For the past year I have tried in vain to find a way to make kidneys palatable. I have soaked them in milk, in gingerale, I have cooked them quickly at high heat and slowly at low heat, I have bathed them in butter, injected them with sherry, coated them in crushed garlic, and all I was left with was a kitchen that smelled like a urinal on a hot summer’s day. I did all of this in the name of Leopold Bloom.
The other day, with Bloomsday fast approaching, I decided to ask a customer who always comes into the shop looking for beef kidneys how he cooks them to make them edible. He’s an older, reserved British man and I had a notion that if anyone knew how to cook kidneys it would probably be an older, reserved British man. So, while wrapping his kidneys I asked him, “How do you cook these to make them taste good?” to which he wrinkled his nose and replied, “I don’t. I feed them to my German Shepherd.”
That night I re-opened Ulysses and started searching for something else to cook.
Tomorrow, June 16th, is Bloomsday–a day in which James Joyce enthusiasts in Dublin celebrate his life by reliving the events of June 16th, 1904–the day that the entirety of the novel Ulysses takes place. Joyce chose June 16th as the date of Leopold Bloom’s wanderings because it was the day of his first date with his wife and muse, Nora Barnacle (was there ever a better name?). The first Bloomsday took place in 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the book. It has since become an institution in Dublin, with thousands of people gathering every year to follow Leopold Bloom’s pilgrimage throughout Dublin, drinking at the pubs where Bloom stopped, wearing costumes from the novel, some even holding marathon readings of the entire novel–a process which I’m told can take up to 36 hours.
Unlike a lot of my friends who found the process of reading Ulysses exhausting and brain-numbing I have very fond memories of my first reading of it. I was a junior in college, taking a class on 20th Century Irish writers in a tiny, mahogany and window-filled classroom in NYU’s Ireland House. Spring had finally hit New York after a long and dreadful winter filled with gray slush and heartbreak. It was in this class that I met, as Anne of Green Gables would say, my “bosom friend” and it was over Ulysses that we first bonded. After class we drank mugs of beer as large as our torsos and–when we weren’t discussing how dreamy our professor was–tried to make sense of Joyce’s writing.
When people think about food in Ulysses the first thing that comes to mind is always Leopold Bloom’s craving for “a mutton kidney at Buckley’s. Fried with butter, a shake of pepper. Better yet a pork kidney at Duglacz’s.” His hankering for a kidney with butter and pepper presents itself over and over again throughout the novel, but there is also (much to my relief) a plethora of other food in the novel. In the chapter “The Lestrygonians,” a hungry Bloom wanders in search of lunch, considering roast beef, cabbage, oysters, seedcakes, hundred-year-old eggs, caviar, sardines, crisp onions, truffles and cheese sandwiches.
In Greek mythology the Lestrygonians (or Laestrygonians) are a tribe of cannibalistic giants. In Homer’s Odyssey they eat many of Odysseus’ men and destroy twelve of his ships. This grotesque image hangs in the background of this chapter of Ulysses, as Bloom ponders how disgusting people often look in the act of devouring food. It is my favorite chapter in the novel, and one that I used to think of often when, exhausted and covered in oven burns, I would watch the hungover masses at brunch shoveling my lovingly-prepared biscuits too quickly into their mouths.
Leopold Bloom isn’t the only character in Ulysses who worries about how grotesque the act of eating can be, Gerty Macdowell also mentions her fear of how unappealing she might appear while eating in the chapter “Nausicaa.” Gerty fantasizes about what a fantastic housewife she will someday make, imagining the praise she will get for her phenomenal cooking–specifically for her flawless rendition of queen Ann’s pudding.
She would care for him with creature comforts too for Gerty was womanly wise and knew that a mere man liked that feeling of hominess. Her griddlecakes done to a goldenbrown hue and queen Ann’s pudding of delightful creaminess had won golden opinions from all because she had a lukcy hand also for lighting a fire, dredge in the fine selfraising flour and always stir in the same directions, then cream the milk and sugar and whisk well the whites of eggs though she didn’t like the eating part when there were many people that made her shy and often she wondered why you couldn’t eat something poetical like violets or roses…
Being from states, I had never heard of queen Ann’s pudding before reading Ulysses. I couldn’t find a recipe for it anywhere but there were lots of recipes for something called “queen of puddings,” which from Joyce’s description sounds like it is essentially the same thing. Queen of puddings is a classic British dessert consisting of a bread pudding topped with either jam or fruit compote and covered in a chewy, toasted meringue. It is absolutely delicious–much better than a kidney prepared any which way.
Gerty Macdowell’s Queen of Puddings
makes 6 individual servings
For the Breadcrumbs:
- 1 pound loaf of challah or brioche bread, cut into small cubes
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- seeds and pods of 2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise and scraped
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 5 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue and place them in the fridge)
For the cherry compote:
- 1 pound of sweet cherries, pitted
- 1/4 cup of sugar
- zest of 1/2 lemon
- Whites of 5 eggs, cold
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
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