December 20, 2006

Between The Covers

What would possess a rail-thin, London-based photographer with no culinary experience, albeit possessed of wit and imagination, to write a parody celebrity cookbook?

In a recent interview, Mark Crick has whimsically said that he's from London's East End and that "when I got to university I realized people couldn't understand me, so I started adapting my voice . . . If you can get a writer's rhythm going, you're halfway there." Well, to judge from Kafka's Soup, Crick's gone all the way, trotting out the language, tone and situations that define 14 authors, from Homer ("Sing now, goddess, of the hunger of Peleus' son, Achilles") to Pinter (whose "Cheese on Toast" one-act play is a riot of bizarre, cross-conversation understatements).

Accompanying his stories, the multitalented Crick delivers serious recipes, steps and all, and also provides illustrations in the mode of, among others, Warhol, De Chirico, Hogarth, Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse. As they say, this is a stocking — not to mention a stomach — stuffer. Take, for example, "Rich Chocolate Cake à la Irvine Welsh." Who? (He's a Scots novelist, screenwriter and playwright whose signature style and subject matter turn on recollected experiences in the punk scene.)

A particular delight of Kafka's Soup is that it's not necessary to recognize the literary goods in order to enjoy the culinary goodies Crick associates with them.

Kafka, who lends his name to the book's title, would never have done any cooking himself, Crick opines, let alone eat anything as rich as Czech stew, so Crick imagined him "talking about unexpected visitors and having to cobble together miso soup from scraps in his fridge." The Kafkaesque mood Crick was after was the feeling of being isolated from your guests when you're giving a dinner party — "a sense of paranoia which I thought worked well with Kafka. Miso soup's got a thinness to it, but there's something very exotic about it, like Kafka, so it seemed to work."

As for John Steinbeck's "Mushroom Risotto," Crick says he fastened on something that for him summarized "the drought of the Depression" — "The porcini lay dry and wrinkled, each slice twisted by thirst and the color of parched earth," the onion and garlic peeled by "the scarred and callused hands" of a cook who knew that "the porcini would make it if the pan didn't dry out."

Here, also, are Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("Coq Au Vin"), Chaucer (whose "Onion Tart" is introduced by a chiding host — "And thou, clerke of Prague, put away thy bookes,/Tis no time for Ovid, our tales are for cookes"), Graham Greene (with "Vietnamese Chicken") and Jorge Luis Borges (convoluting "Sole à la Dieppoise").

Leading off with "Lamb with Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler" was a clever move, considering how many imitations the king of detective tough has inspired: "I sipped on my whisky sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board, and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim's, a hundred bucks, and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues. I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner's handshake . . . before I knew what I was doing a carrot lay in pieces on the slab. None of them moved."

Who was the most difficult author to do? Virginia Woolf, says Crick, "because her voice is so subtle and not that old-fashioned sounding." But he gets her making a "Clafoutis Grandmère," a French cherry tart, stream of consciousness flowing on, as she cradles and protects her cherries in batter, a mother concerned about her children. "Tiramisu à la Proust" puffs up as a mocking narrative of "elusive memories" delivered in long associative sentences.

For readers looking for more familiar literary voices, favorites may be Jane Austen's "Tarragon Eggs" ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that eggs, kept for too long, go off") and the Marquis de Sade's "Boned Stuffed Poussins" (poor Justine, locked in a closet, witnesses through a keyhole, a corrupt judge's slow peeling away of a "wrapping, revealing two fleshy white birds, breasts uppermost").

All the pieces, however, testify

to Crick's skillful use of different points of view and reflect a life of wide and

constant reading. He's already at work on a do-it-yourself-book, wherein Wittgenstein will be discussing how to change a washer and Julius Caesar how to put up a shelf.

Kafka's Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes, written and illustrated by Mark Crick. Harcourt, 92 pp., $14.95.

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