Book Review: Curates and Cauliflower


Some Tame Gazelle
Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle was the third book I finished reading while we were traveling through southern France. It is a good thing that I am not one of those people who likes to read books germane to the places I am visiting, because the setting of Pym’s novel was in pretty stark contrast to where I had set my butt to read the book. Some Tame Gazelle takes place in an English village in the late 1940s, where the major concerns seem to be about darning socks, the proper way to dust the front room, and the topic of the Archdeacon’s latest sermon. All a far cry from a warm sunny day in Provence lounging by the pool. Of course, this begs the question, why in the world would I want to mentally transport myself from my sybaritic lair in the south of France to the mundane minutiae of post-war village life? Because everything about these industrious, gossipy English villagers fascinates me.

This is the kind of book that is manna for Anglophiles like myself. First published in the UK in 1950 (but not until 1983 in the US), Some Tame Gazelle is Pym’s first novel and it sets the tone for many others that she wrote later. Her books are full of competent, independent, often single women, usually mixed in with lots of vicars, curates, archdeacons, bishops and the like, and lots and lots of tea. A little bit of Trollope, a little bit of E.F. Benson, with dashes of Austen and Wodehouse.

The action, if you can call it that, centers on two middle age spinster sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede who keep house together. Harriet develops a platonic fetish for each of the young curates who pass through the local church over the years. Her interest in nurturing these young men, and an attachment to her life with her sister, keeps her from accepting the many offers of marriage that come her direction. Belinda, on the other hand, has had one overriding, longstanding, and unrequited love, for the archdeacon who she has known since their days at university together.

A mellow comedy of manners, the plot has a relatively gentle arc that is nonetheless engaging and surprising in its way. In many cases it is the routine details of their daily lives and their everyday interactions with their neighbors that are interesting and revealing about these characters. And I am never more interested in the minutiae of their housekeeping than when they talk about food. We aren’t talking Babette’s Feast here, we are talking about the obsession that many Briton’s must have had with food in the days of food rationing and fiscal diligence. These are the kind of descriptions of food that help give British cooking a bad name. Perhaps unjustly so if you consider what crap Americans were eating in the 1950s. There is a scene where the sisters serve Cauliflower Cheese for lunch and a caterpillar is found by their traveling seamstress Miss Prior, in her portion of the midday meal. The semi-polite interchange between master and servant over the caterpillar is hilarious in its subdued way. But for me the real fascination is with the Cauliflower Cheese itself. Some kind of gratin with cheese and cauliflower? A head of cauliflower with a cheese sauce poured over it? Can my British readers enlighten me? What is it? Do people still make it? Is it delicious or is it kind of bleak?

If mid-century middle-class British manners and mores are your thing, Barbara Pym is for you.

Breakfast Radishes

This lovely bunch of radishes was at the Sunday market in Amboise. I have seen these at markets and grocery stores in the USA sometimes labeled breakfast radishes. Seems like an unlikely thing for breakfast. But if you slice them thin, saute in butter, season with a little salt and pepper, they are a really good side with scrambled eggs. I tried it once in olive oil but they aren’t half as good that way.

Sunday Morning

Boy am I glad I am done blogging about that 40 by 40 list. Hope it isn’t as tedious to read as it was to write.

We are about to head off to “Julie & Julia.” I loved the book based on the blog, and I loved watching Julia Child as a kid, and I LOVE going to the Julia Child kitchen at the Smithsonian. I am not sure I like Streep’s Julia voice from the trailers, but the film has gotten good reviews so I will reserve my judgement.

I took this photo about 4 years ago on a sunny Sunday morning in London. This fabulous stack of scones was taken in the Orangerie at Kensington Palace. A really wonderful and comfortable place to sit with friends. I am very proud of this picture, I think the lighting is just perfect. Unfortunately, this was taken before I had a digital camera and the only copy I have is this well worn one that has been tacked above various desks over the years, so it doesn’t scan very well. Looks better in person. Maybe I still have the negative somewhere.

40 by 40 Update: #30 Finish Organizing My Recipe Files

(Back in May of 2007 I noticed that a bunch of people in the blogosphere had created lists of 101 things to do in 1001 days. I was intrigued by the notion but felt I needed to change the parameters. So I created my 40 by 40 list. 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40. Well on August 17th I turn 40, and I need to give $10 to charity for every uncompleted item. So it is time to see how I did.)

30. Finish Organizing My Recipe Files – COMPLETED
Running Tally: $130.00 to charity.

I have a file system with recipes organized by ingredient (e.g., fish, beef, vegetables, potatoes, etc.) but also some that say more about type of cooking (e.g., quick meals, holiday baking, etc.). No doubt I will want to make further improvements to this system. But for right now it is as good as it is going to get.