James Joyce's Kitchen cover

James Joyce's Kitchen

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James Joyce’s Ulysses has been hailed as the greatest novel of the 20th century. Volumes have been written over the years about both Joyce and the book, but perhaps less widely discussed are the eating habits of both the author and the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. When you take even a cursory look at Joyce and Leopold’s culinary predilections, it’s clear they both had peculiar tastes in food.
Epicurean Epistles
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James Joyce's Kitchen

James Joyce’s Ulysses has been hailed as the greatest novel of the 20th century. Volumes have been written over the years about both Joyce and the book, but perhaps less widely discussed are the eating habits of both the author and the book’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. When you take even a cursory look at Joyce and Leopold’s culinary predilections, it’s clear they both had peculiar tastes in food.

For those who’ve read Ulysses, you’ll know it’s a series of episodes about one day’s events in Dublin, the eighth of which chronicles, among other things, Bloom’s lunchtime repast. This he takes in a pub, but it’s not your average counter meal.

SKETCH OF LEOPOLD BLOOM BY JAMES JOYCE

A gorgonzola and mustard sandwich is what takes his fancy and he washes this down with a glass of burgundy. Blame it on the burgundy, or maybe the gorgonzola was a bit gone (if that’s possible), but while still brushing off crumbs, Bloom begins wondering about Greek statues.

It’s not, as may be assumed, a meditation on the body sublime that captures his imagination. Rather, what seizes him is the question of the alimentary configurations of goddesses and statues and whether they replicate those of humans. (You need to read the book.)

Bloom's Favourite Dishes

Bloom is described by Joyce as a man of appetites, gustatory and others. He “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

Not a diet to appeal to everyone’s taste. Some of the items mentioned are unlikely to be on special at Woollies any time soon and indeed are so obscure that scholars have recognised the need to define them for us.

KIDNEY FRITTERS – IMAGE COURTESY OF OLY EATS

If you’re tempted by the sound of these delicacies, James Joyce’s Online Notes provides some well researched information on thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs and fried hencods’ roes. (Hencods, in case you visualise some aberrant chook-fish coupling, are just Joyced up cods.)

Joyce's Favourite Dishes

Joyce himself was an enthusiastic eater, although it was drink rather than food that truly captured his appetite. He wrote often to his wife Nora about what he’d like for dinner, letters which he may have intended in a spirit of generous sharing of his innermost thoughts, but come across as quite peremptory. The website Paper and Salt quotes some of this correspondence, as follows:

I would like roast beef, rice-soup, capuzzi garbi, mashed potatoes, pudding and black coffee. No, no I would like stracotto di maccheroni, a mixed salad stewed prunes, torroni, tea and presnitz. Or no I would stewed eels or poltenta with … excuse me dear, I am hungry tonight.”

Some of his suggested menu items rival those of Bloom for obscurity. To clarify:

Capuzzi garbi is pickled cabbage or sauerkraut

Stracotto is an Italian term for a very slow cooked stew while Maccheroni is a tubular form of pasta

Torroni is an Italian confection resembling nougat

Presnitz is a cake made with flaky pastry rolled around a filling of nuts, fruit and chocolate (like a Strudel without the apple)

NORA AND JOYCE (AT LEFT) AT THE TIME OF THEIR WEDDING, COURTESY OF Philippe Sollers

A Woman's Place

Judging from the letters Joyce and his wife Nora exchanged in the early days of their relationship (euphemistically known as “the dirty letters“), Nora’s place, in Joyce’s view, was firmly in the bedroom (although it’s claimed they often put the kitchen table to certain uses beyond dining).

The fact that the kitchen was where Joyce’s heart lay is evident from another excerpt from their correspondence, as follows:

I shall not quit the kitchen for a whole week after I arrive, reading, lolling, smoking and watching you get ready the meals and talking, talking, talking to you. O how supremely happy I shall be! God in heaven, I shall be happy there!”

In those days when the idea of women’s equality had not intruded into the domestic realm (as it still hasn’t in some households today), presumably Nora would have been fine with this, possibly delighted to have a husband so passionately desirous of getting back to home and hearth.

I have to say though if it was me, I’d have been less than thrilled at the prospect. Cooking, especially of the esoteric creations Joyce had put on his wish list, takes focus and concentration. Having someone yabbering away in the background, blowing smoke everywhere, and not even getting off his backside to help, would be annoying to say the least.

But things were different then. Men read and talked and thought and pontificated and smoked. Women got ready the meals.Thank goodness we’ve moved on.

James Joyce, courtesy Gisele Freund