The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch

You wouldn’t normally think that the Church of England would make for scintillating reading, but you’d be sooooooo wrong if you start reading the “Church of England” series written by British author Susan Howatch. I stumbled across one of them going on 15 years ago now, and was hooked. The series is broken up into two semi-series – for lack of a better way to put it – with the first six books focusing on the evolution of the Church from post-WWI into the late 1960s with all the attendant changes that happened in the world. The second series consists of three intertwined books that feature references and characters from the first six books, but are set in 1990s London and take on much more timely and controversial topics than the first six. The last book of the series, The Heartbreaker, goes pretty in-depth into prostitution, homosexuality, cult mentality, some paranormal and supernatural elements including a form of devil worship, and ultimately, love and redemption. I highly recommend all nine books, but the latter three are unputdownable.

The main character is Gavin Blake, a male prostitute whose clientele are wealthy, middle-aged gay men, but he is actually heterosexual. If you’re thinking “what the hell, how can a male prostitute servicing gay men be straight” you’d be where I was when I cracked open the book. But it’s incredibly fascinating how Howatch writes about human nature in all of these books, particularly the fluid nature of sexuality and how it’s possible to train your mind to do something completely alien to your nature if you’re in survival mode.

Gavin works for a woman named Elizabeth, who is his pimp but who also runs a very nasty little group made up of people who use bizarre sex and occult rituals to gain power in London. He has come to depend on her as he is traumatized by much loss in his own life, loss of his brother, messed-up parents, the works. He’s incredibly good-looking and charming, but the internal damage from his upbringing and the subsequent abuses he has gone through with Elizabeth turning him into a prostitute (though he doesn’t initially see it as abuse) make him very superficial and facile. He indulges in affairs with women who he then dumps in his charming way……he is the ultimate heartbreaker who leaves a trail of disaster and heartbreak in his wake because he himself has had his heart broken and been devastated. Well, we all have in some way or other, haven’t we?

When his path starts crossing with a woman named Carta Graham, he starts idolizing her and lusting after her, not realizing that she represents, on a very deep level, a way of life he used to have growing up and also a way of life that he is craving, though he continues to stay in the world of prostitution. He also meets Nicholas Darrow, the rector of a church called St. Benet’s, a part of the Church of England that works with psychologists, doctors, and holistic healers, to create a place where people can worship and heal both physically and spiritually. Gavin is so emotionally damaged that it takes him awhile to figure out there can be a different way of life for him through Carta and Nicholas, and his journey starts……..but not without danger along the way.

The ways of the subconscious are deeply explored in all of these books, and particularly here. I’ve always found psychology and our inner instincts and how they sometimes work against us and make us do crazy or awful things in the name of survival, to be utterly fascinating. As Gavin starts to gradually extricate himself from the life of prostitution, he is helped by Carta, by Nick, and most importantly, by Susanne, who also works for Elizabeth as a bookkeeper but who had previously also been a prostitute until she had a meltdown and couldn’t do it any longer. She represents someone who both can leave that lifestyle and heal themselves and get educated and be independent, which is why Gavin initially hates her because she has done what he wants to do with his life.

Flowers and Italian wine at my new kitchen table.

Susanne helps Gavin out of a major jam, involving blackmail sex tapes, illicit sex, etc., and to thank her, he takes her to the Savoy for champagne, dinner and dancing, and the next day, as they wait for the fallout from Elizabeth possibly finding out what they’ve done, Susanne grudgingly makes Gavin food and they begin to develop a friendship and a relationship that neither of them have had before. As they share a frittata and wine post-shag (as they call it in England), they start planning how to escape Elizabeth and her long, evil grasp.

After the shag Susanne keeps me organised by telling me I’ve got to eat some more, and she fixes what she calls a “fry-tartar,” a jumbo omelette stuffed with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. We have to have eggs again because she’s run out of everything else, but the frittata’s so good I don’t care. We drink Italian wine with it and the cat goes in and out through the cat-flap, just as it would in a normal home.

Frittatas are among my favorite things to make, and not just because they’re relatively simple. I hate to admit this, but I am kind of a dumbass when it comes to making omelettes because I can’t master the damn omelette fold and flip. I know, I know, it’s easy, blah blah blah. It’s not. I have fucked up many, many potential omelettes in my life, and there was that time that one ended up on the floor………….thank God for dogs, is all I have to say. Anyway, here’s my take on a classic Italian frittata, or as Susanne would call it, a fry-tartar!

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 eggs, room temperature
1 russet potato, peeled and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
3 green onions, finely diced
1 sausage link, squeezed out of its casing
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat your oven to 500 F. Add the oil to a heavy, cast-iron skillet and cook the potato until they soften, about 7-10 minutes. Set aside.

Mix the eggs together in a large bowl and whisk. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In the skillet, add a a bit more olive oil and add the diced red pepper, the diced onions, and the sausage meat, and stir together. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the onion is translucent and most of the liquid has cooked off.

Add the potatoes to skillet and mix everything together so everything is evenly spaced across the pan bottom.

Add the shredded cheese and the heavy cream to the eggs in the mixing bowl, whisk together again, then pour over the potato-pepper-sausage mixture in the skillet.

Cook stovetop over low heat until the eggs set on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Give the skillet a good swirl so the eggs evenly coat everything, then put the egg mixture into the oven and cook for another 5 minutes, so the eggs cook evenly.

Remove, let cool, and flip out onto a platter. Serve with the Italian wine of your choice. It’s such a delicious and simple way to cook eggs and it’s an excellent way to use up what’s in your refrigerator before it goes bad or expires. And people will think you’re a damn kitchen goddess!

