Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a novel haunted by disgusting food. It chronicles the life of the Lambert family, from their youth in the Midwest to their adulthood in the East, highlighting various culinary disasters along the way. The dinners prepared by Enid when the Lambert family is young are particularly upsetting; “the dog-shit yellow field of rutabaga; the liver warped by frying and so unable to lie flush with the plate; the ball of woody beet leaves collapsed and contorted by still entire, like a wetly compressed bird in an eggshell, or an ancient corpse folded over in a bog” (261).
As an adult, Gary, the eldest of the Lamberts, marries a woman who refuses to cook. He finds himself struggling almost nightly with the task of preparing dinner for his family, a task which at first brings him pleasure and then morphs into an almost Sisyphean task: “Shutting his eyes he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned. The parching torments of compulsive repetition” (163). Gary’s wife tells him that his family has an “unhealthy relationship with food” and perhaps she’s right. Caroline, the only Lambert daughter, is a successful New York City chef who subsists only on bottled water, and Chip is so broke that he ends up stuffing a salmon filet into his pants and walking around the New York City heat with the fish juice “spreading down into [his] underpants like a wide, warm slug” (97). Chip, once a successful college professor, is now unemployed and completely broke, and it all started with a platter of cupcakes given to him by a female student. As good as Franzen is at describing these stomach-turning foods he is equally as good at describing the truly delectable and mouth-watering. The cupcakes that Chip’s student shows up with at his door sound so sinfully delicious it is no wonder they are the catalyst to a torrid, passionate and life-ruining affair.
Chip has successfully resisted the student’s flirtations all semester and is home grading papers and “wrestling with a haddock filet through the center of which ran a blood-brown fault of gristle” (47) when the student shows up at his door.
Melissa raised the plate on upturned palms. “Cupcakes,’”she said. “Thought you might be needing some cupcakes in your life right around now.”
Not being theatrical, Chip felt disadvantaged around people who were. “Why are you bringing me cupcakes?” he said.
Melissa knelt and set the plate on his doormat among the pulverized remains of ivy and dead tulips. “I’ll just leave them here,’” she said, “and you can do whatever you want with them. Goodbye!’ She spread her arms and pirouetted off the doorstep and ran up the flagstone path on tiptoe.
The cupcakes were full of butter and frosted with a butter frosting. After he’d washed his hands and opened a bottle of Chardonnay he ate four of them and put the uncooked fish in the refrigerator. The skins of the overbaked squash were like inner-tube rubber…He lowered the blinds and drank the wine and ate two more cupcakes, detecting peppermint in them, a faint buttery peppermint, before he slept (47)
The Corrections Chocolate Cupcakes with Peppermint Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake
Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
17 ½ tablespoons melted butter (used this instead of the ½ cup vegetable oil the recipe called for so they would be extra buttery)
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter cupcake tins. Line with cupcake liners then butter and flour the liners. This is a very sticky batter, I tried just buttering my nonstick cupcake tins the first time around and they got completely stuck. The fact that I didn’t have cupcake liners and didn’t want to go get any meant I got to make my own out of parchment paper.
Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, butter, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Pour the batter into the prepared tins and bake for about 20 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.
Peppermint Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Gale Gand
1 cup of butter
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons whipping cream (as needed for consistency)
½ teaspoon peppermint extract
In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk, mix together sugar and butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes. Add peppermint and cream and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream if needed for spreading consistency. Spread onto cupcakes or pipe on with a pastry bag (ziplock bag if you’re me) and sprinkle with crushed peppermint candies or nonpareils.