There is an online event (I believe it’s quarterly), called Novel Food. It’s hosted by Simona from Briciole and Lisa from Champaign Taste. I fell in love with the concept for this event: Cook something that has been inspired by a published literary work, and create a post about it. I love to read and I love to cook so there was no doubt that I would join Novel Food right away!!!
I had a month until the posting deadline, plenty of time to prepare, or so I thought. Here I am rushing to finish. Anyway, I pondered on the book I was reading: Cleopatra, A Life," by Stacy Schiff. Although I was charmed by the book, thinking about it did not give me that certain ache necessary for culinary inspiration. Which book, which author, I asked myself? James Joyce came to mind. In my opinion he is, along with Shakespeare, the greatest author in English literature. Joyce's the "Dubliners," I suppose because it was the first of his books that I read, holds a special place in my heart. "Dubliners," is a collection of 15 short stories first published in 1914, written in realistic detail and permeating with everyday scenes of middle class Dublin. The characters live ordinary lives, but as their stories unfold the reader becomes aware of intensely personal and often tragic revelations about them. It’s the glimpse into their emotional lives that always has had a profound effect on me. One of the short stories in particular, moves me to tears every time I read it. The title of that story is “A Painful Case.”
“A Painful Case” is a story about isolation. It concerns the brief intermingling of the lives of Mrs. Sinico, a married woman who feels unfulfilled and is neglected by her husband, and Mr. Duffy, a bank cashier who leads a solitary and meticulously orderly life. The two start a relationship that is innocent, but grow close, developing a deep friendship. One day Mrs. Sinico impulsively takes Mr. Duffy’s hand and places it on her cheek. He is taken aback by her action and ends their relationship. At a farewell meeting Mrs. Sinico seems distraught and unwilling to say goodbye. Four years go by, during which Mr. Duffy resumes his old routine. One evening, while eating a dinner of corned beef and cabbage in his usual restaurant, he reads a newspaper article entitled “A Painful Case.” The article details the death of Mrs. Sinico, who was hit by a train at a Dublin station. A coroner’s inquest revealed that Mrs. Sinico had taken to drinking during her last years, and it is inferred from the narrative that her death may have been a suicide. Slowly, Mr. Duffy begins to feel remorse. He believes that by having rejected her he condemned her to loneliness and eventual death. He reflects on his own solitary life, devoid of her companionship. He realizes that he has lost his only chance for happiness and will remain isolated from "life’s feast" because he lacks the courage to pursue happiness.
So besides the connection with Joyce, why did I decide on corned beef and cabbage? Well, St. Patrick's Day is around the corner, and I have lots of Irish neighbors. Corned beef and cabbage will be on many dinner tables around here. I've never made it, but I have always wanted to. This way I can brag about it to my Irish friends, and especially to Lillian, who lives next door. No doubt about it, corned beef and cabbage is a comfort food. Nothing fancy or sexy about it, just homey and of course delicious.
Corned beef and cabbage is briefly mentioned in "A Painful Case," but it's mentioned at the moment when the main character is about to undergo a significant psychological change. It's the moment when his epiphany begins, the moment when he begins to realize how paralyzed he is emotionally. Joyce's epiphanies are momentous and rare occasions, when meaning floods a character's conscience and he or she has a profound experience of recognition of a particular situation. Along with emotional paralysis, epiphanies are recurrent themes in the "Dubliners." In part, Joyce uses them to symbolize the colonization of Ireland. A defeated and powerless nation as Ireland was at the time, is juxtaposed with defeated and powerless individuals. Not much changes in Joyce's Dublin, and that fact has a horrible effect on the human spirit.
Well, we covered food, literature, politics, emotional isolation, what else is there? How about some of Joyce's astonishingly beautiful language in the form of quotes from "A Painful Case?" Here are Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico together:
"Her companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic. Many times she allowed the dark to fall upon them, refraining from lighting the lamp. The dark discreet room, their isolation, the music that still vibrated in their ears united them. This union exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life."Mr. Duffy reads of Mrs. Sinico's Death:
"One evening as he was about to put a morsel of corned beef and cabbage into his mouth his hand stopped. His eyes fixed themselves on a paragraph in the evening paper which he had propped against the water-carafe. He replaced the morsel of food on his plate and read the paragraph attentively. Then he drank a glass of water, pushed his plate to one side, doubled the paper down before him between his elbows and read the paragraph over and over again. The cabbage began to deposit a cold white grease on his plate. The girl came over to him to ask was his dinner not properly cooked. He said it was very good and ate a few mouthfuls of it with difficulty. Then he paid his bill and went out."
