Tuesday, February 28, 2012

eat it, I'll know you


Why should the women cook? The author has made their home a symbol of hospitality in her book and this man is counting on her to stand by her symbol. His joke depends on the reliability of his god. But aside from that, why don't they tell the strangers to go away? I look in M.'s secondhand copy of the 1965 Farm Journal's Complete Pie Cookbook and feel as if I'm holding evidence of a complicated answer in my hands. From beginning to end, the author, who is nameless, and probably a committee, tells women to cook and men to eat. That arrangement is described several times clearly in the introduction.* If a man isn't present then the food can be aimed at friends, family, guests, or children. (Chocolate Crinkle Cups are "Party dessert for the Junior High set.") But the idea is that the person who bakes must be a woman and that the woman must give her cooking away.

The assembling of the ingredients and the baking of a pie is not the complete action of a cook. The cook is expected to bake, then distribute, then receive gratitude. This is the life cycle of cooking. One excerpt: "To a farmer, an apple tree covered with blossoms is a lovely sight [...] But you can bet he also has thoughts of a juicy wedge of apple pie. We predict that any of the apple pie recipes in this cookbook will bring you his compliments. Try them all to find his very favorite!" The worth of a pie can be measured by the enthusiasm with which other people receive it. "One time I made 25 of these pies for a men's dinner," says the inventor of the Harvest Apple-Cranberry Pie on page fifty-five. "I served them with cheese slices and the pies really made a hit." That is how she sells it.**

Anything can be co-opted into a bid for power, suggests Christina Stead; the man in Dogs can turn the women's habit of generosity against them, and the host in House of All Nations can force the guest to eat even when that visitor is so stuffed and faint he's asking her to open a window. The exercise of her "strange feminine instinct" seems imperative. And I suspect that this word "instinct" is Stead's way of saying that the same information that passed from the wider world so naturally and easily into the language of the Complete Pie Cookbook (where it is taken for granted like an ancient folk myth) has affected Mme Haller so profoundly that the power to feed and receive compliments feels like her native right. "If you don't eat it, I'll know you don't like it," she says, and the guest eats.

(Contemplating that scene, I realise for the first time that the Pie Cookbook never tells you how to cope if your guest doesn't want your pie, although "Try them all to find his very favorite," and similar sentences should provide you with a solution that the authors don't explicitly state -- the answer is, of course, that you should offer them another pie. The natural life cycle of the pie would be interrupted if the guest said No forever; you might as well cut down a rainforest and expect the monkeys to go on living. But that problem never comes up in the Cookbook, where all the people who aren't cooks, are vacuums of lubricious greed.)

It's true that the food in Stead is not a pie, but the dynamic in the book is identical, ie, the cook expects to give her food away and other people expect to receive it. Stead's point, or my point, since I'm the one comparing the two books, not her, is that a mass of different manipulations can be built around this elementary armature, and White, too, packs multiple ideas around the skeleton verb of eating. Dorothy and Basil both have a meat pie but Dorothy's eating is not like Basil's eating, and the reader has seen enough of their mother Elizabeth by now in the book to know that her meat pie eating would be different again, and her nurse (who is one of three, I don't think I've mentioned the other two), would be different as well, and this situation would pertain even if each of them had exactly the same kind of pie, same size, same shape, containing the same sort of meat, bought from the same shop, for the same price.

People will always wage power struggles, demonstrates Christina Stead: whatever tools they have they'll use, even generosity is a tool. Human beings are innocent animals; the parasite vine grips the tree trunk without hatred, a snake uses the venom it's given. Four decades after 1965 the language around pies has changed only slightly, just enough to stop Ken Haedrich's Pie (The Harvard Common Press, 2004) telling you that one sex should do all the cooking and the other sex should do all the eating. But the language that encourages you to give your productions away has endured. ("Serve this to your family and friends and see if they can guess what's in it.") And the people who read the book use the same language -- it has to be cultural, I think, this pie-language, this vocabulary that goes with the atmosphere of North American pie. Here's an online review by someone named Sheree from Illinois: "The joy a fresh baked pie gives to someone makes me feel like I am making a difference. People love getting homemade pies, so much so it almost brings them to tears. My husband's co-workers, people at the gym, employees at stores that I frequent, and neighbors have been the beneficiaries of most of them. The reviews have been outstanding!" Here's her ammo: "during the past month I have made over 20 pies." With House of All Nations between my brain and my ears I hear these "people at the gym, employees at stores that I frequent" grinning, grinning, and uttering the words of Mme Haller's visiting lunch-couple, eyes bubbling, delirious and feeble with nourishment, "Oh, wonderful, wonderful, I wish I could cook like that. How did you learn to be such a wonderful cook? Did you learn it at home?" Surge, surge, confident Sheree, a tank who cannot be stopped: "It is time to make pie!"

