Tuesday, October 02, 2007


I first read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse over 20 years ago in a class taught by the late Hopkins & Austen scholar Allison Sulloway, one of the most dedicated & literally inspiring scholars I've ever met – one of the people who taught me what little I know about writing, & who made me know what I wanted to do with myself. (Her first book, Gerard Manly Hopkins and the Victorian Temper, was dedicated to the Turkish poet & occasional sojourner in the alt-poetry world Murat Nemet-Nejat, a connection I never got around to figuring out.)

And now once again, as I do every couple of years, I'm rereading To the Lighthouse, & finding my stomach rumbling as I read Woolf's astonishing description of the triumphal main course at Mrs Ramsay's dinner party, the boeuf en daube, a "French recipe of my grandmother's":
And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought.
"Boeuf en daube," of course, means no more or less than "beef stew." The recipes I've been looking at – Julia Childs & so forth – make this clear, & frankly I suspect that whatever the dish's attractions for the poor spice-starved early 20th-c. Britons of Woolf's novel, it doesn't hold a candle in terms of complexity to my own labor-intensive gumbo or multiple-meat chili (based on Ron Johnson's recipe): more akin, I suspect, to my modest but comforting Hannukah potroast.

But everybody's got – pardon me – a beef: Buce points out that Woolf (or, more charitably, her character Mrs Ramsay) has gotten it all wrong about the preparation process & serving time of the boeuf en daube, merely a symptom of Woolf's general lack of sympathy for the servant classes in her novels: "The point is not that To the Lighthouse is a bad book. It's actually quite a good book; or at least it is a book full of good paragraphs, and Virginia Woolf seemingly cannot write a bad paragraph. It is a bad novel, because Virginia Woolf has little of the capacity for imaginative empathy that makes a really good novelist." I dunno about "imaginative empathy" – it strikes me that the range of empathies required to depict Mrs R, her overbearing husband, the artist Lily Briscoe, the scientist William Bankes, & the half-dozen other vividly rendered characters is more than most novelists can generate over a career – but she can certainly write food.

John Baker offers a delicious-seeming recipe for Boeuf en daube à la Virginia Woolf, as long as you don't mind converting those kilos & grams into more old-fashioned measures.

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