Thursday, 13 September 2012

Food for Thought

Music, as Shakespeare once remarked, may well be the food of love, but the art of feeding our other emotions is not quite so well known.  What should you eat if you want to assuage your jealousy?  What foods are good for staving off loneliness?  Is there a culinary cure for sadness?  Well, dear reader, if you have ever been bothered by these kinds of questions, today is your lucky day, for I have just the book for you :)

The work in question is Colombian writer Hector Abad's Recipes for Sad Women (translated by Anne McLean), a slender volume kindly sent to me by the wonderful Pushkin Press.  To call it a novel, or even a novella, would be slightly misleading; the book is a collection of recipes collected by an unnamed narrator, promising to solve the problems of any woman who happens to come across the pages.

Right from the start, the writer warns us of the limitations of his culinary arts.  His first words are:
"Nobody knows the recipe for happiness.  At the moment of misfortune the most elaborate stews of satisfaction will be in vain." p.15 (Pushkin Press, 2012)
In fact, he believes that sadness is an important part of life:
"You tumble and flip, bodily and in your imagination, to elude sadness.  But who said you are not allowed to be sad?  In reality, there is often nothing more sensible than being sad..." p.18
However, when it comes to certain other emotions, he has some tried and trusted recipes which will both ease the mind and the stomach.

A good way to loosen other people's lips is a steak, cooked elaborately and following the writer's instructions to the letter.  The key to a sleep full of exhilarating dreams is a highly complex onion soup.  If you're looking for a good laugh, Abad recommends mammoth steaks.  While they are (for obvious reasons) difficult to come by, three times out of four hilarity will ensue - unfortunately, the fourth time brings diarrhoea and vomiting instead...

If this was all the book had to offer, then Recipes for Sad Women would quickly descend into a one-joke work.  However, there's a lot more to Abad's creation than that.  It's actually a collection of philosophical musings accompanied by culinary tips, a guide to the inner workings of the soul with advice on what to eat while working through your emotions.  Each of the recipes is a self-contained nugget of wisdom, some spread over a few pages, others rather shorter.  For example:
"Often, on the brink of finding the recipe for immortality, I get distracted by the frightful presence of death." p.44
Yep, that's the whole page...

While many of the recipes are largely concerned with savouring the full flavour of life (and many of those deal with getting the most out of your love life...), there is also an underlying tone of sadness - and death.  Abad attempts to teach the reader (for we are all sad women in his eyes) how to cope with loss, either of a temporary or a permanent nature.  When you learn that the writer was forced to flee his home country after his father was murdered by paramilitaries, it puts the book into focus.  Abad never writes with bitterness, but there is an air of sadness, of someone who has been through the highs and lows of life and now wishes to help guide others through their troubles.

It's not all depressing though.  A quick leaf through the pages will provide you with a whole range of ideas to incorporate into your daily life.  There's something for everyone in these pages, whether you want to know if routine is a good or bad thing, or whether you need to learn how to adjust to a change in your environment.  The writer has some hints for every situation - just don't blame him if the meal doesn't always turn out as planned...

I read the book through over a couple of days, and it was pleasant reading, but I'm not sure that this is how it should be experienced.  Recipes for Sad Women is one of those books that, like poetry, should be dipped into on occasions, each fragrant spoonful of advice carefully tasted, judged and digested before the next one is brought to the table.  In fact, don't take my word for it, listen to Abad:
"Delightful morsels do not only please the belly - they calm the spirit and therefore allow reasonable portions." p.108
So please give Recipes for Sad Women a taste - just don't be a glutton ;)