Jonathan Franzen is secretly a great food writer.
As Lit Hub’s resident Jonathan Franzen scholar (*fangirl to a slightly embarrassing degree), I’m always on the lookout for good timely content about The Corrections. Luckily, The Bear, a show that has inspired a frankly indecent number of think-pieces (this one, for the record, is neither a think-piece nor is it really about The Bear), also spawned a very good Corrections tweet:
the ultimate sexy dirtbag chef is denise in the corrections
— Jenna Sauers (@jennasauers) August 1, 2022
This is correct, and it also made me think about one of the most appealing descriptions of food in contemporary literature. While not the novel’s most famous food-related scene (that would be the pants salmon in chapter one), I think it’s worth revisiting this lunchtime.
In this scene, the sexy dirtbag chef herself is preparing to open a new restaurant while also channeling her natural dirtbag chef-competitiveness into besting the restaurant’s owner, Brian, with whom she narrowly avoided an affair. Sounds one small portion of an HBO limited series, no?
She convection-roasted country ribs to brownness and cut them thin, along the grain, for presentation, reduced and darkened the kraut gravy to bring out its nutty, earthy, cabbagy, porky flavor, and arted up the plate with twin testicular new potatoes, a cluster of Brussels sprouts, and a spoon of stewed white beans that she lightly spiked with roasted garlic. She invented luxurious new white sausages. She matched a fennel relish, roasted potatoes, and good bitter wholesome rapini with fabulous pork chops that she bought direct from a sixties holdover organic farmer who did his own butchering and made his own deliveries. She took the guy to lunch and visited his farm in Lancaster County and met the hogs in question, examined their eclectic diet (boiled yams and chicken wings, acorns and chestnuts) and toured the soundproofed room where they were slaughtered. She extracted commitments from her old crew at Mare Scuro. She took former colleagues out on Brian’s AmEx and sized up the local competition (most of it reassuringly undistinguished) and sampled desserts to see if anybody’s pastry chef was worth stealing. She staged one-woman late-night forcemeat festivals. She made sauerkraut in five-gallon buckets in her basement. She made it with red cabbage and with shredded kale in cabbage juice, with juniper berries and black peppercorns. She hurried along the fermentation with hundred-watt bulbs.
I want to eat all of this—the lightly spiked white beans, the new white sausage, even the “twin testicular potatoes,” I’m sorry to say—but it’s really the sauerkraut that’s stuck with me in the 15-odd years since I first read The Corrections. So simple! So fictional! So mouth-watering! The whole menu feels vaguely Alison Roman-esque in a way that makes me think Alison Roman and Denise Lambert would be mortal internet enemies if the latter was real. Which raises another important question: did Jonathan Franzen invent Alison Roman?
A lot to chew on, here.