Lately I’ve been catching up on missed seasons of the TV show Top Chef. Thank you, Hulu.com! Anyway, that is probably why the similarities between cooking and writing stories based on classic literature occurred to me. For a better understanding of what I mean, let me give a personal example.
My family has a unique casserole dish created by my maternal grandfather when he worked as a short order cook during the Depression. The recipe consists of hot dogs, tomato sauce, spices, onions, and cheese baked together. My wonderfully humorous grandpa named it King’s Delight, an ironic moniker due to the basic, cheap ingredients. Despite the simplicity of the recipe, the dish is amazingly tasty! My siblings and I begged our mom for King’s Delight over any other meal in her repertoire of excellently created dishes (she inherited grandpa’s culinary skills). The three of us brought the casserole to our families, where it has now trickled down as a favorite to two more generations.
For the Underwood clan, it is a classic.
Over the generations the recipe has altered slightly. For instance, I use Hebrew National All-Beef Kosher dogs and Velveeta cheese instead of the cheaper varieties. My mom preferred tomato soup and tomato sauce, while I am a tomato paste kind of gal. I’ve long ago memorized the recipe and never measure anything, thus, each time I make it, the ratio of spices and garlic and cheese will vary, giving the finished King’s Delight a unique taste that is never precisely duplicated. Nevertheless, the basic foundation established by my grandfather remains.
The classic entrée has the same edible components. They are merely flavored by a different cook’s hand.
This is exactly like writing a story based on a classic novel! Similar to my grandfather some eighty years ago, over two-hundred years ago Jane Austen invented six rich, delicious stories inhabited by a mix of succulent characters. Tales so zesty that two centuries later they continue to fill the hearts of readers with a deep feeling of warmth, satiation, and satisfaction. The connection to how a fine culinary meal makes us feel is obvious. Yet, just like a favored dish, once is rarely enough. We soon hunger to taste of it again and revisit the delightful sensations, so we return to the restaurant or dig out the recipe to cook the meal again.
But… Maybe the cook is a new guy who doesn’t have the process down. Or, he is the more experienced chef than the fellow (or lady) before. Perhaps we lost the recipe or don’t have all the ingredients readily at hand. We might purposely chose to substitute an ingredient or add a different spice we think may taste better. This is, after all, how new recipes are created! Whatever the case, sometimes the dish tastes better, and sometimes it doesn’t thrill us as much as the first one did.
Returning to the analogy of cooking relating to classic literature, on the one hand, we never tire of eating a favored meal or re-reading a beloved novel. However, variety IS the spice of life, so humans instinctively long to have our literary and culinary taste buds stimulated by a new sensation, particularly one reminiscent of the original. This hunger often times ignites a fervor for cuisine with a similar ethnic quality or particular ingredient. Same applies to our taste in reading material. In essence, we relish having more of what tickled our fancy to begin with!
Taking on the characters of Jane Austen is not a task for the faint of heart. Trust me on this! People often erroneously believe we are attempting to improve on the original, or that we are somehow messing up the classic by going in a different direction with our stories. Nothing could be further from the truth! I wish our family had that very first recipe of King’s Delight my grandfather whipped up in his cafe. I bet he altered the ingredients just as we did over the decades, meaning that what he cooked for his children and grandchildren probably tasted different from the original. This fact does not mean later incarnations were necessarily better.
Lucky for us, unlike that long-forgotten first batch of King’s Delight, Austen’s superb classic novels are unchanged and available for everyone to read.
Contemporary Austenesque authors mix up the characters, add in unique plot spices, utilize modern techniques and utensils, place everything into a shiny new pot, and serve them to hungry readers. All the while, the cooked masterpiece sitting on the shelf with “Jane Austen” on the spine remains intact. Perhaps in a hundred years my novels will be in a library section for classic literary Austen-fiction. I girl can dream, right? Even if that happens, I have no doubt the section inhabited by Jane Austen’s novels will be far more prominent and heavily visited. For the present, those of us who write within the genre are content knowing we are contributing to the heritage of Jane Austen in our humble way. I think she would be smiling with pleasure, just as I know my grandfather would flash his mischievous grin if he saw his recipe pleasing his great-great- grandchildren. After he cracked a joke in fractured German, that is.