Brain Pickings

Real Recipes from Roald Dahl’s Beloved Children’s Books

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From Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Bird Pie à la The Twits.

As a lover of both children’s books and unusual cookbooks — particularly those that bring literature and art to the kitchen, such as Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic recipes, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, young Andy Warhol’s, illustrated cookery, the treats from the Modern Art Cookbook, and especially Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was instantly smitten with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes (public library): a compendium of recipes for treats that appear in Dahl’s beloved children’s books, affectionately compiled and made cookable by Dahl’s widow, Felicity.

For double delight, the recipes — ranging from Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Lickable Wallpaper — are garnished with illustrations by the great Sir Quentin Blake, who had previously illustrated most of Dahl’s stories (as well as Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself).

The concept for the cookbook came to the Dahls shortly before Roald’s death in 1990, as they were writing a memoir of sorts about the foods they loved. Friends kept suggesting that they should consider writing a recipe book for children, based on the many fanciful edibles in Dahl’s books. But whenever the idea resurfaced, Roald would bury his face in his hands and gasp to his wife, “Oh no, Liccy, the work! The thought daunts me!”

A few weeks after his death, as Mrs. Dahl was making her way through the grief, she noticed a neat pile of papers in the corner of her desk. Listed on the sheets was every single food ever consumed in Roald’s books. Atop the pile was a note in her husband’s handwriting: “It’s a great idea, but God knows how you will do it.”

For Felicity, there was no choice but to do it.

In the introduction to this gem of a result, she lovingly remembers her husband’s relationship to treats as both a token of the quirky habits to which many writers are prone and a testament to his immeasurable, mischievous generosity of spirit:

Treats were an essential part of Roald’s life — never too many, never too few, and always perfectly timed. He made you feel like a king receiving the finest gift in the land.

A treat could be a wine gum lifted silently in the middle of the night out of a large sweet jar kept permanently by his bedside. It could be a lobster and oyster feast placed on the table after a secret visit to the fishmonger, his favorite shop. It could be the first new potato, broad bean, or lettuce from the garden, a basket of field mushrooms, or a superb conker. A different kind of treat would be an unannounced visit to a school, causing chaos to teachers and, I suspect, a great deal of fun for the children.

Here is but a sampler taste of the full spread of delights:

WILLY WONKA’S NUTTY CRUNCH SURPRISE
(From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Serves 8

You will need:

Pyrex bowl
small saucepan
8×10 inch shallow pan
wax paper

7 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 ounces slivered almonds
6 plain vanilla cookies (Rich Tea biscuits are good) or graham crackers, finely crushed
1 ounce Rice Krispies
a few drops of vanilla extract

For the nutty crunch:

2 tablespoons water
½ cup sugar
2 ounces slivered almonds, finely chopped

For the chocolate coating:

7 ounces milk chocolate, broken into small pieces.

  1. Put the semisweet chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a Pyrex bowl and place in a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted. (Or place the bowl in a microwave oven and cook on high for about 1 ½ minutes)
  2. Add the almonds, crushed cookies, Rice Krispies, and vanilla extract and mix well.
  3. Spoon the mixture into a shallow pan lined with wax paper. Press the mixture down firmly with the back of a fork, creating a level surface.
  4. Refrigerate until cool, then cut into bars.
  5. Once the bars are ready, make the nutty crunch. Begin by placing the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Do not stir, but occasionally swirl the pan around gently. Once the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and stir constantly until the sugar caramelizes and turns golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat. Working quickly, add the chopped almonds, stir thoroughly, and dip one end of each bar in the mixture. Place the bars on a sheet of buttered wax paper to set.
  7. Melt the milk chocolate in a Pyrex bowl set in a saucepan of simmering water, or microwave as above. Once it has melted, remove from the heat and dip the other end of each bar in the chocolate.
  8. Let the bars cool on a sheet of wax paper.

FRESH MUDBURGERS
(From James and the Giant Peach)

Makes 10 mudburgers

You will need:

mixing bowl
grill or nonstick skillet

1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons capers, drained
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
relish (optional)

  1. In a mixing bowl, break up the ground beef.
  2. Add all the ingredients except the egg and gently mix together.
  3. Add the egg, mix thoroughly, and pat into mudburgers.
  4. Preheat the grill and grill for 4–5 minutes on each side, or fry in a nonstick skillet.
    Serve in a bun with a “revolting” garnish. Relish is ideal!

