, always.

Perhaps all this raving and ranting is for nothing as Anthony Bourdain explains,
“Eating ... is about submission. It is about giving yourself over to the experience and whoever is cooking, it's a leap of faith, I believe I'm in good hands here, lay back, relax, spread your legs, and let it wash over you.
You go in and try to control the situation as an eater, you're ruining it for yourself. That's not magic, magic ain't gonna happen then. Ferran Adria (the fabled El Bulli head chef) asked me a question when we first met. It was a trick question. He said, "Are you an eater or a diner?" And I said, "I'm an eater."”

Suddenly the what’s-good-today approach doesn’t seem so silly anymore.

Neither does Moe, the bartender in The Simpsons. In French restaurants, he always orders 'the best thing you got, stuffed with the second best thing you got'.

A for Alphabet Soup

A for Apple, starts the alphabet. And it doesn’t really end there. Food and the dictionary go surprisingly well together, and that dictionary doesn’t always have to be a culinary one. Though the phrase ‘Culinary Etymology’ is quite a mouthful, if you start digging in, it can be quite a meal.

It always makes sense to begin at the very beginning. And the beginning is much before the apple.  The English words for food, be they common or exotic, trace a fascinating pattern of ancient trade routes, social history, modern food fads and black holes.

The words which sound more or less similar in a lot of European languages , including English, obviously share a common origin. Not surprisingly, these are very basic foodstuff.Take water (compare modern Russian voda [water] and vodka), mead (Sanskrit madhu [honey]), barley (Latin far [emmer wheat]), milk (Latin mulgere [to milk an animal]), brew, and broth (Greek broutos [a kind of beer]), meat, bread (German Brot), eel (German Aal), egg (German Ei).

And then are the first-wave loan words (English has always been really good at it vacumming words right out of foreign languages.)  These are, of course, a tad fancier food items, introduced to northern Europe by the Romans. Such as cheese (from Latin caseus) and wine (from Latin vinum) , plum (from Latin prunum) and fennel (from Latin feniculum). And the  borrowing has never stopped since.

Steak comes from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings; lozenge from Arabic by way of Old French; pickle from Dutch; tomato, chocolate, and chili from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs; curry from Tamil, toddy and chutney from Hindi, pasta and pizza from Italian, marzipan from German (the word originated in Italian), blini from Russian, tofu from Japanese (the word originated in Chinese).

And every time the English speaking majority takes any foreign cuisine into their hearts, the English Dictionary welcomes the related words into its fold.  The recent burst of Sushi craze has added a whole alphabet of Japanese culinary words to English dictionary, right from azuki beans to yakitori.

Though the tales of culinary etymology are as plentiful as a five star chef’s larder, there are some which have to be told right away. For example, the words for farm animals: pig, sheep, ox are of Anglo-Saxon origin while the words for their meats come from French - pork, mutton, beef (porc , mouton, boeuf ). The reason might be that the farmers who raised those animals, rarely got to eat them. The meat was mostly for the hoity-toity French-spouting nobles.

And then there is the sweet back story of Sugar.

Sugar, in ancient and medieval Europe, was a rare and costly spice. India was the nearest source of supply; sugar was shipped across the wide Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean to reach its European purchasers.

Sugar was originally traded as solid cakes. It was in India that granulated sugar was invented, perhaps about 200 B.C.E.; its ancient Indic (Pali and Prakrit) name, sakkhara, reflects this fact, because literally sakkhara (also sakkara) means 'gravel, grit'. This word reached the ancient West along with the sacks of sugar; it was adopted into classical Greek (sakkhar, later sakhar), Latin (saccharum), and early Arabic (sukkar). Medieval Russians got their sugar from the Greeks of Byzantium, so they called it sakhar. Medieval western Europe bought sugar from Arab traders, and therefore gave it names that resemble the Arabic: medieval Latin succarum, Italian zucchero, Old French sukere, modern French sucre. Sugar must have been almost unknown in Britain until Norman times. The English name for it is borrowed from Norman French: the form is suker or zuker in thirteenth-century manuscripts, then suger, and finally sugar.

Though new food words like banh mi from Vietnam, chermoula from North Africa, gremolata from Italy, and kleftiko from Greece, which recently got added to the  English dictionary,  might not have followed a path as long as sugar, they haven’t just gatecrashed into the dictionary, either.

Here is how it’s done according to the Oxford English Dictionary website.

“The Oxford Reading Programme is based on the contributions of an international network of readers who are on the lookout for instances of new words and meanings, drawn from a huge variety of writing, from song lyrics and popular fiction to scientific journals. When we have evidence of a new term being used in a variety of different sources (not just by one writer) it becomes a candidate for inclusion in one of our dictionaries. It’s not enough just to hear them in conversation or on television, although we do analyse material from Internet message boards and TV scripts. Then we select those which we judge to be the most significant or important and those which we think are likely to stand the test of time.”

Not only new words are added to the dictionary, old words are regularly bumped off too (to keep the river of language silt-free). No word is safe. Not even charming food onomatopoeia like ‘suru suru’ (sound of noodles being sucked, taken from manga) or ‘ptooey’ (spitting out something solid such as a cherry pit , from Garfield by Jim Davis). But ‘om nom nom’ is thankfully OK for now.

While Oxford English Dictionary worries about the whims and fancies of the masses who make or break new words,  for The Food Snob's Dictionary, rarer the culinary word is, the better. “Affinage”, “Cardoons,” “Fennel Pollen” and “dry-farmed fruits” abound. But no matter how hard one searches, the origins of the words ‘raspberry,’ ‘toffee’ or Syllabub are still mysteries, double-dipped in enigma.

Books d’oeuvres

After so many courses of  culinary and literary, when we finally arrive at dessert, it has to be perfect. Just the right mix of both. Rich, yet not heavy. Sweet, yet not cloying. May I suggest Edible Books?

The International Edible Book Festival is a charmingly crazy creation of Judith A. Hoffberg and Béatrice Coron who got the idea over a Thanksgiving dinner with book artists.

It is held on or around April 1, which is also known as Edible Book Day, to commemorate "the birthday of French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), famous for his book Physiologie du goût, a witty meditation on food.” Also April Fools' Day is "the perfect day to eat your words and play with them as the 'books' are consumed on the day of the event."

The venue is and the whole world. It has been celebrated since 2000 in Australia, Brazil, India, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Morocco, The Netherlands, Russia, and Hong Kong and elsewhere, where "edible books" are created, displayed, celebrated, photographed, uploaded and finally eaten.

The creations have to be bookish enough, either in shape, inspiration or presence of text.  Beyond that it’s game for anything and anybody. Pastry chefs, home cooks, math nerds (with cooking chops), local library or the current reader, everybody is welcome.  The books can be doughy, sugary, cheesy, saucy, crumbly or anything in between, just like their printed and electronic cousins. But they have to cater to every body's taste.

Here is a library cum buffet. Try not to eat very loudly.