It took me a long time to read this book. Not actually to get through it; it is a riveting book that you won't want to put down once you pick it up. But picking it up was the hard part for me. The cover didn't help. As you can see, the cover of my copy looked like a romance novel. Other editions' covers are boring: plain text, plain colors; they make it look like an "important" (but not particularly interesting) book.
Plus, the first chapter is rough! The famous opening line "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" leads into an evasive, depressing, and somewhat confusing first chapter set well after the rest of the events in the book. This put me off at first. BUT when I actually finished the book, I quickly flipped back to the beginning to look through this chapter.
Even though I have a little disclaimer at the top saying there might be spoilers, and the academic in me laughs in the face of spoilers, I hesitate to ruin anything about this book for you. The joy, the craft, the genius of this novel is in Du Maurier's ability to build suspense throughout hundreds of pages. You can guess what's happening, you can think you know what's happening, and by a certain point you may be sure you know what's happening--but you're still waiting with baited breath for the big reveal at the end.
Okay, so that settles it: no spoilers. A safe plot summary: Our nameless narrator is a painfully shy young woman from a poor background who meets a dashing older widower, Maxim de Winter. Maxim marries her and takes her to his huge, lavish estate: Manderley. The young Mrs. de Winter, already feeling unworthy and out of place in her new surroundings, struggles with the duties of managing a household, one that teems with servants and rooms that still seem loyal to their dead mistress. No one wants to talk about Rebecca, the last Mrs. de Winter, except the creepy servant Mrs. Danvers, who brings up Rebecca mostly to make the narrator feel more unworthy and uncomfortable.
Over the course of the novel, the insecure little narrator begins to unravel some things that don't make sense about Rebecca's life and death, and Rebecca, though dead, becomes the most important, compelling figure in the text.
Other than the gothic tone and the compelling tension throughout Rebecca, my favorite thing was the main character, the new Mrs. de Winter. The narration is from her point of view, and we spend a lot of time in her head, going through her thought processes with her. I'm not a shy person, so our narratrice's (that's a word, right? I know I've used it before, so we'll pretend it is) inability to speak or step up at key moments frustrates me--but thanks to du Maurier's narrative, I at least understand why the narratrice acts the way she does, even if I wouldn't be that way myself.
The plot really centers around the fact that no one will be direct with anyone else. The narratrice doesn't understand the strange situation at Manderley, but is too shy and insecure to ask anyone directly. Maxim, her husband, is trying to protect her and, to an extent, himself, so he won't give her direct answers. Maxim's lawyer, his sister, and his brother in law all try to tip-toe around Maxim for fear they'll upset him by bringing up the past, and Mrs. Danvers hates everyone now that Rebecca's dead, so she won't say anything that isn't creepy and mean. If, in the first few chapters, our narratrice said "Look, Maxim, what is the story with your dead wife?" or "Mrs. Danvers, you are creepy and crazy and this is my house now, too," or "Frank/Beatrice/Giles [anyone, actually], just tell me what's going on with my husband and household," there wouldn't be any tension. But again, the best part of this book is that tension. We understand the mindset of the narratice so well that we see why she doesn't say things like that, even if she really wants to; even if we really want her to.
Despite all the actual action that takes place, for me, the turning point of the novel is a conversation between Maxim and his wife. This is the genius of Rebecca: the book builds up lack of communication so well throughout that a conversation between a husband and wife is the exciting climax. And it is exciting. Again, trying not to risk spoiling anything, after this moment, the main character begins to have more confidence and more volition. Since we, as readers, spend the entire text in her head, watching this turn is incredibly satisfying.
And here is where the food comes in. The food that the kitchen prepares for the de Winters and their guests is a point of power for creepy Mrs. Danvers. She almost bullies the shy narratrice into what they will serve for guests. After the climactic discussion, when our narratrice begins to act with a will of her own, she directs the kitchen and Mrs. Danvers what to make and how to serve it. It's a minor point in the book, but a big deal for the main character--and, because we've been sharing in her thoughts and anxieties, a big deal for us.
When I first finished Rebecca, I thought, well boo, I can't write about this for my blog, because all the food in this is not vegan, and wouldn't be fun to veganize. The characters eat baked chicken, souffle, salmon and lobster mayonnaise (what the heck is that, anyway?). Ritzy stuff consisting of several animals. Not themes I wanted to incorporate into my blog, anyway.