BUNCE’S DOUGHNUTS
(From Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Makes 12 to 14

You will need:

food processor (optional)
plastic wrap
rolling pin
two round cookie cutters, 1 ¼ inches and 2 ½ inches
large bowl

½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 pound all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon cinnamon
a large pinch of salt
2 tablespoons hot water
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk
vegetable oil for deep frying
sugar for coating

These are best eaten warm. The dough needs to be made and refrigerated for at least two hours before cooking, and will keep overnight in the refrigerator.

  1. Cream the brown sugar and butter until pale and creamy — this can be done using a food processor.
  2. Gradually add the egg until blended.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients. The dough should be fairly stiff but smooth.
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours
  5. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator.
  6. On a floured surface roll out the other half of the dough to a quarter-inch thick. With the cutters cut out as many doughnuts as possible, using the large one to cut the doughnut shape and the smaller one to make the hole.
  7. Gather up the scraps and roll and cut out as many additional doughnuts as possible. Repeat the rolling and cutting with the remaining half of the dough.
  8. Heat the vegetable oil to 375ºF.
  9. Fry the doughnuts in small batches, turning once, until deep golden brown.
  10. Drain on paper towels.
  11. Put the sugar in a bowl and add a few doughnuts at a time, shaking them in the sugar until coated. Serve immediately.

BIRD PIE
(From The Twits)

Serves 4 to 6

You will need:

large saucepan
blackbird (a black pastry funnel found in specialty cooks’ shops and mail order catalogs)
9-inch pie dish
rolling pin

¼ cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 pound turkey breast, cut into thin strips
12 ounces pork sausage meat
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (optional)
5 ounces sour cream
5 ounces plain yogurt
1 level teaspoon cornstarch, mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
½ cup chicken stock
2 eggs, one beaten, one hard-boiled and chopped
salt and pepper
2 ounces ham, chopped
9 ounces ready-made puff pastry or instant biscuit dough
1 egg yolk
8 parsley sprigs with the leaves pinched off or colored pipe cleaners

  1. Simmer the pearl barley in water for about 20 minutes, or until soft.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter and gently fry the onion until soft. Add the turkey strips and fry quickly until golden.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the sausage meat. Mix well.
  4. Add the sage (if using), sour cream, yogurt, cornstarch mixture, chicken stock, and beaten egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
  5. Place the blackbird in the middle of the pie dish. Surround with the turkey mixture. Sprinkle on the chopped ham, followed by the chopped egg.
  6. Preheat oven to 400ºF
  7. Roll out the pastry to a circle 1/8 inch thick. Make sure it is at least one inch wider than the pie dish all the way around.
  8. Cut the extra one inch from the pastry in one long circular strip (it should be slightly larger than the rim of the pie dish). Brush the pie dish rim with egg yolk, press the pastry strip down onto the rim, and brush the strip with egg yolk.
  9. Lift the remaining pastry carefully (you can drape it over the rolling pin) and lay it over the turkey mixture. Cut a slit in the center and ease the blackbird’s beak through the pastry, taking care not to stretch it. Press the pastry down firmly along the rim and cut away any excess. Use a fork to crimp the edge.
  10. Glaze the pastry with egg yolk and scatter the pearl barely on top. Form a “worm” out of a strip of pastry, glaze it with egg yolk, and place it inside the bird’s beak.
  11. Refrigerate the pie for ten minutes.
  12. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is well risen and golden brown.
  13. Stick the stripped parsley stalks, or folded pipe cleaners, in pairs into the pastry crust to look like birds’ legs. If you like, singe the ends to look like toes.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes is deeply delectable in its entirety. Complement it with 11 rules for a perfect meal from the Futurist Cookbook, George Orwell’s dessert recipes, and the endlessly delightful Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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William Faulkner on Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create: A Rare 1958 Recording

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“It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”

The writer’s duty, William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) asserted in his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Faulkner’s idealism about and intense interest in the human spirit permeated all of his creative pursuits, from his views on writing and the meaning of life to his only children’s book to his little-known Jazz Age drawings.

In 1957 and 1958, the period halfway between his two Pulitzer Prizes, Faulkner served as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. On the last day of his residency in May of 1958, he read from his favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions — wonderfully Southern-drawled questions — from the audience. The surviving recording, found in the University of Virginia’s Faulkner archives, is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in sheer richness of insight into Faulkner’s views on writing and the project of art. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he considers The Sound and the Fury his favorite novel:

I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the book — that’s why he writes another one; that he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date… This is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it — not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for me to do. It’s the same feeling that the parent may have toward the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

On his influences and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our lived experience:

I read everything I could get my hands on without any discretion or judgment at one time, and I’m sure that everything I’ve read from the telephone book up has influenced what I’ve done since. I think that’s true of any writer.

