I didn’t really intend to make “Cooking up a Storey” a holiday-themed column but with the spring renewal festivals like Passover and Easter and St. Patrick’s Day coming all in one month, it’s hard to pass up the chance to celebrate the power of eloquence and timeless stories passed down through the generations. Besides, I won’t have any juicy holidays for column fodder—you’ll agree it’s a stretch to make Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July erotic? —until Halloween dress-up time, the fiction writer’s festival par excellence.
But back to the pleasures of early spring. St. Patrick’s Day has always struck me a merchant’s manufactured holiday, a reason to brighten the stores with shiny shamrocks or sell extra Guinness in pubs. For most of my life, the day often went by unnoticed, but in recent years, with my weekly organic veggie box bringing all kinds of potatoes, carrots and cabbage to my door at just the right moment, I’ve made it a custom on March 17 to prepare a winter vegetable soup with a secret adult ingredient (psst, don’t tell, it’s beer). Add some homemade no-knead brown bread, rich Kerrygold butter or a thin slice of Dubliner cheddar, and you’ve got yourself a satisfying meal for a late winter evening. In the spirit of the wearing o’ the green, I also have a special dessert suggestion involving emerald-hued crème de menthe and lucky penises. But I’ll let that idea simmer in the stockpot for a bit, while I move on to another appropriate topic for the holiday: Blarney.
The dictionary gives a definition of the word that is decidedly negative “flattery, cajolery, nonsense.” In my mind it has a sweeter nuance, like the things a man says in a soft voice in a low-lit room to convince me to go to bed with him. Maybe it’s the storyteller in me, but I associate the word with a bewitching power to cast a spell. The Web site of Blarney Castle in Cork, Ireland naturally puts a more positive spin on the word, calling it “the gift of eloquence.” Enough tourists submit themselves to the harrowing ritual at the Blarney Stone to suggest we all crave a little of that magic.
I’ve never been to Ireland—although I’d love to go someday—but I do have an old family photo of my maiden Aunt Grace sitting on a stone ledge and swooning into the arms of a dark, scary-looking man in a tam o’shanter. I was mystified by this strange image of my dowdy aunt doing a tango dip with a menacing stranger, until I eventually figured out that the setting was Blarney Castle. She had apparently taken a trip to Ireland before I was born in the early 1960s, although it was not part of the family lore she’d ever shared with me. I later learned this aunt was rejected from a convent as a novice and later had an illegitimate child by a priest’s brother, so perhaps kissing the Blarney Stone was yet another story to keep hidden from innocent children.
Kissing the Blarney Stone actually requires some acrobatics and considerable courage. The block of bluestone is set in the castle battlements, so to reach it you have to lean backwards across an open gap and tilt your head even farther to touch your lips to it. In the past, people have plummeted to their deaths over the parapet in the pursuit of eloquence. More recent photographs still show a man on duty at the parapet walk to aid the tourists. In one he embraces the shoulders of the petitioner leaning back to kiss the stone, a rather oddly intimate gesture. In another, a different fellow dangles a smaller tourist almost completely upside down by the knees.
I’ll admit these images make me shudder and I’m not sure I could summon the courage to do it.
Yet, even if I never kiss the Blarney Stone, I know well enough that bewitching with words can be a dangerous business. Just sitting down before that blank computer screen is daunting. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Salman Rushdie are just a few courageous scribblers who know that telling certain truths can endanger your freedom and even your life. Although not at quite the same level of peril, speaking frankly about sex is definitely not for the faint of heart.
I appreciate this now, but back in my days as a college instructor, I more often took my dictionary’s more critical view of storytellers. This was brought home to me when I started developing and teaching my own classes. I decided to ask around to determine just what my fellow grad students had learned from established professors in the field. Their answers were rather distressingly simple and abbreviated. “Gee, I guess I learned that Japanese poetry uses natural imagery.” “Hmm, yeah, I remember it has a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure.” All the preparation these teaching legends had put into imparting their profound knowledge had been condensed into a few very basic sound bites, rather like a pitch for a novel (and what’s more unsatisfying than describing your complex masterpiece in one pithy sentence?). Was the same true for the classes I sweated over to design? I decided to take the final meeting of my Japanese literature courses to ask my students what they would take away from hours of lectures and discussions.
To my surprise, the same brief answer came back to me over and over again: “Never trust the narrator.”
At first I was amused, if slightly alarmed, that my suspicious nature was so transparent. Later, however, I was rather pleased with myself. Challenging what others tell us is not a bad lesson to pass on for literature or life. Now, it is true that my choices of reading material for the syllabus included many stories where the narrator had a particular agenda—Akutagawa’s famous story “In a Grove” that became the movie Rashômon is one example—even if he or she wasn’t downright insane (some were that as well).
I realize now, however, that beyond the lies or delusions of the fictional characters, any good work of fiction does establish a bond of trust with the reader. We may not trust the narrator, but we have to trust the author not to let us down. No matter how eloquent the words, the work must always maintain an emotional truth. Only then will readers let down our cynical guard and allow the story to touch us on a deeper level. Having spent time on the other side of the page, I’ve discovered that it’s the writer’s most difficult yet satisfying task to move hearts with our words. Sometimes we have to bend over backwards and take a lot of risks to do it, with or without the help of a brawny Irish lad on a castle parapet.
While I don’t always trust narrators, I’m always hoping to find fiction writers I can trust. Ironically, I would now say that nonfiction writers often bring out the cynical reader in me. If our greatest truths often come dressed in the “lies” of fiction, journalism and nonfiction often wander far from their purported fidelity to the objective truth.
