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Literary Tastes

What a Writer Craves

ISSUE:  Spring 2015

Melanie Dunea I love Colette’s work. I’m not so crazy about Colette the person, who seems to have been, on a good day, a terrible mother, a terrible daughter, a crap friend, and faintly anti-Semitic. On the other hand, she would eviscerate a tray of chocolate éclairs so that she could eat just the custard filling, leaving the battered, thumbed-over shells for her family and friends. That, I admire.

I also admire Jean-Paul Sartre’s work, but I am, again, not so crazy about the actual person and his treatment of people, especially the women in his life (not that Simone de Beauvoir was such a great human being). But he loved halvah. He loved it. With nuts and without. He appreciated the chocolate and was okay with the plain pistachio. I imagine that, like me, he didn’t really care for the vanilla kind. I know there are civilized people from Prince Edward Island to Myanmar who are mad for these tahini/sugar bricks that stick to your fingers, crumble down your shirt, and glue your tongue to the roof of your mouth, but unfortunately I don’t know any. Not one.

This reminds me that halvah and a bowl of custard would be excellent things to keep in the small, dingy fridge in my office. I should add Elizabeth Bishop’s brownies. She seemed to believe that she introduced brownies to the country of Brazil, which I find hard to believe, but I know almost nothing about Brazil. She wrote, “You see how innocent our lives are here—just making money and eating sweets.” This is very much how I’d like my writing life to be. Instead of feeling doomed and shaky, I would prefer to lie happily on my couch, staring at the blotched acoustic tiles and imagining money tumbling in over the transom, the Brazilians and me gratefully receiving trays of brownies baked by a great poet.

I should also add all of Jane Austen’s preferred breakfast foods, because they are also my preferred foods. We like pound cake, rolls, bread and butter (Emily Dickinson made her own bread; Austen and I do not), plum cake, coffee, and tea. It may be that, like me, Austen liked coffee in the morning and again at about 3 p.m., when you think that you’re about to fall into a coma. She also sneaked in one cup of strong but milky tea in the late morning, accompanied by something dry and sweet, like an old scone.

Ernest Hemingway was very big on pan-frying your own trout, but I don’t think he ate like that when he was working. I like tomato soup with crackers and a little sherry (or white wine, or red wine, or even just a drop of vinegar) for lunch, but I can’t have it anywhere near my desk or couch. I have to eat it while sitting on the floor, concentrating.

What I do eat and drink while I’m working: 

Peet’s Coffee: I like it so strong that I only need one cup until the late-afternoon slump. With Splenda. (My children use sugar or nothing, and I admire them for it.) A splash of fat-free half-and-half, with its share of chemical goo.

Popcorn: Any kind that’s on sale, that doesn’t feel like a heart attack in a box. Orville Redenbacher’s, Jolly Time, Newman’s Own—the house brands. If no one is around (and I make pretty sure no one is) I sometimes put Kernel Season’s White Cheddar Seasoning on the popcorn. I’m pretty sure that whatever benefits the fiber and relatively low-calorie impact the popcorn has is offset by the unpronounceable ingredients of a topping that bills itself as “all natural.”

Crackers: My current favorites are called Hors D’Oeuvre Crackers. They are what they are—delivery systems for cheese and butter. I also like Wasa Bread and Ry-Krisp, both of which are crisp, dry, and vaguely healthful. 

Cheese: Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby, or, my true favorite, Muenster, which transports me back to sixth grade, when my mother stopped making my lunch. I assume she couldn’t stand it anymore. I was free to take a couple of dollars and buy lunch or I could make my own. For two months, thinking this was temporary, I wrapped a plain slice of whole-wheat bread around a large chunk of Muenster, squished it into a brown bag with an apple, and called it a meal. Every day. Still a favorite.

Belvita Breakfast Somethings: I don’t know what they are. The package says, breakfast. It also says, nutritious sustained energy, all morning. I believe them. If I haven’t been able to eat a real breakfast (banana smoothie or oatmeal), I eat this. I feel, slightly, energized.

Almonds: My husband eats these, so I do too.

Yogurt: The goofier and less healthy the flavor, the better. Currently in my fridge: caramel, key lime, and café mocha. I don’t think of these as dessert. I think of them as weird yogurts—creamy, smooth, and peculiar. My mouth is always a little surprised.

Apples: I live in apple country, in Connecticut, and we have Macouns and Macs, Baldwins and Braeburns and Galas all over the place. In the fall, I probably eat one every day, and when I’m tired of banging my head against the wall I go over to the farmstand and buy a second one.

I don’t really like to eat meals when I’m working. A meal feels like the official end of my productive day. A meal is what I eat with my family. Sometimes, when I’m working late, two slices of cold pizza will get me through. Or a cold slab of my husband’s superb meatloaf (also eaten on the floor, with no distractions).

For years, I wrote in a beautiful shed in the woods (nestled is the correct word). These days, instead of a beautiful little building of pumpkin pine, I work in a dilapidated walk-up with dark, filthy stairs that tilt at both ends and buckle in the middle. Sometimes, it smells like sewage. The interior of the hall is so filthy, in such a multilayered way, that I can’t even attach a deodorizer to the wall.

My new room has a fridge and a coffeemaker. My beautiful shed did not. The wheel of life moves on inexorably. We age, we die. Friends move. Newspapers fold. The center becomes the right. Nevertheless, I have a fridge and a coffeemaker, and both work beautifully. And my husband makes a great meatloaf, which I get to eat, most Thursday nights, on the uneven floor, in front of a leaky window with a perfect, long view of the harbor. 


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