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April 4, 2014 6:52 pm
Last night, from nowhere, rescue came and it was in the shape of a pie. It was chicken and asparagus, puff pastry, massive, with some decorative twists and flourishes of rose-gold pastry on its lid. It was the best pie I’ve ever had, the first one for two decades if we discount the occasional lemon meringue (which I think we can).
The pie appeared at the end of my Henry James support group. We had been discussing the Master’s letters. There are more than 15,000 of them. The amount he must have sunk on stamps!
The pie, though welcome, was not exactly in keeping. Henry James was not big on food. For all his vast literary output, there are very few meals on the page. There is the omelette aux tomates and straw-coloured Chablis in The Ambassadors but that is more of a statement of high Parisian elegance than an actual meal. There are the buns that Maisie has in a café with Sir Claude in What Maisie Knew but little else springs to mind. James suffered dreadfully with his digestion and was a martyr to his guts throughout his life.
His stomach being such a nightmare to live with, James went in for Fletcherising. Horace Fletcher was a Victorian American health enthusiast, sometimes known as the Great Masticator, who advocated chewing each mouthful 100 times or more. It is no wonder that James did not write with relish about food. He must have been very ambivalent about it.
Still, I wished James could have seen the pie. He would have appreciated its Englishness and its blameless appearance. He would have seen, right away, what it stood for. It would have caught his imagination. It certainly caught mine.
This was not the sort of pie that needed to be approached gingerly, though you do have to be careful with pies as therein can lurk – well, you know not what: spanners, pigs’ ears, Barbie shoes. I say this as someone who sometimes tidies up by stuffing everything I can see into the pockets of coats. But this pie was immaculate in every regard, or in a very old-fashioned parlance, it was all Sir Garnet. (Sir Garnet Wolseley, as you’ll recall, was an influential commander, much acclaimed for efficiency, who was known as a master of the small war and did a great deal to reform and modernise the British army. His name, for a time in England, became a synonym for “all in order”.)
. . .
The pie before us struck me as a tremendous act of friendship. It was genuinely life-affirming: soothing, flavourful, lavish, wholly unexpected. Why, to we seven gathered, it almost felt like a hymn of praise. We collectively grew an inch taller, more swagger crept into our anecdotes, more dew hovered over our brows. If we got a little above ourselves, how could we be blamed, for if we were worthy of such splendid fare, such efforts above and beyond, what else magnificent might we deserve? Fleets of ships, suits of clanking armour, suites of matching luggage (monogrammed), silver chafing dishes in descending sizes, portraits of our great-aunts by, I don’t know, John Singer Sargent maybe?
Sometimes some fine treatment is all it takes, a bit of gallantry, some simmered chicken chunks and spring vegetables in a handsome sauce encased in pastry. If you love someone, make him or her a pie. Even people who don’t really do food will be moved by the spectacle, the showmanship, the care.
Just when it couldn’t get any better, pie-wise, there came a further boon. Post-pie, I had the first good night’s sleep of the year, from 11pm to 7am with no interruptions. I didn’t have my customary 3am idiotic argument with a theatre director in my head where I say, “It may not matter to you but it matters to me, and I matter!” Or that fanciful talk I have with lawyers in which I say, “It would mean a great deal to me if you could admit you made a mistake and say that you were wrong and that you are sorry.” (I know, I know.)
So refreshed was I that next morning I was unrecognisable in terms of verve and cheer. I made pancakes in four flavours for the household while doing the cancan. For once, I didn’t even need any magic Swiss flower-based under-eye cream.
Who would have thought it? I have sleep remedies given to me by family and friends: this-will-make-you-sleep pillow spray, bath oil, Dozol, Kalms and, then, the more hardcore array of things in little dark bottles with names that conjure the 1970s. But did anyone say all you need to do to sleep is to eat pies? They did not.
More columns at ft.com/boyt
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