Literary Eats: Anna Karenina

[Editor’s Note – Yes, I know it was supposed to be Tuesday Great Literary Eats.  The second I turned out the bedside lamp last night I thought, “Oops.”  Oh well, I’m still finding my stride here.]

Anna Karenina, written by Leo Tolstoy, was published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in The Russian Messenger. I attempted reading it once and bagged after a couple chapters.  I think I was just too young (what the hell does anyone know at 26, really).  I also gave War and Peace a spin and likewise ran out of gas.  I think the problem there was the logistics of trying to read such an enormous book in bed; there’s no comfortable way to hold it.

But I’m thinking I’ll give Anna another try…if for no other reason than this:

As I was reading Anna Karenina, I discovered an amazing thing.  The food in that book is really great. There’s a dinner that Levin has with some other guy, and everything is described. When you read it at two o’clock in the morning, and it’s cold out, and you’re in bed, all you want to do is go out and have that meal. “Why I Love Cookbooks,” from More Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin.

It is Oblonsky with whom Levin goes to dinner at the Anglia, and Oblonsky is intent on having Turbot (a species of flatfish).  But when they arrive at the restaurant, they are informed that the kitchen has just received a shipment of fresh Flensburg oysters.  This results in Oblonsky changing the entire game, and embarking on a new menu.

‘Well, then, my good man, bring us two – no, make it three dozen oysters, vegetable soup…’

‘Printanière,’ the Tartar [waiter] picked up.  But Stepan Arkadyich evidently did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

‘Vegetable soup, you know?  Then turbot with thick sauce, then…roast beef – but mind it’s good.  And why not capon – well, and some stewed fruit.’

The Tartar, remembering Stepan Arkadyich’s manner of not naming the dishes from the French menu, did not repeat after him, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the entire order from the menu: ‘Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde à l’estragon, macédoine de fruits…’ and at once, as if on springs, laid aside one bound menu, picked up another, the wine list, and offered it to Stepan Arkadyich.

‘What shall we drink?’

‘I’ll have whatever you like, only not much, some champagne,’ said Levin.

‘What?  To begin with?  Though why not, in fact?  Do you like the one with the white seal?’

‘Cachet blanc,’ the Tartar picked up.

‘Well, so bring us that with the oysters, and then we’ll see.’

‘Right, sir.  What table wine would you prefer?’

‘Bring us the Nuits.  No, better still the classic Chablis.’

‘Right, sir.  Would you prefer your cheese?’

‘Yes, the Parmesan.  Unless you’d prefer something else?’

‘No, it makes no difference to me,’ said Levin, unable to repress a smile.

–From Part I, Chapter X of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Books, 2000.

Levin, it should be noted, cares nothing for fancy fare.  He likes “shchi and kasha best,” and he “ate the oysters, though white bread and cheese would have been more to his liking.”  During dinner he and Oblonsky discuss the tribulations of their romantic lives – Levin wishes to marry; Oblonsky is married but wishes a dalliance.  If I may get my high school English on, I will say that Tolstoy uses both the conversation and the food to represent all that is wrong in Russian society:  the excessive, multi-coursed meals, the snooty waiter, and talk of adultery representing the aristocracy; the simple fare and true love representing the workers of the world.  Who will have their day.  And their desserts.

 

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