The Shining by Stephen King

Thanks to CHC for the photography.

I don’t think Stephen King has ever been accused of being a foodie, though he is most certainly the most visceral writer I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been reading his books since my early teens, starting with The Shining, as well as many others. But the story of the Torrance family remains my absolute favorite of all of his books. I have a thing for books that make the setting, the place, the hotel or house, as much a character as the people. Shirley Jackson did it with great style in The Haunting of Hill House, which I blogged about a few months back if you want to give it a whirl. Edgar Allan Poe did it with The Fall of the House of Usher. And then there’s the Overlook Hotel.

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Jack Torrance is one of the more interesting characters in literature. He is, for the most part, in tune with his own worst instincts……except for when he drinks. His intelligence makes him arrogant, yet he does truly care for his family. But it only takes a small chink in one’s armor for the enemy to pierce us, and this is what the spirit of the hotel does to him. It gets into Jack’s soul, tempts and taints him with liquor and with his violent, shadow side, and all goes to hell. His son, Danny, is the polar opposite. He is already in touch with his own shadow side, in the form of Tony, his “imaginary friend,” who is the actual, psychic side of Danny’s mind. In a sense, though their conflict takes violent place very much in the physical realm, the conflict is also mental, as both Jack’s and Danny’s emotionally tortured psyches also do battle.2016-10-09-19-39-45_resized

If you’ve read this book (or seen the Kubrick film), you know the story trajectory and I won’t bore you with a lengthy description. In a nutshell, the Torrance family is on their financial last legs and Jack Torrance accepts a job to be the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, just he, his wife Wendy and their son, Danny, who is psychic and whose power is referred to as “the shining.”

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I will say, however, that Kubrick’s notoriously misogynistic tendencies turned the film character of Wendy into a shrieking, nagging, needy harridan whom you almost wanted to see get chopped to bits. In the book, she’s tough, resourceful and sharp, still a bit on the weak side as she herself acknowledges. But it’s she who mostly saves the day in the book. Her transformation at Kubrick’s hands in the film makes her nearly unrecognizable, and which is annoying, because it’s certainly possible to have feelings of weakness and inadequacy and still find your inner strength and kick ass. Which Wendy does.

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Rereading this book in the here and now was fascinating. It was published nearly 30 years ago, and there are some seriously dated references that are hugely entertaining to read about. For example, when Halloran, the seasonal cook, is showing the family around the kitchen and letting them see the bounty of food he’s left them to get through the winter, he mentions something called a “Table Talk pie.” According to Google, it’s a prepackaged miniature fruit pie that was sold along the east coast. Another scene, kind of the calm before the storm, is when Wendy goes downstairs to make Danny some lunch after he’s seen the woman in Room 217 and Jack has started his spiral into menacing madness. She prepares canned tomato soup and a cheese omelette in a state of of nerves and terror.

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“She opened the can and dropped the slightly jellied contents into a saucepan. PLOP. She went to the refrigerator and got milk and eggs for the omelet. Then to the walk-in freezer for cheese. All these actions, so common and so much a part of her life before the Overlook, had been a part of her life, helped to calm her. She melted butter in the frying pan, diluted the soup with milk, then poured the beaten eggs into the pan. A sudden feeling that someone was standing behind her, reaching for her throat.”

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It reminded me of when I was a little girl and my paternal grandmother, Nana Baca, would make me canned soup and bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. Good stuff! I don’t buy canned soup these days, just because I prefer the taste of homemade (and it’s healthier, too). But I decided a reworking of the classic canned tomato soup and cheese omelette was in order here.

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Nothing goes quite so well with tomatoes as basil, and a creamy tomato basil bisque fit the bill perfectly, along with a cheese and broccoli egg frittata, which is like an omelette for kitchen idiots like me who can’t do the omelette flip without dropping the eggs on the floor. Basically, you mix the egg with the steamed broccoli, cooked ham, milk, sharp cheddar cheese, salt and pepper, put into a skillet and heat until the bottom has set, then put into the oven under broiler until the entire concoction sets. Super easy and you don’t have to worry about doing the damn omelette fold.

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Here is the soup method that worked for me, based on my own trial and error of making this soup for over 10 years. I think I’ve got it down pat, but feedback is always appreciated.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can San Marzano-style crushed tomatoes

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4-5 ripe Campari tomatoes
1 medium white onion, finely diced

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4 baby carrots, very finely diced
1 small can tomato juice
1 cup sherry
1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream

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2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh basil leaves

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METHOD
In a skillet, saute the onion and carrot together in the butter and olive oil. The reason for adding carrot is because oftentimes, tomatoes can be overly acidic and adding sugar eliminates that acid. However, it’s much healthier and tastier to add carrot, which has natural sugar and offsets the acidity just as well.

Roughly chop the Campari tomatoes, and add them, along with the the canned San Marzano tomatoes, to the onion and carrot. Stir to combine.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and the tomato bouillon cube. Taste again. Add in the can of tomato juice here.

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Add in the sherry at this point, taste yet again for seasoning, toss in some of the fresh basil, and add salt and pepper if needed. It may or may not need it, depending on your taste palate.

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Let everything simmer together for a good 40 minutes. Then bust out the stick blender and go to town! Blitz it all until you have a soup the color and consistency of red velvet. Yum!

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At this point, add the heavy cream, swirling in gently and stirring. Turn off the heat, cover and let the flavors mix.

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Taste for seasoning, though it probably won’t need anything. Decant into small bowls, garnished with the rest of the fresh basil, and serve alongside the frittata. Eat with happiness. Be happy you’re not trapped in a blizzard in the Overlook Hotel with a madman and ……..horror of horrors………CANNED SOUP!

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