The older cookbook has savoury pies and the new one doesn't, so I like the old one better in spite of its assumptions. Here in the US I've learnt that when Americans hear the word "pie" they think of a pie with sweetness in it -- a sweet chiffon, or sweet fruit, or sweetened spiced pumpkin, or sweet-tart lemon -- creams, curds, puffs, and fluffs. But the pies in my mind are closer to the pies in Basil's hand, the meat pie, the steak and kidney, the beef and mushroom -- Four 'n' Twenty puts the cow's anus in there, we used to tell one another at school, innocently bringing Patrick White's connection between the mouth and the arse into our discussions, literati in embryo we were -- my idea of a pie is an object with gravy; a pie without gravy is the thing that appears in the world while the world is waiting for a pie with gravy to arrive; it's a stopgap; and this is the reason I began writing about meat pies in the first place, not so much for Patrick White, or his characters, or his book, or even Christina Stead -- to be honest with you, I want a meat pie.

* For example: "Some young men still refer to their homes as 'the pie house' -- a tribute to their mothers' baking skills." "And some Farm Journal readers tell us they bake birthday pies for their husbands by request." "Young women, as recently as a generation ago, practiced to bake pretty pies of exceptional quality for pie-supper auctions in one-room country schoolhouses [...] [the auctioneer] hinted who baked the pie he held, removing the lid of the box just enough to give the tantalized young beaux a glimpse of the treat within." "Remember that pies please men. Since men are the great pie eaters and promoters, let's give a rancher friend the last word ..."

**According to both books, the cook can anticipate at least four different categories or types of praise. Type 1: Surprise and delight at the physical presence of the pie, its dimensions and colouring. Type 2: Explicit reference to the taste of the pie. Type 3: Requests for the volume of the gift to be increased, eg, I'd love another slice. Type 4: Attempts to discern the origins of the pie, its Eden, eg, Did you make that yourself, Oh I must have the recipe.

After I'd finished typing that post I came across this conversation in Leonora Carrington's Hearing Trumpet, and thought; ha; coincidence.

Mrs. Gambit thought, no doubt, that I was getting too familiar, so she changed the subject of the conversation. "We have cooking classes once a week," she said. "People can practise self-control by making sweetmeats for everyone else, without tasting any of their own cooking."

Though neither Pie nor the Pie Cookbook expects the cook to starve. "This is the best cheese pie you've ever made or tasted," they say: etc.

(Edit: Tom from Wuthering Expectations's said some friendly things about this post on Twitter. Much appreciated.

Second edit: I don't know if anyone remembers the muttering some months ago when the current owner of Boongarre (which was one of Stead's childhood homes), decided to add redevelopments to the place, but now he's selling it. That listing will vanish eventually, and the link will go dead, but for now the property blurb looks like this:

History, charm, absolute waterfront

Sydneys most privileged waterfront locale on the tip of Watsons Bay peninsula in the heart of exclusive Camp Cove. "Boongarre" nestles within Sydney Harbour National Park, Green Point Reserve and the waters of Sydney Harbour, on 1214sqm land (approx). Its 270 degree exquisite views, with all that is Watsons Bay at the forefront and Sydney CBD on the near horizon.

Originally built in the 1870s, its original features are still very much in evidence and these integrate harmoniously with an aesthetically faithful restoration and renovation. It has both the allure of an easygoing 4/5 bedroom family retreat and the grace of an architecturally significant Australian residence. It was the childhood home of renowned author, Christina Stead, and owned by the Stead family from 1918-1980.

Both the elegant lounge on ground level and the gracious master on the floor above are fronted by bay window clusters that overlook its own huge stretch of private gardens and the vast spread of Sydney Harbour beyond. Leafy stone courtyards extend all major ground floor rooms. One of these edges an early extension that provides an extra large casual family room or a teenage retreat with ensuite.

A babys room links conveniently to the master through its ensuite. The 3 car lock-up garage spreads to a generous workroom, and there is forecourt parking for 2-4 more cars.

Property ID: 2009546006)


  1. Absolutely wonderfully funny, thank you.

  2. Is it possible there is something intrinsically funny about the very idea of pies - or is it just me?

  3. Judging by the existence of the I-like-pie meme, it may not be just you. I wonder why. Because pies are so ordinary that it seems strange to draw attention to them? Is that strangeness a kind of frisson, and funny? I don't know.

  4. "Anything can be co-opted."

    Short, sweet, true.

    1. And I can't think of any other writer who makes that point as thoroughly as Stead. She's massively aware of the different power dynamics going on in whatever she's thinking about -- it's as if she's writing with three different heads, with her eyes going in new directions all the time, working out where the balance of power is going to shift next, and which character is going to make use of it.

    2. (I've been reading your blog, by the way. That's the most ambitious thing I've seen on a site in a long time.)

  5. Now my question is, what would Patrick White do with a tart!

    Seriously though, good stuff DKS. Love your analysis as usual ... food and power, ripe for many more posts I reckon. Think Mr Woodhouse in Emma for a start...

  6. That's a great example. Who was it who said that if he had the right place to stand and a lever, he could move the earth? Archimedes. So, people (fictional characters here, but people, anyway), find one place to stand, Mr Woodhouse and his health and his food, or Mrs Gummidge in David Copperfield and her "I'm a lone lorn creetur" and as long as they stand in this one right place they can move the world around them -- they can start conversations, they can convince other people to do this or that thing ... Are there any meat pies in Austen, since I'm on the subject of meat pies?