The phrase "the cabbage began to deposit a cold grease on his plate." is rather startling. It prepares one for the upcoming chilling events. Here is the quote where Mr. Duffy realizes what Mrs. Sinico's death means for him:
"Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death? He felt his moral nature falling to pieces... He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life's feast. One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness: he had sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame... No one wanted him; he was outcast from life's feast. He turned his eyes to the grey gleaming river, winding along towards Dublin...He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone."
Chilling. Insightful. Powerful. Masterful. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much Mr. Joyce.
James Joyce photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1926 (National Portrait Gallery, London). The author had problems with his eyesight throughout his life.
So I made corned beef and cabbage with a recipe based on one I found at the Food Network web site. It includes beets served alongside the corned beef, and I thought the beets would introduce a Greek twist to an Irish dish, considering that beets are kind of popular in Greek cooking.
OK, Those white pieces on top of the sliced corned beef are potato pieces that were mixed up in the broth. Don't want you thinking it's fat....
- 3 pound piece of corned beef
- 4 bay leaves
- 30 black peppercorns
- 12 garlic cloves peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 3" pieces
- 2 small turnips peeled and quartered
- 4 small onions -small like the size of shallots -peeled and left whole. I thought of using shallots but we are having such a bad winter here, that they cost (pre-packaged), one shallot for $1.99.
- 4 potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1/2 head cabbage, cut into wedges
- 3 beets, peeled and sliced
- chopped parsley for garnish
- a little salt and pepper, a little lemon juice, a little olive oil and a negligible amount of oregano and garlic powder
- Corned beef is made by brining beef brisket in a mixture of spices. It comes with fat attached to it. I trimmed away and discarded as much fat as I could.
- In a large heavy pot, combine the corned beef, bay leaves, peppercorns, 6 garlic cloves cut in half, and a pinch of ground cloves.
- Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours, low and slow as they say. Remove the meat from the pot and reserve it on a plate, keeping it warm.
Beets - good to eat, but oh so difficult to photograph.
- While the meat is cooking prepare the beets: Line an ovenproof pot with aluminum foil and place the beets inside. Season them with salt and pepper, a slight amount of olive oil and some lemon juice and just a bit of garlic powder and oregano. Close the aluminum foil around the beets bake them in a 350° F oven for about 45 minutes to an hour, until they are soft.
- You can also boil the beets, but remember not to add them in with the corned beef or vegetables, because they will turn everything red.
- All right, let's get back to the pot where the meat was cooked. I tasted the liquid and I found that it was very salty. Extremely salty. Now, most recipes call for boiling the vegetables in that liquid, but I couldn't in good conscience submerge my vegetables in what was essentially a brine. So I discarded the liquid, washed the pot and to it I added a quart of low sodium chicken broth. I added the same amount of seasonings I had when cooking the meat: 6 garlic cloves cut in half, about 15 peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, and a pinch of ground cloves.
- When the broth came to a boil I added the turnips and carrots, lowered the heat and and simmered for 20 minutes.
- Then I added the onions and potatoes. By now I had a layer of vegetables covering the whole surface of the pot. I placed the cabbage on top of the vegetables, covered the pot and cooked for an additional 30 minutes.
- The cabbage was steamed by the aromatic broth, and the turnips absorbed so much flavor that they were the best turnips I had ever tasted.
- If the meat is cold, put it back in the pot next to the cabbage and give it a steam bath until it warms up.
- And that's it. Mission accomplished. Slice the meat and serve warm, accompanied with the broth which is really tasty, and the vegetables.
- You can serve the beets alongside the other vegetables, or better yet, you can present them separately as a salad.
- You can decorate your creation with some chopped parsley if you like.
I am contributing this to the 12th edition of Novel Food.