(Published in the Business Standard, April 9, 2007, Speaking Volumes)
It is a lowering thought, but until last week, I had spent over a decade in Delhi without receiving a single invitation to a literary orgy. There have been, admittedly, literary evenings where authors, critics and editors have variously been carved up as the main course, but those were inadvertent.
So when Ritu Dalmia, proprietor of the iconic Italian restaurant Diva in Delhi, suggested that I might want to drop in at an evening of readings and gourmand indulgence based on Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite, I accepted with alacrity. The only problem was the lack of orgy-appropriate clothes—the wardrobe of a literary hack-turned editor doesn’t run to velvet gowns or black leather outfits as a rule, but when I got there, it was a relief to discover that other guests had dressed for the literary, rather than the orgy, part of the evening too.
Allende’s book concentrates on the sensual rather than the exotic. “We do not offer any supernatural potions, for this is a practical book and we know how difficult it is to find paws of koala, eye of salamander, and urine of virgin—three species on the endangered list.” Instead, she (and Ritu) focus on more easily accessible, and distinctly more palatable, pleasures.
Several of us are invited to read for our supper—short selections from Aphrodite selected by Ritu follow the presentation of different courses. The first is a platter of little amusements for the palate—stuffed prunes wrapped in bacon, prawns, figs. There is bread, and one of Ritu’s guests reads out: “The raw dough swelled with secret sighs, moved softly, pulsed like a woman’s body in the surrender of love…”
Somewhere between the porcini mushroom soup (the recipe suggests that truffle oil, dabbed behind the ears, is an excellent perfume) and the Empress’s Omelet (including eggs, smoked salmon and beluga caviar), I relax into the food, and the book. I have often thought of Allende’s gentle reminder to the chef who sees the cooking of omelets as an invitation to show off his skills: “These gyrations are pure exhibitionism, because when you make an omelet, as when you make love, affection counts for more than technique.”
By the end of the meal, which includes saffron prawns, duck in peach sauce, a wickedly sensuous chocolate mousse, most of us will go home feeling pampered, soothed rather than aroused. This, given the august professions of some of Ritu’s guests is probably a good thing, or perhaps it’s just that she was careful to omit Panchita’s Soup for Orgies (designed to feed 10 bacchants).
But when I get back home and pick up Allende’s Aphrodite again, I discover that it is very different from my memories of it. It is not about aphrodisiacs, though it is about eroticism; it is, however, about creativity, abundance and celebration. In the middle of a week that has more than the usual share of trials and sadness, being at this reading and rediscovering Aphrodite through Ritu’s cooking is balm for the soul.
Allende began to write Aphrodite three years after her daughter, Paula, died tragically young, years “filled with the sensation that the world had lost its colour”… she writes. “When my dreams about food began, I knew that I was reaching the end of a long tunnel of mourning and finally coming out the other end, into the light, with a tremendous desire to eat and cuddle once again.”
The day after the feast at Diva, I hear that Michael Dibdin has died at the age of 60. Some of my friends read his detective stories, featuring the battered Aurelio Zen as chief protagonist, for the crime. Some of us, though, read Dibdin and followed Aurelio Zen across Italy strictly for the food. Only a careful crime writer, and a serious foodie, would have noted that a Parmesan cheese knife, as opposed to the ordinary kind, makes an excellent murder weapon. In The Long Finish, solving murders is almost secondary to preventing a dark plot from destabilizing the Piemontese wine industry.
It was thanks to Aurelio Zen, for instance, that I discovered that the finest orange juice is obtained by putting blood oranges-hard to find in India, sadly—through a brass juicer to extract the pulp. Or that the best way to eat baklava, usually too sticky and too sweet for my taste, is for breakfast, chased down with a double espresso. Or how to comport yourself during a pub-crawl in Iceland.
There are some who disapprove of mixing crime and cooking, or who think Allende’s sort of food-and-sex writing is overdone. I’m not of their company. Murder and orgies are both far more palatable on a full stomach.