Last Monday evening, the dining room of Restaurant Eugene was humming with conversation. The crowd sipped anxiously on sweet rum cocktails. Judith Winfrey, Eugene's hospitality director, tapped her glass a few times with a spoon and, as the sharp sound rang in the air, the room hushed. The guest of the evening, author Mark Kurlansky, stood up from his table, smoothed a wrinkle from his colorful necktie, ran a hand through his white hair, and said a few words to the dining room about his latest book, Edible Stories. He spoke only briefly before returning to his table, perhaps because he assumed that the dining room was just as interested in tasting his work as they were in hearing about it. As part of Restaurant Eugene's new author series (in collaboration with A Cappella Books and the Decatur Book Festival), chef Linton Hopkins had prepared a menu that reflected Kurlansky's career in five courses, each drawn from a different book in his substantial oeuvre.
The author series is like a work of translation for Hopkins. In September, he worked with the novels of Susan White to produce a menu that explored the parts of Atlanta that her novels traverse. He spoke enthusiastically about the challenges of planning these dinners, of bringing two disciplines together to create a meal that resonates on the plate and with the page. "You know I love, let's say, a wine dinner, but this pushes me to reach further," he said. For Kurlansky, he wrote and rewrote the menu, fine-tuning the flow of the meal to encompass the author's varied career as historian, archive editor, fiction writer, translator and so on.
Before the meal, Kurlansky suggested that not all of his books would be suitable for this project. "When my cod book came out in the Icelandic translation," he said, referencing Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. "I was invited to Reykjavik for dinner in my honor. It was kind like this idea, except the entire dinner was recipes from the cod book. Oh my god. So, I was little worried about this one."
It may seem a little unusual that a James Beard award-winning food writer could be worried about eating food derived from his own books. But Kurlansky's curiosity lies beyond the kitchen. "I'm interested in recipes for their historic value and their anthropological value. If there's something interesting about the way they're written or if they tell you something interesting about a time or culture, I don't bother with whether they'll result in something good to eat. Sometimes they don't."
Thankfully, Hopkins had his eye on the tastier moments from Kurlansky's books. The rum cocktails at the beginning of the night were a nod to The Eastern Stars, a book that chronicled the entwined history of sugar farming and baseball in the Dominican Republic. A sweet, smooth pâté and pork rillettes were drawn from his translation of Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris. The meal's most memorable dish, Tafelspitz, came from Choice Cuts. The delicately tender, obscure cut of aged beef served with potatoes, apples, horseradish, and doused in broth was once on the menu of Meissl & Schaden, the beef-obsessed Viennese restaurant where Count Karl von Sturgkh was assassinated by the socialist revolutionary Friedrich Adler in 1916.
Dessert, an excellent pairing of a chestnut vanilla créme brúlée with vanilla infused bourbon, came from Edible Stories. The loosely linked short-story collection departs from the studiously researched, sweeping histories that Kurlansky is known for. Those familiar with his typically sure-footed, methodically clear prose will be surprised to find Edible Stories dominated by an uneven comic pacing. But his ear for the fascinating relationships between people and food is sharp as ever. The strength of these stories lies in their genuinely witty dialogue, perhaps the product of his early work and training as a playwright.
As the créme brúlée arrived on the dining room tables, Winfrey chimed her glass once more. Kurlansky rose again from his table to address the crowd. He read one of the best from Edible Stories, a Thanksgiving-gone-wrong tale of veganism and a failed Tofurkey. The humorous strength of the dialogue was even more apparent out loud. In between bursts of laughter, the dining room clinked with the rattle of spoons against dishes, the sounds of an audience appreciating both the plate and the page.
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