Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Literary Kale

As you may have guessed, I'm always on the lookout for good literary vegetable passages. Thoreau is still my favorite wielder of worded vegetables, especially his passages on pumpkins and beans. So I was instantly delighted at reading the first line of Heidi Julavits' review of the racy werewolf novel Talulla Rising in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review :

If literature is lacinato kale, genre is gelato.

An extremely erudite vegetable reference, lacinato kale being the blackish green brassica also known as dinosaur kale. Was she implying that those of us who know what lacinato kale is and regularly enjoy it are most likely to also be literary snobs? That we enjoy what's more challenging to appreciate, what the common folks who are chomping on iceberg lettuce do not take the time to notice? The first part may be in there, but she jumped straight from vegetables to dessert, implying the cultural divide is even more extreme. But perhaps reading novels these days is already highbrow, so that liking mysteries or thrillers is more like eating gelato (still the mark of discerning taste) rather than soft serve or Breyer's.

But tastes are contradictory and likely to cross all sorts of so-called cultural boundaries. Once, my former roommate, who used to research food trends, took a picture of my breakfast because she wanted to capture the incongruity of my organic, farmers' market strawberries sliced over a bowl of Lucky Charms that were soaking up local, organic whole milk from Straus Family Creamery.

So I appreciated the way Julavits, a novelist and an editor of The Believer Magazine, took her initial "kale : literature as genre : gelato" metaphor and spun it into a miniature reflection on the mash-up frenzy driving urban food trends as a way to understand similar literary splicings. She continues:

Despite regular critical attempts to reconstruct this outdated food pyramid, the base holds strong. Fortunately, thanks to a surge in literary molelucar gastronomy, readers can enjoy an ever wider array of broccoli rabe (or brussels sprout, or Swiss chard) ice cream. When cooked by mad word scientists like Glen Duncan--whose new horror novel, "Talulla Rising," is a sequel to "The Last Werewolf"--this harmonic hybrid delivers sweet (plot), salty (character), sour (emotional pathos), bitter (psychological probity) and umami (stylistic and linguistic panache).

I think the inclusion of "umami," or the fifth flavor, shows this is a woman as serious about food as she is about books. Just when you think you've gotten to the dregs of the food metaphor, it keeps on going, perhaps inspired by the horror genre she's reviewing (ha! not dead yet! a relentless attack!):

If books were required to list the nutritional value of their contents, Duncan's sumptuously gluttonous werewolf saga would rank as high in pure cane sugar as it does in omega-3s. 
Note how she uses cane sugar and not corn syrup. Like the careful choice of gelato, she's saying Tallulah Rising is a little naughtier than kale but still not the trashiest thing you can ingest. The book looks really fun, by the way, feminist in its narrative of female werewolf empowerment but with a dose of True Blood-style sexytimes. I will be totally honest and say it was actually this pull-quote that got me to stop turning the pages and read this review:

Can a woman who kills and consumes innocent people and craves near-constant sex be a fit parent?

Ahem. Lettuce turn back to vegetables... Ms. Julavits' opening paragraph clearly planted a tiny green seed in my imagination, as I kept envisioning a book made of kale leaves, one that I could read and eat at the same time. It grew and grew in my mind, until I sat down after dinner and painted it (above). The lacinato, or dino, kale is on top, alternating with Red Russian kale, which I love for its delicate colors, texture, and flavor.

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