gin marshmallows and mayonnaise candies—pynchon’s paen to english christmas treats

"There is no graceful way out of this now": Pynchon’s take on holiday snacking in WW II London:

"…the grainy shadows, the grease-hazy jars of herbs, candies, spices, all the Compton Mackenzie novels on the shelf, glassy ambrotypes of her late husband Austin night-dusted inside gilded frames up on the mantel…"

The reclusive author and his famously bad teeth:


     
   Thomas Pynchon, from Glen Cove High School Yearbook


Mrs. Quoad’s is up three dark flights, with the dome of faraway St. Paul‘s out its kitchen window visible in the smoke of certain after
noons, and the lady herself tiny in a rose plush chair in the sitting-room by the wireless, listening to Primo Scala’s Accordion Band. She looks healthy enough. On the table, though, is her crumpled chiffon handkerchief: feathered blots of blood in and out the convolutions like a floral pattern.

"You were here when I had that horrid quotidian ague," she recalls Slothrop, "the day we brewed the wormwood tea," sure enough, the very taste now, rising through his shoe-soles, taking him along. They’re reassembling it must be outside his memory . . . cool clean interior, girl and woman, independent of his shorthand of stars so many fading-faced girls, windy canalsides, bed-sitters, bus-stop good-bys, how can he be expected to remember? but this room has gone on clarifying: part of whoever he was inside it has kindly remained, stored quiescent these months outside of his head, distributed through the grainy shadows, the grease-hazy jars of herbs, candies, spices, all the Compton Mackenzie novels on the shelf, glassy ambrotypes of her late husband Austin night-dusted inside gilded frames up on the mantel where last time Michaelmas daisies greeted and razzled from a little Sevres vase she and Austin found together one Saturday long ago in a Wardour Street
shop.

"He was my good health," she often says. "Since he passed away I’ve had to become all but an outright witch, in pure self-defense." From the kitchen comes the smell of limes freshly cut and squeezed. Darlene’s in and out of the room, looking for different botanicals, asking where the cheesecloth’s got to, "Tyrone help me just reach down that—no next to it, the tall jar, thank you love"—back into the kitchen in a creak of starch, a flash of pink. "I’m the only one with a memory around here," Mrs. Quoad sighs. "We help each other, you see." She brings out from behind its cretonne camouflage a great bowl of candies. "Now, " beaming at Slothrop. "Here: wine jellies. They’re prewar."

"Now I remember you—the one with the graft at the Ministry of Supply!" but he knows, from last time, that no gallantry can help him now. After that visit he wrote home to Nalline: "The English are kind of weird when it comes to the way things taste, Mom. They aren’t like us. It might be the climate. They go for things we would never dream of. Sometimes it is enough to turn your stomach, boy. The other day I had had one of these things they call ‘wine jellies.’ That’s their idea of candy, Mom! Figure out a way to feed some to that Hitler ‘n’ I betcha the war’d be over tomorrow!" Now once again he finds himself checking out these ruddy gelatin objects, nodding, he hopes amiably, at Mrs. Quoad. They have the names of different wines written on them in bas-relief.

"Just a touch of menthol too," Mrs. Quoad popping one into her mouth. "Delicious."

Slothrop finally chooses one that says Lafitte Rothschild and stuffs it on into his kisser. "Oh yeah. Yeah. Mmm. It’s great."

"If you really want something peculiar try the Bernkastler Doktor. Oh! Aren’t you the one who brought me those lovely American slimy elm things, maple-tasting with a touch of sassafras—"

"Slippery elm. Jeepers I’m sorry, I ran out yesterday."

Darlene comes in with a steaming pot and three cups on a tray. "What’s that?" Slothrop a little quickly, here.

"You don’t really want to know, Tyrone."

"Quite right," after the first sip, wishing she’d used more lime juice or something to kill the basic taste, which is ghastly-bitter. These people are really insane. No sugar, natch. He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, "Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—" a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingenue’s thewse"years ago," at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

"You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!" cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. "Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams." Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

"Serves me right," Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of the mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry . . . mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away that bitterness.

Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it must be pure nitric acid, "Oh mercy that’s really sour," hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple—three more candy jars down off of the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small, hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

"Now you’re getting the idea!" Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, "you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks. Why are Americans so impulsive?"

"Well," mumbling, "usually we don’t get any more complicated than Hershey bars, see. …"

"Oh, try this," hollers Darlene, clutching her throat and swaying against him.

"Gosh, it must really be something," doubtfully taking this nasty-looking brownish novelty, an exact quarter-scale replica of a Mills-type hand grenade, lever, pin and everything, one of a series of patriotic candies put out before sugar was quite so scarce, also including, he no-dees, peering into the jar, a .455 Webley cartridge of green and pink striped taffy, a six-ton earthquake bomb of some silver-flecked blue gelatin, and a licorice bazooka.

"Go on then," Darlene actually taking his hand with the candy in it and trying to shove it into his mouth.

"Was just, you know, looking at it, the way Mrs. Quoad suggested."

"And no fair squeezing it, Tyrone."

Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. "Poisoned …" he is able to croak.

"Show a little backbone," advises Mrs. Quoad.

"Yes," Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, "don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth."

Through the tears he can’t see it too well, but he can hear Mrs. Quoad across the table going "Yum, yum, yum," and Darlene giggling. It is enormous and soft, like a marshmallow, but somehow—unless something is now going seriously wrong with his brain—it tastes like gin. "Wha’s ‘is," he inquires thickly.

"A gin marshmallow," sez Mrs. Quoad.

"Awww
…"

"Oh that’s nothing, have one of these—" his teeth, in some perverse reflex, crunching now through a hard sour gooseberry shell into a wet spurting unpleasantness of, he hopes it’s tapioca, little glutinous chunks of something all saturated with powdered cloves.

"More tea?" Darlene suggests. Slothrop is coughing violently, having inhaled some of that clove filling.

"Nasty cough," Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone.

"Darlene, the tea is lovely, I can feel my scurvy going away, really I can.

—from Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

 

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