Cooking, as we know, is a constant test of character. It’s easy to pretend we’re all attracted to the high-minded ideals of fostering community, continuing traditions, and feeding souls. But catering for others is often competitive—even if the competition is only with oneself. There is the constant temptation to show off, to experiment, to give into exhibitionism, to put theoretical pleasures before a guest’s actual comfort. The turning out of a completely anodyne meal can be an exhausting exercise, because for every normal and pleasing dish served, there exist the ghosts of a hundred more exciting possibilities considered and abandoned, haunting the dinner table with their potential glory. The trick is keeping overweening ambition at bay. The trick is remembering that, for the duration of the meal, you have a kind of control over others.
And so the question really becomes: What does one do with absolute power? The Stanford Prison Experiment is always looming on the horizon. Benignity goes against nature.
I have been wrestling mightily lately. The temptation: salmon mousse. Like many Barbara Pym fans, I have long owned The Barbara Pym Cookbook, published in 1988 by the late author’s sister, Hilary, and Honor Wyatt. And like many Barbara Pym fans, I have never dared cook from it. By the jacket copy’s own admission, this is “an armchair cookbook,” a collection of quotations from Pym’s novels and corresponding recipes—they make for excellent reading, but they don’t excite one to run to the kitchen. While minute meal descriptions are one of the great pleasures of the Pym oeuvre, many of the novels take place during the tyranny of postwar rationing. However enthusiastic and sophisticated a cook she may have been—and by all accounts she certainly was—Barbara Pym’s recipes are not necessarily calculated to appeal to the twenty-first-century palate. Or, at least to that of most of one’s guests. An Anna Karenina–themed feast, people can get into. Some Tame Gazelle? Maybe not so much.
And yet: Lately, the desire to make a salmon mousse has been so strong that I’ve felt nearly powerless to resist. I have gone so far as to purchase the gelatin; I told myself it was for a hypothetical panna cotta. In the late novel A Few Green Leaves, the heroine, Emma Howick, prepares a tuna mousse for one of those unsatisfactory and withholding men who people the Pym universe. She goes to great trouble over the luncheon for the crummy guy, decorating the finished mousse with cucumber slices “of exquisite thinness.”
The recipe in The Barbara Pym Cookbook—the first in the book—allows for changing tastes: one might substitute fresh salmon for tinned, light cream for evaporated milk. Gelatin and mayonnaise are compulsory. Well, of course they are.
One can easily see that, in a time when congealed shapes were less of a curiosity, this might have seemed an ideal summer luncheon dish: cool, easy, and pretty when released from its decorative mold, with its palette of pink and green. In such moments as this, it is important to apply a certain relativism; sneering at the tastes of another era has always struck me as the height of arrogant modern provincialism.
But there’s not much place for theory when you’re tasting and digesting, and the truth is, we live in a society. It would be an antisocial act to serve this salmon mousse to my guests, however much I might want to. And I don’t want to eat it. At the end of the day, this feeling is stronger even than my desire to publicly disgrace myself.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.