At the back of Big Bona Ogles, Boy!, Gooseberry’s most recent case, you will find, of all things, a recipe for Funeral Biscuits. It reads: “Take twenty-four eggs, three pounds of flour, and three pounds of lump sugar grated, which will make forty-eight finger biscuits for a funeral.” If, like me, it surprises you that there are no instructions given as to what to do with these ingredients—let alone any guide as to how to go about cooking them—then let me quickly point out that, unlike the recipes presented in his previous adventures (which are my own), these are all genuine Victorian ones taken from Everybody’s Confectionary Book (and, no, I know that’s not the correct English spelling of the word confectionery). “This work,” its preface boldly claims, “will be found of beneficial advantage, not only to Confectioners, but also to Ladies, Housekeepers, &c, and particularly to such as have not a perfect knowledge of this useful art, and by which any person may, with ease and advantage, begin the practice of a Confectioners.” Quite. Though just how the recipe for Funeral Biscuits will aid them in the pursuit of this is anybody’s guess. For any cooks who may be reading, each so-called finger biscuit contains a quarter cup of flour, two tablespoons of sugar, and half an egg, so I’m guessing they’re some kind of (fairly large) shortcake.
The first novel I ever came to that listed recipes at the back was Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. I loved the book when I first read it. Flagg really managed to nail the time and place, and the story she wove around those loveable characters had me begging to buy into it. As for the recipes, I was so delighted to see them there, I tried some. The fried chicken in milk gravy was a little rich for my liking, and my fried green tomatoes (made with my own home-grown tomatoes) disappointingly tasteless, but then I had no bacon grease in which to cook them. Never mind; it’s the thought that counts, and Fannie Flagg’s generosity of spirit certainly wins the day.
Rather than being relegated to the back of the book, the recipes in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate are interspersed throughout, and as such become integral to the plot. They range from being totally impractical in this day and age (“100 cashew nuts; a quarter of a kilo of almonds; a quarter of a kilo of walnuts: begin shelling the nuts several days in advance, for this is a big job to which many hours must be devoted”) to the downright hilarious (the effect of Tita’s tears when added to the icing on Rosaura’s Wedding Cake). A good introduction to magic realism for those who have yet to experience the wondrous possibilities of the genre.
A kind of magic features too in Anthony Capella’s The Food of Love, a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac-type story of a young Italian man named Bruno who loves to cook. The novel is structured after an Italian meal, with antipasto, primo, secondo, insalata, and dolci signalling the acts. The ricette—receipts or recipes—are to be found at the back, charmingly couched in a series of emails that provide the story’s denouement. As in Like Water for Chocolate, there’s a great take on oxtail, and a ragù bolognese that may make you laugh!
There are many, many books, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano mysteries, that will make your mouth water without divulging any culinary secrets, but there’s one that may deserve your serious attention. It’s Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. All her characters (and their changes of circumstance) seem to be defined by what they eat, what they dream of eating, how they eat it, and what they actually cook—if in fact they cook at all. The judge dreams of cake and scones, macaroons and cheese straws but gets biscuits that look and taste like cardboard. The Afghan princesses only eat chicken. The cook claims he can make: “Bananafritterpineapplefritterapplefritter…” etc., but has none of the ingredients for these desserts. His (vegetarian) son Biju grills beefsteaks in America until he finds employment at the (Hindu) Ghandi Cafe. Be warned—it can be quite tough going!
Tough-going, but worth every minute of it, is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. This is the book I cherish above all others. The scale of the story is enormous, detailing not just the lives of the four main characters who come from very different backgrounds and different parts of India, but their parents’ lives as well. In the whole epic tale you will find only one recipe: for wadas (or vadai, a kind of Indian falafel made from urad dahl, onion, chilli, cumin, coriander leaf, mint, and coconut). It’s Rajaram’s recipe, and, in making it, the four of them manage to cement their friendship. As dark and deeply depressing as it is funny, I reread A Fine Balance every couple of years to remind myself how amazing good writing can be.
Finally, if I’ve whetted your appetite, as a small token of my thanks for taking the trouble to find this page, I’d like to offer you a 50% discount off the list price of Octopus (Send for Octavius Guy 2), which does indeed feature a selection of recipes at the back, all with proper cooking instructions I hasten to add! Purchase it at Smashwords.com and, when it comes time to pay, use coupon code: GV88V. This offer is available until August 31st, 2017.
Michael Gallagher is the author of two series of novels set in Victorian times. Send for Octavius Guy chronicles the attempts of fourteen-year-old Gooseberry—reformed master pickpocket—to become a detective, aided and abetted by his ragtag bunch of friends. The Involuntary Medium follows the fortunes of young Lizzie Blaylock, a girl who can materialize the spirits of the dead, as she strives to come to terms with her unique gift. For twenty-five years Michael taught adults with learning disabilities at Bede, a London-based charity that works with the local community. He now writes full time.