Until the boyfriend's birthday. He requested, for dinner, a vegan version of Chicken Cordon Bleu. I was hesitant to comply, as I'd never had a non-vegan version, but then, I don't think he had, either, so I gave it a shot. And, while making it, I realized: Chicken Cordon Bleu is exactly the decadent, fattening, multi-animal kind of dish Mrs. Danvers (the creep!) would have served.
Finding a good substitute for the chicken was tricky. I thought about seitan, but wasn't sure how to flavor it; I wanted a light flavor, and most seitan recipes are rather heavy. The texture, too, needed to be bake-able, not to dry out. I ended up going with Veganomicon's Chickpea Cutlets. With their lemon zest and added beans, the cutlets tasted bright and didn't dry out in baking. A great choice. Also, for the filling: I dislike buying most vegan cheeses and fake meats, mostly because they're expensive and not usually very tasty, but I only had a couple hours to put together this dinner, and I didn't want to mess anything up by making a too-thin or too-thick cheese sauce of my own... and it was really hot, so I didn't feel like using the oven to make homemade tofu bacon. I bought and used Yves Canadian bacon and Follow Your Heart cheese, but feel free to use/make your own favorite kinds of vegan bacon/cheese.
Finally, I read through dozens of recipes for Chicken Cordon Bleu, and there didn't seem to be a consensus as to whether you bake the chicken or saute it in butter. I went for baking, but I suspect that with gentle treatment, sauteing would work. I include sauteing ideas in my instructions below.
Vegan Cordon Bleu
1 recipe Chickpea Cutlets (from the Veganomicon) (Because I'm allergic to nightshades, I always leave out the paprika and just put in 1/4 tsp or more of black pepper. It still tastes awesome.)
4 thick slices of vegan cheese (or 1 cup shredded cheese or thick cheese sauce)
4 slices vegan Canadian bacon (or normal-sized veggie bacon)
Bread Crumbs--about 1 cup should do, on a plate or in a shallow bowl.
If you want to bake these, preheat the oven to 375, and generously grease an 8x8 baking dish. I strongly recommend greasing the dish by melting 2 T margarine in it by putting it in the oven as it preheats. The buttery taste is all the more decadent. If you want to fry/saute them, see below.
Make chickpea cutlet dough according to the recipe. Divide into four equal parts. Take one of the fourths, and knead and stretch it into a strip at least 4 inches long and 2-3 inches wide. If you can get it wider, all the better, but you don't want any holes in it. Because gluten is so elastic, it'll shrink if you don't keep tugging it back as you work. Once you've got it to a good size, put the Canadian bacon down along one end, put the cheese on the middle of that (one slice, or about 1/4 a cup if you're using shredded), then roll it up, starting at the bacon/cheese end. The gluten will stick to itself pretty well. Close the ends upon themselves (if you can't do so without tearing the dough, don't bother). Roll the completed rolls in the breadcrumbs, making sure to get all sides. Repeat with the other three segments of dough.
If you are baking them, put the four rolls, seam-side (where you sealed the roll) down, in the baking dish. Brush a little oil/melted butter over the top of each one. Bake for about 30minutes, until the breadcrumbs start to turn golden-brown.
If you want to fry/saute them, heat your oil/margarine in a cast iron pan over medium heat. If your rolls are holding together well and you can be very gentle in flipping them, then put them in the pan as is. If they look like they might come apart, stick a toothpick through each one, and trim the ends of the toothpick that stick out, so it'll saute on those sides. (Just remember to remove the toothpicks before you eat!) Rotate the rolls as they cook, making sure each side gets to a nice toasty golden color. This might take a while (up to 20 mins with all the rotating), and you may need to add more butter/oil if the breadcrumbs soak it all up, but it'll be very decadent and delicious.
These don't need a sauce, but if you want to, serve with a salad that has a ranch-type (that is, creamy) dressing, or pour beurre blanc over the vegan cordon bleu, which I'll feature in an entry next week!
[EDIT: GUYS, I just remembered: "Narratrice" is French. While I like English's abundance of gender-neutral words, sometimes when you're talking about a female narrator, you just want to be able to use a word that means "female narrator." Thanks, French.]