of story and stew

There’s nothing so invigorating as the smell of burning spices. 

It causes one to spring to the stove with Olympian alacrity, heaving pots and pans and anything else within reach to cool safety—while at the same moment feverishly fanning the smoke detector and yanking a smoldering bread from the oven.  And trying to peel a potato.

It had begun simply enough.  My wife had used the same technique before with success and even aplomb. 

I peer at the recipe again.

A couple ounces of olive oil.  (I never measure these things anymore, but I had about that much.)  Heat until just starting to smoke.  (It was, with an added dash of sizzle.)  Add the spices, fry briskly for about thirty seconds.  Add water.

Ay, there’s the rub.

‘Are you sure I’m doing this right, hon?’ (It’s always best to be sure about these things beforehand, rather than waiting to learn the truth afterwards.)

My wife reassures me that, yes, she thinks it seems like I guess I probably am.

Thus reassured, I dump the spices onto the smoking oil.


Then follows the invigoration mentioned above.

We many of us like to read about food—cookbooks or foodie memoirs.  Some of us like to write about food.  A few may have even followed the example of C. S. Lewis and Brian Jacques, including rich, loving  detail of cooking and eating and enjoying food in our stories, stopping hobbit-like to enjoy a leisurely meal with our readers despite the battle raging a page or so away.  (My editor was not happy with me.) 

A Light Inside recently observed that food writing—cookery writing—gives us a way to understand ourselves.  A chance to reflect on shared moments of creativity, excitement, anger, tears.  A chance to join in the celebration of life, the sweet and the bitter, the savory and the charred.

As I’m scraping the sad, sticky residue off the pan in preparation for trying again, the literary significance of what has occurred utterly fails to strike me.  It’s not till a while later, that dinner over, that technique comfortably mastered, that I began to realize—

There may have been more than one reason that Professor Tolkien compared the mythic heritage of Story to a stewpot.

Each mythic tradition, Tolkien said, each trope and archetype, each memory of the Perilous Realm, are ingredients, added to the simmering stew over the years.  The storyteller is the chef—drawing out what she chooses from the main stewpot, if you will, to make her own version of the stew.

The metaphorical use of stew—a grand old British institution—might not be accidental.  Tolkien famously despised gourmet cooking, especially French.  It might not be too far a stretch to wonder whether he meant to suggest the role of the mythic in literature—a folk tradition, less elegant than literati but more nourishing, kept constantly alive and changing, ancient and new, in homes and on gas ranges.

The joy of the responsible critic, of course, is not only to discuss the stew in hand, but to guess at the ingredients used—what the storyteller-chef drew out of the pot, and what he’s done with them.  Dickerson and O’Hara, for instance, carry this metaphor much farther than Tolkien himself did, with impressive and often surprising results.

But it’s not just ingredient analysis that matters.  It’s something visceral in the process of creation and enjoyment itself—something that cooking shares in common with writing, and writing with painting, and painting with music—something, in fact, intrinsic to all art. 

We create—often through smoke, often through tears that have nothing to do with smoke—something we want to be proud of.  Something that fills a need, yes, whether of hunger or hope or healing, but that lifts us beyond simple carbs and chords and helps us see for a moment a glimpse beyond those shadowy borders—helps us hear a whisper of that place where, in George MacDonald’s words, ‘all that is not music is silence’.

It’s something to share.  For me, cooking and writing both happen regardless, but the food tastes blander and the words seem less riveting if I’m just doing it for myself.  Because the point of wonder is to wonder together.  The point of laughter is to laugh together.  The point of creation is to create life—in its beauty and horror and weeping and joy—a life not lived apart.

The point, as Camus said—the point is to live.


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