Monday, January 12, 2009

Virginia Woolf on food

It is already well-established that I love Virginia Woolf.  I love her
irony, her whimsy, her luminous sentences; I even love her habitual use of
the semi-colon. But one thing that often goes overlooked--a thing, I
confess, of which I am overly fond--is her generous descriptions of food.
Take, for example, the following bit from "A Room of One's Own":

It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that
luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that
was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom
spare a word for what was eaten. It is part of the novelist's convention
not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and
ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a
cigar or drank a glass of wine. Here, however, I shall take the liberty
to defy that convention and to tell you that the lunch on this occasion
began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had
spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here
and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After
that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown
birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various,
came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the
sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard;
their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner
had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman,
the Beadle himself perhaps in a milder manifestation, set before us,
wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves.
To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an
insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed
crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit,
half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard
little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out
upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which
is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No
need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself. We are all going to
heaven and Vandyck is of the company--in other words, how good life
seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that
grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one's kind, as,
lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the

This all, of course, serves as an elaborate analogy for the varying states
of men's and women's colleges; she later goes on to describe a more stodgy
dinner at Fernham, the women's college, in which she is served more homely
fare ("biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally
passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were
biscuits to the core"). I applaud her move here; the feminist, certainly,
and especially the culinary. I like a woman who takes her food seriously
and writes about it beautifully and in such a compelling fashion
(partridges, many and various!)

It is precisely in this spirit that I begin this food blog. Although I may
not be up to the whole retinue of sauces to go with the partridges (many,
various) nor the sprouts foliated as rosebuds (but more succulent), I
promise you that like Virginia Woolf, in my kitchen at least I will overlook
all the witty things said and wise things done, and focus on the more
important aspect of breakfast, lunch, and dinner--what was eaten.


  1. A food lit foodie after my own heart.

    The next edition of Novel Food (hosted by Champaign Taste and Briciole) will happen sometime in the spring. You should join in. :)

  2. Yay! Basil Queen! So good to hear from you. Hope you don't mind being one of my links.

    I'll definitely participate in Novel Food (one of my favorite parts of your blog.) Huzzah!

  3. That is a great little quote. I love her too. I find myself usually attracted to authors who spare a few words for the food- like in harry potter, and that fantastic scene in wind in the willows involving sliced toast with golden drips of butter. I had that as a book on tape before I could read and still just thinking about it makes me run into the kitchen. It just goes to show food is really so much more than what you shove in your face. It is memories, it is part of the spirit of the whole event, bites make our lives flash before us. It is beautiful :)

  4. Ah, thank you! I noticed one of her quips graces your blog as well, which is very nice (both blog and quip.) Did you happen to read any of the Redwall series (Brian Jacques) when you were younger? All they did was eat! Glorious rounds of cheese, dandelion wine, strawberry cordial...And of course we can't forget Harold and the Purple Crayon. Sometimes I wish I had a crayon that could draw 7 pies, all different flavors, and a dog to happily eat up all the rest.