Brain Pickings

Recipes and Household Tips from Great Writers

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Tiramisu à la Proust, hanging wallpaper with Hemingway, weeding by hand with Émile Zola, and other domestic adventures with literary greats.

Household chores. We dread them, we put them off indefinitely, we think of them as anything but entertainment. But here comes The Household Tips of the Great Writers — an imaginative and impossibly humorous omnibus of literary impersonation by parodist extraordinaire Mark Crick, who guides us through the art and craft of cooking, gardening, and fixing up the house with the help of some of modern history’s most celebrated literary icons. The real joy of the book, of course, isn’t so much the specific recipes and tips — though who could resist a quick miso soup à la Kafka? — as the comedic precision with which Crick caricatures, lovingly, each writer’s voice.

From boarding the attic with Edgar Allan Poe (“Working from the corner furthest from the feeble light source, which scarce illuminated my labours, I began to lay the boards. Those dark recesses, unlooked upon since the cloak of slate first enveloped them in eternal night, resisted my intrusion like the densest thicket.”) to putting up a garden fence with Hunter S. Thompson (“He lifted a size-eleven foot onto the spade, his leg peeking coquettishly through the slit trouser leg, and the blade sank into the ground. There was a lot to do.”) to burying bulbs in autumn with Sylvia Plath (“I swallowed trying again to clear the bitter taste from my mouth then I tipped the bulbs from the bag and watched as their fat little bodies rolled around on the garden path.”), Crick has all your household and gardening needs and emergencies covered.

Then there’s the kitchen, with its delectable tapas bar of literary treats. Start with tarragon eggs à la Jane Austen:

40g butter
4 eggs
Ground pepper
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons tarragon (fresh or dried)

[…]

The possibility that her eggs might find themselves cooked with the aristocratic herb sent Mrs. B— into such a state of excitement that Lady Cumberland would have risen to leave were it not for the promise of luncheon. Instead she instructed her host to produce the dish without delay: ‘I suggest you begin.’

[…]

Follow with mushroom risotto à la John Steinbeck:

Extra virgin olive oil
25g porcini mushrooms
3 field mushrooms
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
200g risotto rice
500ml vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
60g Parmesan
1 glass white wine

The porcini lay dry and wrinkled, each slice twisted by thirst and the colour of parched earth. When the water finally fell, at first only in splashes, they drank what they could, but soon they were all covered with the life-giving liquid. The parched fragments recovered an earlier form, their contortions changed, by the gift of the water, into a supine mass, glistening. What had resembled a bowl of tree bark now had the rich colour of cooked meat, the purple brown of wet soil had replaced the dry plaster of Arizona earth.

[…]

Finish with tiramisu à la Marcel Proust:

12-15 Saviardi sponge fingers
4 eggs
100g caster sugar
Amaretto di Saronno
500g mascarpone
2 cups cold coffee
Cocoa powder

[…]

From this ancient past — its great houses gone and its inhabitants dwindling, like the last creatures of a mythical forest — came something infinitely more frail and yet more alive, insubstantial yet persistent; the memories of smell and taste, so faithful, resisted the destruction and rebuilt for a moment the palace wherein dwelt the remembrance of that evening and that tiramisu.

Whether you consider yourself a bibliophile, a culinary connoisseur, or a modern-day MacGyver, The Household Tips of the Great Writers is bound to tickle your fancy and impart a handy tip or two along the way — because who doesn’t want to know how to prune a rose like Pablo Neruda?

Illustration: “Snacks of Great Scribblers” by Wendy MacNaughton

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I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail: 17th-Century British “Trick” Poetry Meets Die-Cut Indian Folk Art

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Exquisite storytelling as exquisite artifact.

Rarely do I get this excited about the release of a book, but then again rarely does “book” fail to capture the artifactual whimsy and singular storytelling genius of a printed work so completely. From the team at Tara Books, who for the past 17 years have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, comes I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — a die-cut masterpiece two years in the making, based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti, who brought us the magnificent The Night Life of Trees.

Each line of the “trick verse” builds upon the previous one, flowing into a kind of rhythmic redundancy embodied in the physical structure of the book as each repeating line is printed only once, but appears on two pages by peeking through exquisitely die-cut holes that play on the stark black-and-white illustrations. Thus, if read page by page the way one would read a traditional book, the poem sounds spellbindingly surreal — but if read through the die-cuts, a beautiful and crisp story comes together.

Not unlike Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, a book once dubbed “unmakeable” by bookbinders, this project required a remarkable level of ingenuity to make the conceptual structure of the poem fit the physicality of the book as a storytelling artifact. Over on the Tara Books blog, Japanese-Brazilian RISD designer Jonathan Yamakami, responsible for the book design, recounts the challenges and the Eureka! moment:

From the very beginning the main challenge to me was: how do we create a book that presents both readings without actually printing the poem twice? A lot of different solutions were considered. I think [Tara Books founder] Gita Wolf was the one who hinted at the direction of die-cutting although was still open to other possibilities. Using transparent paper and printing with two colours was another suggestion, but there was an issue of cost and, more importantly, it just seemed too complex for a poem that was in itself so simple. After all, once you crack the puzzle that it holds, you can’t help but wonder how you could have missed it to begin with.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail is unlike any book you’ve ever held in your hands and in your heart, and outcharms even the most impressive die-cut books of the past decade.

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Animated Anatomy of Shakespearean Slurs

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Heartless hinds, fishmongers, and lots of thumb-biting.

Nearly two years ago, The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition gave us high-brow verbal sparring lessons with some of literary history’s finest comebacks, taunts, and effronteries. Now, from educator April Gudenrath and the team at TED-Ed comes this primer on Shakespearean insults, which served to unify the audience and to develop relationships between characters in a very short and sharp way.

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

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