The house I grew up in outside of Boston is directly across the street from Sylivia Plath’s childhood home. I remember one day when I was in fourth grade, up to my ears in The Golden Compass and Redwall and full of dreams of someday being a writer, my mom casually told me that a very famous writer had grown up in the house across the street. I was incredulous—“a very famous, female writer lived in the house I can see from my bedroom window and you never told me?” This was, of course, before the days of Google, when every intimate detail of a person’s life couldn’t be accessed with the click of a button, so that afternoon I rode my bike to the library.
I asked the librarian where I could find Sylvia Plath’s poems and she looked at me in a concerned way but led me to the stacks where I spent hours on the floor, enveloped in that old book smell (my favorite) and trying to make sense out of just one line of Plath’s poetry. I left the library that evening with a vague sense of dread that I would never be happy again once I turned ten and more curious about Plath than ever. I spent the next decade staring out the window at the white house across the street and attempting to read Plath’s poetry but it wasn’t until my Junior year of high school, when my favorite English teacher gave me The Bell Jar, that I found Plath accessible for the first time.
In this semi-autobiographical novel, which Plath published under the pen-name “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, a young girl named Esther Greenwood travels to New York City for a summer internship at Ladies’ Day magazine. Esther ultimately has to leave New York after having a mental breakdown and the novel subsequently follows her descent into mental illness, as she attempts suicide on multiple occasions, is put in an asylum and receives treatment from various doctors (including electroshock therapy and insulin injections). Plath eases you into Esther’s degeneration with such subtlety that it takes a moment to realize that she has truly and completely lost her mind. The novel is bleak, there is absolutely no denying that, but Esther is so likable (in my opinion anyway, I’ve heard others say different) and her voice is so unique that you keep reading it because you are rooting for her and rooted to her. The novel ends on a tentatively hopeful note, with Esther entering a conference with her doctors who will determine if she is well enough to leave the hospital.
When Esther first arrives in New York, before everything begins to fall apart for her, she goes to a luncheon for Ladies’ Day. It was this passage about Esther’s relationship to food that made me fall in love with her right away—I love a girl who isn’t shy about pigging out at an elegant affair. Surrounded by girls too timid and dainty to eat Esther begins to load up her plate, stating that she had “discovered, after a lot of apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at a table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty” (27). With this philosophy in her back pocket Esther approaches the food at the luncheon fearlessly.
“Under cover of the clinking water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn’t ooze off and ate them” (27).When she finishes that she moves on and “tackle[s] the avocado and crabmeat salad.” Here she veers off into a food memory of her grandfather, who was the head waiter at a country club in town and used to sneak fancy treats home for her.
Avocados are my favorite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and french dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce. The crabmeat tasted bland in comparison. (28)
Almost immediately after the luncheon Esther and all the other girls get violently ill with food poisoning. Laying in bed after days of sickness Esther has “a vision of the celestially white kitchens of Ladies’ Day stretching into infinity. I saw avocado pear after avocado pear being stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise and photographed under brilliant lights. I saw the delicate, pink-mottled claw meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise and the bland yellow year cup with its rim of alligator-green cradling the whole mess.” (48)
There is something wonderfully kitschy and 1960’s about a crabmeat-stuffed avocado. It is perfect for this time of year when picnic-season is fast approaching and produce is getting brighter and fresher (can you tell it’s 73 degrees in Brooklyn?). I omitted the mayo from this crab salad and mixed it with fresh herbs, mango, grape tomatoes, red onion and fresh lime juice. Despite the heaviness of The Bell Jar this dish is beautifully light and so simple to make. So pack the crab salad up in some Tupperware, take a few ripe avocados and a blanket with you and get to the park!
Bell Jar Crab-Stuffed Avocados
Makes 12 stuffed avocado halves
- 1 lb crab meat
- 1 small bunch fresh cilantro
- 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley
- 1/2 small red onion
- 1 ripe mango
- 1/2 package grape tomatoes
- Juice of 3 medium limes
- 2 Tablespoons Olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon Champagne vinegar (optional–I like extra acid)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 6 ripe avocados
Drain crabmeat well and pick through to make sure there are no shells or cartilage then toss in a bowl. Chop red onion into a small dice, along with mango, cilantro and parsley and add to the crab meat. Slice grape tomatoes in half and mix in. Juice two limes over the salad and mix until well-combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Slice avocados in half, remove pits and pile crab salad into the center. Because there is no mayo or mustard the salad may not stay perfectly scooped but that’s okay. Serve with hot sauce and crisp white wine or margaritas.