Object of the Week: Burgess’s Italian Cookbook
Anthony Burgess’s copy of Italian Food by Elizabeth David is battered, ripped and stained, suggesting heavy use. It also contains scraps of paper which mark certain recipes, giving an insight into what Burgess may have been cooking.
Burgess’s edition of David’s book was published in 1967, and there is internal evidence that he was using it during his time in Malta in 1968. Some of the pages that have been marked include a recipe for Abbacchio Al Forno, or Roast Suckling Lamb, a typically Burgessian dish. Burgess writes about roasting lamb in various places. In a 1984 article for Gourmet magazine titled ‘The Glory of Garlic’, Burgess shares his recipe for gigot of lamb which shares some technique with David’s recipe, particularly pouring white wine over the meat during the cooking process.
The page containing various recipes for marrow and courgette are marked in the book, as well as recipes for spinach, including spinach with sultanas, with anchovies, and spinach croquettes, in which the spinach is coated in a parmesan and nutmeg batter and fried in dripping.
Perhaps more interestingly, pages containing discursive histories of Italian food have been marked, particularly a long discussion on the history of pasta. It is hard to gauge if this marked passage has inspired any of Burgess’s writing. His fictional portrayals of pasta tend to be brief, whether is it Enderby’s ‘spaghetti formaggio surprise’, or Ronald Beard’s strange may-pole-like erotic use for spaghetti strands in Beard’s Roman Women. In fact, Burgess writes about his preference for the ‘pasta-less refinements of Bologna and Milan’.
In his autobiography, Burgess remembers that his first solitary meal after the death of his first wife, Lynne, consisted of Veal Marsala followed by a zabaglione (the same meal Beard enjoys in the same circumstances). There are recipes for both of these dishes in David’s book, the former under the name Saltimbocca (which David translates as ‘jump in the mouth’), and the latter containing the exact method Burgess describes in both his autobiography and Beard’s Roman Women.
Burgess’s love of food and drink is well-documented, and is a central preoccupation in much of his fiction. On moving to the Mediterranean, Burgess said that he had taken a liking to ‘extreme climates, fights in bars, exotic waterfronts, fish soup, a lot of garlic’. Yet, his culinary upbringing continued to haunt him, even surrounded by the garlicky meals of Southern Europe. ‘I am sometimes mentally and physically ill for Lancashire food — hot pot, lobscowse and so on — and I have to have these things. I’m loyal to Lancashire, I suppose, but not strongly enough to wish to go back and live there’. This passion for food, whether cuisine from his Mancunian roots, or exotic feasts, is an important part of Burgess’s fiction, and the way he viewed other writers’ fiction.
‘You can always tell a bad novelist by the way he or she deals with eating,’ he writes. ‘”After breakfast they resumed their journey.” But what, for heaven’s sake, did they have for breakfast? Dickens never leaves us in any doubt: hot muffins, mutton chops, grilled kidneys, eggs like miniature dawns, thick slices of good red beef, coffee hot and strong like a punch to the gullet’.
It comes as no shock, then, that Burgess’s fiction often dwells on descriptions of food and drink. For example, Enderby, during his time living in Brighton, is seen making a hare stew, ‘with carrots, potatoes and onions, seasoned with pepper and celery salt, the remains of the Christmas red wine poured in before serving’. In his Elizabethan novels, Nothing Like the Sun and A Dead Man in Deptford, Burgess creates much of the atmosphere by writing about food. As Christopher Marlowe undertakes a spy mission to Holland he samples the Dutch cuisine after a night sleeping above a bakery: ‘The beer hot and roasted apples pounded in, then ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, then there were apple shreds floating in beer as shorn wool in a windstorm. Kit got the reward his nose of the night claimed in fresh bread and Dutch butter’.
Burgess also writes about gluttony. In a scene from Tremor of Intent, secret agent Denis Hillier, travelling on a passenger ship, engages in a vast and competitive banquet with the shadowy Mr. Theodorescu. In one sitting the men gorge on lobster medallions, fillets of sole, shellfish tart, soufflé au foie gras, avocado halves with caviar, filet mignon a la romana, roast lamb, onion and gruyere casserole, pheasant with pecan stuffing and game chips, peach mousse, pears in chocolate sauce, Grand Marnier pudding, nectarine flan, chocolate rum dessert with whipped cream, and apple tart normande with Calvados. This is accompanied by champagne and lashings of red wine. Afterwards, Hillier goes above deck to visit the ‘traditional vomitorium’ (as Mr. Theodorescu calls the ocean). Burgess’s love of everything gastronomic helps make this scene a nightmare of fine dining and rich cuisine.
Burgess also wrote frequently about food in his non-fiction. His autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, makes constant references to the importance of food in his life. A particularly potent example is in his memory of employing a prostitute in Spain during the war. He remembers the room where this transaction took place as ‘smelling of garlic and cheap scent. And yet I have learned to associate garlic with the erotic’. Burgess wrote about food in various other places. He held forth on the importance of tea: ‘Perhaps tea is so woven into the stomach linings of the British that they cannot view it in either a scholarly or aesthetic manner. It is a fact of British life, like breathing’. He wrote of his Irish roots through a culinary filter: ‘Brought up in an Irish family that had been used to poverty, I still prefer Irish stew and mutton hash to caneton a la presse and veau Marengo’.
Burgess clearly enjoyed food in many ways, and found it a fundamental ingredient in his myriad forms of writing. ‘Great writers love life,’ he writes, ‘this being their subject-matter, and life is food as well as lust, hate and the other innutritious things that come between meals’.