25 July 2007

Perfect on Poe-tatoes...


'The Pit and the Pendulum' is of course a short narrative by Edgar Allan Poe whose ostensible subject is the imprisonment and torture of a victim of the Inquisition.

It is also an interesting observation about food, drink, sustenance, and madness.

Several times does the protagonist tell us of the bread and water left for him by his jailers. The water pitcher itself becomes nearly a character in its own right -- symbolizing both our captive's sustenance as well as a ubiquitous reminder of 'civilization' and its discontents.

Starvation, the protagonist observes, may not be the worst sort of death: 'Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness; or what fate perhaps even more fearful awaited me?' But Poe is smarter than that. He realizes that however terrifying the pit or the steel pendulum, death by either would be quick and perfect. Whereas death by starvation is miserable in the worst and most elongated way. Poe even plays with our sensibility by having his narrator state: 'Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits -- that the SUDDEN extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan'.

Of course, the Pit is nothing compared to the starvation the narrator would face eluding the Pit.

And Poe ups the ante by removing the pitcher from the equation just moments before introducing the Pendulum; and here, in his own macabre way, Poe gives the captive both the best line from the point of view of comedy and the most foreboding line from the point of view of terror: 'I saw to my horror that the pitcher had been removed . I say to my horror, for I was consumed with intolerable thirst. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate, for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.'

What a way to go! Death by pungent seasoning!

Well, with that in mind, let's take a quick look at two of the greatest seasonings known to humankind: Montreal Steak Seasoning and Old Bay.

Montreal Steak Seasoning is a harsh blend usually comprised of coriander, black pepper, salt, paprika, dill, red pepper, and garlic and onion. Despite its name, it can be put to excellent use in vegetarian cooking -- especially when dashed on buttery mashed potatoes or when used to sauté asparagus. The flavor is heavy on timber but the paprika and salt makes sure it's dry and rocky enough to stay put and out of the way of the natural juices or oils of whatever you are cooking. That's why I especially like it for sautés. One of my favorite mutt-meals is Seitan sautéed in Montreal Steak Seasoning and Olive Oil, then served with Saag Paneer and fresh sliced tomatoes.

Old Bay is simply the finest seasoning in the world. I wouldn't mind being tortured with Old Bay whatsoever.

Most commonly used to suffocate blue crabs and shrimp, Old Bay likewise works wonders in vegetarian meals. It's blend of mustard seed, bay leaf, celery salt, pepper, small insects, and whatever else crawled into the pot works perfectly as a topping for potatoes, corn on the cob, and even spinach. But I've got a real soft spot for Old Bay and vinegar on big ol' steak fries. This is the stuff of dreams.

So there. From a macabre Inquisition dungeon to Baltimore's Lexington Market in one fell swoop. Thanks, Mr. Poe.

1 comment:

R said...

on the subjects of literature and death by starvation: I read Hunger by Knut Hamsun a couple weeks back and recall thinking of your blog while reading it (because, certainly, the absence of food is just as crucial to a food blog as the substance of foods themselves)... of course, you're writing us words about Poe and characters faced with starvation had me recall all the things I'd thought in reading Hunger, namely, what the main character sought out as food whenever he came into money, how he ate it, the description of the action of eating after having been deprived of it (the food and the action); this ultimately led me to about an hour of pondering what I would seek out if I was given a large amt of money after I'd been starving for weeks...

Sorry, total rambling as an offshoot of your entry. But I've always felt you could appreciate a decent ramble.