The works of British Author Dame Hillary Mantel are among many other things a catalogue of dietary discomforts. Mantel, a British author of Irish descent detailed her tumultuous family life as well as its lasting impact on her world-view and literary voice in her memoir “Giving Up the Ghost.” In the subsequent novel “Fludd”, she revisits the setting of her childhood: a depressed Northern mill town, populated by poverty-stricken Irish Catholics and the English Protestant neighbors amongst whom they live in a strained cultural détente. One of the noteworthy features of both books is the picture they paint of a world where the fabric of life itself, to say nothing of the meals, seems to be rendered entirely in shades of gray. Dark oak church interiors, cold bleak dawns over the moor and the washed out colors of thread-bare women’s clothing all vie with mealy brown potatoes, beige boiled-out cabbage and the listless tan of overcooked meat to dominate the sensory scheme. The inhabitants of these landscapes, both observed and imagined, have become resigned to lives devoid of sensual pleasure. This is partly due to the influence of a stringent Catholicism that seeks to mortify the flesh and purify the faithful.
Both “Giving Up The Ghost” and “Fludd” ask the important question, “What room can there be in a bleakly literal world for those souls with a rebellious intellect and a hunger for experience?” The answer arrived at by Mantel on her own behalf and that of her characters is that a rigid social system is not designed to accommodate expansive personalities. A chilling example of the overwhelming push toward orthodoxy in everything is the account of dinner time at the Mantel family table where her stepfather enforced his draconian and arbitrary rules. “Potatoes should be chips or plain boiled in big chunks. It was forbidden to squash your potato surreptitiously with the side of your fork.” Faced with such a stifling authoritarian existence, is it any wonder that the author chose to follow the traditional path of an artist through escape, adventure, and finally with understanding and emotional distance, acceptance. Dame Hilary, left Cheshire to read law at university, married young, followed her geologist husband overseas first to Africa, then eventually to Saudi Arabia. She returned to England, where an extended battle with the disease endometriosis left her wiser, sadder and unable to bear children. The visceral experience of this loss is an emotion that informs much of her writing. During this time she and her husband separated, divorced and eventually, remarried. Only after years of physical distance and hard-won emotional perspective had done their work, did she return to live in the Northern England of her childhood and embrace the experiences of her forbears as meaningful to her own.
Fiction, however offers so many more immediate and satisfying means of change than real life. In fact the art of alchemy with its promise of turning ordinary materials into items of extreme rarity and value is a central theme of “Fludd.” The book details life in Featherhoughton and tracks four principle characters through the plot. We encounter Father Angwin, pastor of the Roman Catholic church of St. Thomas Aquinas, has lost his belief in God’s existence, but determinedly continues to serve his flock while suffering the oversight of his idiot diocesan bishop. Miss Dempsey, his spinster housekeeper, lives in terror of a small wart above her upper lip, thinking it a portent of cancer. Sister Philomena, a nun teaching in the parish school, is an Irish girl forced by her family into the convent, where she endures the petty tyranny of its Mother Superior. Then there’s Fludd, a curate ostensibly sent by the obnoxious bishop to help Angwin modernize his pastoral approach. Or is he? Once Fludd is in residence, people begin to … transform. He makes references to his “past profession” which sounds a great deal like alchemy, reads palms and recognizes the semi-veiled occult practices of villagers from a neighboring town – strange abilities for a Catholic priest. By the end of the story we are left with only the transformations in his wake to use as evidence in determining if Fludd is an angelic visitor, or possiblyeven the devil himself.
In keeping with theme of transformation, whether self-created or supernaturally assisted, in both of these books, I have chosen to highlight the typical ingredients of an Irish diaspora pantry and frequently featured in Mantel’s books. These are root vegetables such as potatoes and onions, cabbage and salted meat. Through small flourishes of seasoning and careful attention to cooking method, what might have been a bland, gray boiled dinner becomes a brightly flavored dish that showcase the unique flavor and textures of each item. This is kitchen alchemy at its most surprising.
Redjacket Potatoes with Garlic-Lemon Butter and Dill:
- 4 large red potatoes
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 4tbsp butter
- ½ lemon
- 1 tbsp dill fronds minced (more if you like)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place the cleaned whole potatoes in a saucepan and add a fat pinch of salt and enough water to cover them. Bring to a low, steady boil and cook until the potatoes offer no resistance to the tip of a knife.
Drain the potatoes in a colander and cut each into quarters. Set them aside while you prepare the garlic-lemon butter.
In the same saucepan sauté the garlic in butter just until it becomes fragrant. Remove from the heat. Add the juice and zest of ½ lemon and stir.
Spoon the seasoned butter over the potato quarters, tossing gently to coat without breaking the pieces. Sprinkle potatoes with dill, salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste.
To serve, arrange potato quarters atop a mound of Cabbage sauté and drizzle with a bit of garlic butter from the bottom of the bowl.
Saute of Savoy Cabbage and Smoked Pork Loin:
- 1 small head savoy cabbage – cut in half, cored and shredded finely
- 1lb smoked pork loin, back bacon or ham – cut into rough dice
- 1 small onion – diced
- 2 cloves garlic – crushed or chopped
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped
- 2 tbsp butter
In a deep covered pan, brown the pork in the butter over medium heat.
Add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are golden and fragrant, but not browned.
Add the cabbage, toss to evenly distribute the pork and onions mixture throughout.
Cover and cook until the cabbage has wilted and is bright green.
Serves 4 as a main course with potatoes, or 6 as a vegetable side dish with pork omitted.