Almost anything published in The Wall Street Journal deserves a critical look, for example, but more modest publications can sometimes illustrate the lesson just as well. My pet peeve, for professional reasons no doubt, is the magazines at the checkout stand that promise every month to make our sex lives sizzle with ten steamy tips or seven seductive tricks. Or maybe it’s a bit of embarrassment that every few months I myself can’t resist reaching for a headline that promises to tell me the secret of what men really want in bed. Usually it’s pure blarney—or bullshit in less polite terms than my dictionary uses—but now and then I’ll pick up a useful tidbit for my repertoire. Yes, I’ve managed to bring us back to the St. Pat’s Day dessert I promised you, a sparkly green variation on oral sex that is perfect for spring holidays.
This didn’t come from a cajoling magazine cover, however, but a copy of Jay Wiseman’s Tricks: more than 125 ways to make good sex better which I purchased a number of years ago for my rather spicy reference library (only one of the many advantages of being an erotica writer). Like my college students, I’d taken just one indelible memory away from my first reading: Trick #102 aka Hooker’s Trick #5 or the crème de menthe blow job. Wiseman writes that this exquisite variation of fellatio has “helped prostitutes pay the rent for many years.” In my memory, I’d exaggerated that claim to something more like “helped prostitutes become real estate magnates to rival Donald Trump,” which suggests my own imagination cannot always be trusted.
I’d always wanted to try the crème de menthe blow job, but never got around to it until that all important motivation for me—research for a new story. And so I poured a glass of green liqueur, grabbed my trusty assistant and headed to the bedroom with the book to see how many of its promises it could truly deliver.
According to Wiseman, the blow job giver takes a spoonful of green crème de menthe in his or her mouth, then dribbles it over the tip of the penis so the recipient can “see the green spread.” This can be messy, as we discovered, and the visual impact was not, reportedly, all that crucial to arousal. Next, the giver opens his/her mouth wide enough that it doesn’t really touch the skin of the mint-moistened penis. As she lowers her mouth toward the base, she blows out. Then as she pulls her head back up to the tip—basically a slower, wider version of the standard “oil derrick” blow job motion—she shifts to sucking in air. This part actually did impart an intense and unusual rush of sensation that received high marks from my assistant. Wiseman writes that you can repeat this effect as many times as you like. However, we found in this case it is indeed never as good as the first time. Blowing on the liqueur-coated cock, however, was a success, not to mention it was the first time I performed a blow job that involved actual blowing which was linguistically as well as carnally satisfying. (By the way, Wiseman wisely cautions the reader not to try this on the more sensitive tissues of a vulva. I’ll add my advice to put a towel down, unless you don’t mind sticky, minty sheets).
I don’t mean to suggest Wiseman is a particularly unreliable narrator, just that in sex tricks as in anything else, nothing beats clear-eyed, personal experience. I would also argue that the crème de menthe blow job was not so exquisitely mind-blowing as to ensure anyone great success as a real estate magnate. I will admit, however, that it was a nice way to end the evening and encouraged open communication and much amusement during The Act, which is always a plus. Best of all, I got a good story out of it. And blarney or no, what greater riches can a writer ever ask for?
You see, it is all material.
I’ll leave you now with some recipes for a little March madness: hearty soup and old-fashioned brown bread, which is a lovely complement to a slice of cheddar cheese. Oh, and it is worth it to save a little room for a special dessert. You can trust this narrator on that suggestion!
Mid-March Irish Vegetable Soup
Makes 6 servings
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 12 oz. bottle wheat beer (hefeweizen—don’t substitute dark beer as it’s too bitter)
1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1″ pieces
12 oz. of cabbage, shredded
2 cups sliced carrots
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
2 Tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Heat oil in a soup pot. Add onion and garlic and stir until limp. Add potatoes, carrots and cabbage a sauté a bit more. Add broth, beer and spices (tied up in a cheesecloth bag is best but not necessary) and increase heat to high. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Discard spices. Stir in parsley.
(This is my vegetarian adaptation of a recipe from Sunset, March 2005)
Heirloom Whole Wheat Bread
This recipe requires no kneading. It’s from The New American Plate Cookbook: Recipes for a Healthy Weight and a Healthy Life, which I highly recommend for lots of tasty, healthy and simple meals. However, any traditional Irish brown bread recipe will work in this menu—Irish soda bread would also make a nice, if sweeter, accompaniment.
Makes 8 hearty slices (180 calories each)
Canola oil spray
3 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup oat bran
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Lightly coat a 9″x 5″ loaf pan with canola oil spray. Turn on the oven to its lowest setting. In a large, heatproof bowl, mix together flour, oat bran, and salt. Place the bowl in the oven to warm.
In a small bowl combine the lukewarm water with the honey. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes until foamy. Remove the warmed flour mixture from the oven. Add the yeast mixture and olive oil, stirring to combine thoroughly and adding a bit more water if necessary to make a loose, sticky dough. Spoon the dough into the prepared pan. Spray some plastic wrap with oil spray and place spray side down loosely over the pan. Cover with a dishtowel and leave in a warm place until dough has risen 1/3, 30 to 60 minutes. (A warm oven is ideal. Preheat at 200 degrees for one minute and turn off heat. Place a covered pot of just simmering water in the oven with the dough).
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. Carefully remove bread from the loaf pan. Place the bread upside down on the oven rack and bake for 5 minutes to crisp the crust. Transfer the bread from the oven to a wire rack to cool completely. The bread is best the day it’s made. Freeze and rewarm the leftovers.
Donna George Storey
“Cooking up a Storey” © 2008 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.