In the late 1990s, when I began my journey on the path to a career in publishing, I discovered the books of an author who spoke to all the Gothic nerdiness that I was: not only were her books about grammar and punctuation infused with images of dark fantasy, but I also loved her florid writing style. Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s instructional books remain close to me writing desk as valued resources. At the time, I happened to notice another book as well—and it took me many more years to read it than I expected.
There is nothing new about a tome of selected favorite quotes and passages. However, what lies in the pages of The Ravenous Muse goes well beyond superficial, feel-good platitudes that have been made into an endless stream of memes that fill the Facebook newsfeed. The book is closer to the realm of literary criticism. The relationship between authors, their characters, and food is explored in detail—using examples from erudite and sometimes obscure sources.
Interspersed with interludes about Gordon’s own Muse, who “comes in many moods and guises. Along with the hallucinogenic, metaphysical, the provocative, and the capricious.” She describes her Muse as a “syrabite, thinking of nothing but its own pleasure.” While many people may think of artists as indulgent, it adds more depth to the notion that the Muse is indulgent as well. And why not? Both Gordon and her Muse seek out works with “a flair for edible words”—and indeed they find a rich feast.
Though many dishes and mealtime rituals are featured in The Ravenous Muse, a reoccurring element was bread. Each culture venerates its bread. It seems to speak to the soul of that culture—ties it to its history on so many levels. It can speak to dark times as well, as shown in Piero Camporesi’s Bread of Dreams, which describes famine in the centuries throughout pre-industrial Europe, and the effects of breads that were commonly made with hallucinogens on a starving population.
“Bread—a polyvalent object on which life, death, and dreams depend—becomes a cultural object of impoverished societies, the culminating point and instrument, real and symbolic, of existence itself: a dense, polyvalent paste of manifold virtue in which the nutritive function intermingles with the therapeutic (herbs, seeds, and curative pastes were mixed into the bread), magico-ritual suggestion which the ludico-fantastical, narcotic, and hypnotic.”
One of the reasons I began the Savored series was because of the importance of food in the arts. How food is portrayed in literature reveals nuances of the setting and aspects of the characters. Of Milorad Pavić’s Landscape Painted with Tea, Gordon says, “Bread is mentioned in so many different contexts that it nearly achieves the status of a character. Salt occurs with similar frequency and effect, so that you begin to know what bread and salt are all about, and along with them, the qualities and destinies of those who consume them…food, too, is a witness to all that is thought, said, and felt.”
With this in mind, I set out to find an intriguing recipe for bread that I could adapt. I wanted it to reflect history. I imagined characters diving into a fresh, nourishing loaf of hazelnut bread, rich with figs and honey butter. And herewith, the recipe:
Hazelnut and Fig Bread with Honey Butter
½ stick butter
2 tablespoons honey
Blend in bowl
½ stick butter
2 tablespoons honey
Blend in bowl
1 1/3 cups water
1 ½ teaspoon lemon juice
3 cups flour
½ cup rye flour
1 ½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Packet of yeast
¼ cup dried figs, chopped
½ peeled hazelnuts, roasted and chopped
Roasting hazelnuts: place on ungreased cookie sheet and roast at 350 for 15-20 minutes on the middle rack. They should be browned and skins peeling. Place in warm towel and let steam a couple of minutes. Rub in towel until skins mostly peel off. (I find placing them in a plastic sandwich bag with a paper towel works well, and leaves less of a mess.) Crush hazelnuts, and reserve for bread dough.
Pour packet of yeast into bread bowl. Add pinch of sugar and a bit of warm water. Swirl to activate. Add flour (both regular and rye), salt, hazelnuts, melted butter, and chopped figs. Add lemon juice and water. Blend until you can work with the dough by hand. Add more water or flour as needed until the dough is not sticky, and rolls well in your hands. Knead for 10 minutes. Set to rise for 90 minutes in a covered bowl, or until dough has doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and knead again. Let rise in covered bowl for 60 minutes. Prep bread pan with butter, and form bread in the pan. Let rise, covered for 30 minutes.
Bake at 400 for about 25 minutes, until it’s golden brown and the top of the loaf is hard to the touch. Knocking on it should sound hollow.
Remove and let rest…but it won’t be long before you’re grabbing the knife and cutting a slice to smear with the lovely honey-butter!