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Love Story

June 26, 2014 | by

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From the cover of Barbara Cartland’s The Romance of Food.

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.” —Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”

Too much camp is bad for the soul. It’s unwholesome, lacking in spiritual nourishment—like eating only processed foods. Irony is no substitute for feeling, detachment no replacement for intellectual engagement: enough camp begins to eat away at both. After a steady diet of midcentury educational films, salacious memoirs, and Florence Foster Jenkins recordings, one begins to feel oneself morphing into a sort of soulless Lord Henry Wotton, and the only remedy is beauty, spareness, and fresh air. Part of the problem is that earnest camp is heartbreaking; in order not to cry, one needs to put up defenses, and this is in itself exhausting.

Periodically, I need to go on cleanses. In these virtuous moods, I resolve to listen to only the finest music, read the best books, watch films worthy of the term. I banish my collection of 1930s Love Story magazines. I shun the “High Gruck and Outsider Art” playlist on my Spotify account. The words “Russ Meyer” are not to be mentioned in my hearing.

The problem is that in the midst of this, your copy of Barbara Cartland: The Romance of Food arrives in the mail from England and tempts you like a rosy-hued she-devil. And then it follows you everywhere, with the promise of easy laughs and garish pictures and oddity nonpareil. You can hide it in the closet. You can stick it under the kitchen counter with the other cookbooks. Still you hear its siren song, which is sort of quavery and backed by a lot of lush strings.

Even fourteen years after her death, Barbara Cartland remains one of the queens of camp. Beyond the 700+ fade-to-black historical romances, the feud with Princess Diana, the albums, the pink-themed parties, the husbands, the makeup, there was the legend. Barbara Cartland believed her own press. She was fully committed to her character. “I’m always the heroine, I’m always the virgin,” she blithely tells an interviewer—perhaps aware that it’s grotesque, but not caring. And this, of course, was the secret of her power.

Well, that and—aptly enough—nutrition. The cookbook talks a lot about that. As Cartland asserts in the “Breakfast” section, “I believe that because it is impossible to eat a really balanced diet or to get absolutely pure food which is not polluted with chemicals, one has to take it in the form of vitamin pills and capsules. The vitamins I recommend for most people are …” And then she lists a bunch of vitamins. (“Vitamin E is the nearest thing we have to life and is absolutely essential as it carries oxygen to all parts of the body.”)

Of course, the book has a lot of the sort of thing one would expect: elaborate, French-inflected menus courtesy of her chef, name-dropping, anecdotes, talk of love.

The fifth Duke of Sutherland was one of the best looking men I have ever seen. Six-foot-three, with fair hair and vivid blue eyes, he looked like a Viking. Every morning at the fairytale Dunrobin Castle, which I have made the background for many of my novels, he ate his porridge from a wooden bowl edged with silver, which his Nanny had given him.

On “Kidneys in Cream”:

This is a rich, exotic dish which is full of goodness besides being an aid to virility. Some of the youngest-looking men on the screen and stage declare they owe their youthful appearance to a large consumption of liver and kidneys.

On “Asparagus Tart”:

Curry has always been used as a love stimulant and makes me think of blossoms in sleek dark hair and fragrances of spices coming from an Indian bazaar. I once ate a curry cooked by a beautiful Maharani who had spent eight hours preparing it. It was superb.

There are unappetizingly styled pictures replete with china cupids and not a few pink carnations. There are line drawings of languishing maidens and ardent suitors and, yes, many things are heart-shaped. It is exactly what one might expect of a Barbara Cartland cookbook: in other words, making fun of it is like shooting fish in a barrel.

After I had read it cover to cover—and I did, of course—I noticed something I hadn’t at first: an inscription on the flyleaf. “Dearest Larry,” someone has written in a clear, feminine script. “May you find as much enjoyment in the receiving as I have found in the giving! Happy Father’s Day! Love always from the one who gave you the ‘reasons’ for today’s celebration! B.”

The exclamation marks, by the way, all have little hearts under them instead of dots.

Here is what Cartland writes in her introduction, which is decorated with a drawing of some long-stemmed roses: “Just as with the Greeks, Romans, the Arabs and the Hindus, some recipes may seem ludicrous, others are successfully stimulating to love and most important, highly nutritious!”

Maybe she’s right after all.

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