[...]

Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.

The question of why writers write — why artists make art — has been addressed, in one form or another, at one point or another, by nearly every significant writer in history. For instance, George Orwell listed four universal motives and Mary Gaitskill outlined six. For Joan Didion, the impulse grants her access to her own mind and for David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis finds in it a way to exorcise the the necessary self-delusions of creativity and Joy Williams a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket, while for Italo Calvino it was about the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. When an audience member poses this very question, Faulkner offers his private answer, at the center of which are some beautifully articulated creative universalities:

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

He later revisits the subject in answering another question:

I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes

Faulkner echoes Schopenhauer in answering a question about style:

I prefer to think that no writer has got time to be too concerned with style, that he is simply telling this dramatic instance in the most effective way he knows, that the book, the story, creates its own style.

Long and involved sentences — I don’t like them any more than the people that have to read them do, but I couldn’t think of any, to me, better, more effective, way to tell what I was trying to tell. And it’s not really an evolution — simply that one story in my opinion demanded, compelled a certain diction and style. The story next to it has compelled a completely different one.

Having endured his share of derision early in life, Faulkner smirks at the question of whether criticism hurts him or causes him to change direction:

I don’t read critics. I’d rather read imaginary fiction.

(Susan Sontag once put it even more forcefully: “Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.”)

Complement with Faulkner on the purpose of art and the strange story of the children’s book he wrote for the daughter of the woman he was courting.

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The Edge of the Sky: An Unusual and Poetic Primer on the Universe Written in the 1,000 Most Common Words in the English Language

By:

“Perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.”

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?

What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.

The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.

DARK MATTER: 'In the time it takes you to blink, the number of dark matter drops that fly through your hand is two times the number of people living today in the city that never sleeps.'

In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:

Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.

[...]

You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.

He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.

It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

[...]

Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER: 'Near that city, student-people have built a large ring under the ground. It would take you over five hours to walk around that Big Ring.'

But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:

Imagine for a minute the following situation.

You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.

Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.

You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.

It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.

The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.

If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.

It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.

Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.

We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.

So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?

MULTIVERSE THEORY: 'Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.'

Trotta offers an answer through a remarkably succinct explanation of the concept of the multiverse and the notion of parallel universes:

Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.

In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.

In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.

But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.

There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.

It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.

And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.

Trotta also chronicles the origin of the universe and the mechanics of the Big Bang with elegant simplicity:

The All-There-Is started from a single point, but then grew very, very quickly to become very, very large.

It is almost not possible to picture how fast it grew. Imagine breathing into a colored party ball, so that with every breath the ball becomes ten times bigger than before. If every breath took you an hour, you would have to keep going for over three days to make the ball grow as much as the All-There-Is grew right after the Big Flash. By that time, your party ball would have become much bigger than the White Road, so that one hundred party balls would fill the entire part of the All-There-Is we can see!

We don’t know what made it grow so much, so fast.

THE BIG BANG: 'Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light.'

He distills what we do know about those first few moments of cosmic import, painting a sensual portrait of the science:

At the beginning, all the matter drops were hot and moved around quickly. Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light. All the drops would have gone and only light would be left over, if it wasn’t for a strange fact.

Imagine a number of matter drops as large as the number of people who live in the land of Mr. Mao today. Each one of them had a matching Sister Drop, and when they found it, both disappeared.

Except for one.

Everything we see around us today is made of the few matter drops that did not have a Sister Drop and that escaped their death hug. As space continued to grow bigger and bigger, it cooled down. During the next three minutes, when the left-over matter drops met another drop they liked, they kissed each other and stuck together. Most matter drops did not find any other drop to kiss, so they stayed alone. We call them the Single Drops.

Almost all the matter drops that kissed each other ended up as Heavier Drops, made of two pairs of different drops. Very few matter drops stuck together to form even bigger drops than the Heavier Drops.

At the end, there were about ten times as many Single Drops as Heavier Drops. Single Drops and Heavier Drops are the same kind of drops that today make up most of the Sun.

Also, a whole lot of much lighter Very Small Drops were still flying around like crazy.

After three minutes, the All-There-Is had grown too much for matter drops to kiss: they simply could not find each other any more in all that big, empty space! Once matter drops stopped kissing one another, nothing much happened for a long time.

The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is is one part children’s book for grownups, one part imaginative exercise in economical yet lyrical language, and wholly wonderful. For a counterpoint that might well be written in the one thousand least common words in English but is utterly mind-expanding and at least as delightful, see Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.

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