7.02.2010

House of Mirth: cilantro pesto

I love food and I love to read. As a result, the first week of each month, I'll combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.

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Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth is about a young-but-not-getting-any-younger woman named Lily Bart who is desperate to secure a wealthy husband to ensure her place in society. Lily has no money of her own and spirals into debt to try to keep up her rapidly dwindling social standing. Beautiful and well-versed in the complex rules of 1900 high society, Lily should have it made--except that she falls in love with Lawrence Selden, a smart, handsome, and unfortunately poor (and therefore impossible for Lily to marry) lawyer. Lily's feelings for Lawrence keep ruining her prospects for a wealthy marriage, and most of The House of Mirth depicts Lily's frenzied attempt to avoid becoming a poor old maid.

The first time we read about Gerty Farrish, Selden is explaining to Lily that she doesn't have to marry someone rich to be happy; she could afford a cheap flat like his cousin Gerty's. Lily laughs condescendingly, implying that Gerty (who is only a couple years older than Lily) is already an old maid "--and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap."

In some free indirect discourse in the book, we find that Lily thinks Gerty "typified the mediocre and the ineffectual." Gerty has neither money nor good looks, and "Lily's own view of her wavered between pity for her limitations, and impatience for her cheerful acceptance of them." Gerty doesn't mind her poverty at all, and spends all of her free time working with charities for poor working girls in the city. For all of Lily's jibes at Gerty, even she knows that Gerty is the kindest and most generous person in the book--Gerty takes Lily in several times throughout the novel when Lily has problems, and listens to Lily's problems. Gerty falls in love with Selden and is crushed when she realizes that he loves Lily, but although several times she has the opportunity to thwart their attempts to be together, Gerty remains stoic, kind, and generous. She encourages the two to talk, meet up, to help each other when they can. Even though it's breaking her heart!!! Lily judges Gerty and looks down upon her way of life until even the end of the book, but as the novel progresses, we readers realize that the strongest character, the best person--and the only effectual person--in this shallow, duplicitous society is Gerty. During the dramatic ending (I'll try to avoid a blatant spoiler here!), Gerty steps up as the only character who can take charge and direct the events. Free of Lily's point of view, we can see Gerty as she is when she rises in a crisis: she glows with an "extraordinary light," and as she tells Selden what to do, "a light broke through Selden's stony misery, and he saw deep into the hidden things of love." Gerty's love, light, and strength propel her and other characters through difficult times throughout the novel.

SO. In honor of Gerty Farrish (who isn't even in the movie version, I hear! I am appalled), I am celebrating her "queer," "soapy" cuisine with something else that some people (people who are wrong!) find "queer" and/or "soapy"--cilantro!
Cilantro is often used in Mexican and South Asian food, both in dishes and as a garnish (as seen above), and this distinctive, delicious little cousin of parsley gets a bad name. Some people associate cilantro with a soapy or bad taste--and these people, like Lily Bart with Gerty, just can't appreciate cilantro's fine qualities.

Not that people who don't like cilantro are closed-minded. They literally can't appreciate the herb. As I learned from this report on NPR, people to whom cilantro tastes soapy or gross lack certain taste/odor receptors. So, readers, if any of you are said "non-tasters," feel free to substitute parsley or even arugula for the cilantro in the following recipe for:
Cilantro Pesto

2 lightly packed Cups (usually about 1 bunch) cilantro
1-2 cloves garlic, depending on how garlicky you like it
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp lemon or lime juice
1/4 Cup canola or other flavorless oil (olive can overwhelm the cilantro flavor)
1/4 to 1/2 Cups pine nuts or coarsely chopped walnuts

In a food processor or a blender,* combine the garlic, cilantro, and salt; process/blend for 10-20 seconds, until there are no large chunks of garlic. Add the citrus juice and oil; pulse once or twice to incorporate, then add the nuts and process/blend until it has reached the desired texture; usually a chunky paste to a smooth puree, depending on your preference.

*-Blenders make the texture smoother and more consistent, like in the picture above; food processors allow you more of a chunky paste, like I used for the picture below.

Cilantro pesto is good on rice, bread, burritos, and pasta, like on my sweet potato gnocchi (a good recipe for sweet potato gnocchi is here, only substitute sweet potatoes for the carrots, obviously).


I hope you all like this first installation of Food from Books, or whatever I decide to call this feature when I think of a snappy title. Suggestions welcome... for a snappy title OR for books to use. Let me know what you think!

2 comments:

Ricki said... Best Blogger Tips

Great new feature! With my own English degree, I appreciate the literary references :) And the pesto sounds delicious! I can't say I was thrilled with the way that gnocchi came out, but I bet sweet potato would be much better. ;)

vegetalion said... Best Blogger Tips

Thanks! That's actually the best sweet potatoe gnocchi recipe I've found, but I never tried it with carrots--maybe it's better with sweet potatoes because they have a little more starch?

Your alfredo sauce recipe with the gnocchi was also amazing.