Food Porn From the Mistress of Lust

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Photo by JEAN-LOUP GAUTREAU/AFP/Getty Images


Barbara Cartland, the prolific English romance novelist, liked to linger over breakfast: an egg, three tablespoons of bran, yogurt with honey, ginseng tea, and a cocktail of vitamins. After breakfast she walked Twi-Twi the Pekingese and read her fan mail, of which there was always plenty. By tea time, Cartland had squeezed in a second meal and a second walk round the garden, and dictated 7,000 words from the comfort of her sofa to an assistant seated just behind her.

Like this, every year she completed an average of 20 or so novels without ghostwriters. That's 723 books in total before her death in 2000, many of which featured orphaned young women looking for love in exotic locales, chaste virgins rewarded with marriage proposals, and frisky aristocrats finding other frisky aristocrats. Then in 1984, Cartland published a cookbook of her favorite dishes, The Romance of Food.

Pink Chicken (that's what it's called) is guarded by several pink quartz elephants.

Let's set aside the potential erotic allure of the Coulibiac—a whole fish interred in chopped hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms, rice, other things too, and finally sealed in a slick, egg-washed skin of pastry. Few dishes seem better suited for morticians in love. The Romance of Food is a feast of delightfully outdated taste with extravagant photography and writing strung together by enough gently racist asides to write The Harmless British Racist's Handbook.

To quote a few: All Italians love cheese. The French, who know more about food and wine than any other nation, eat a lot of veal. The Chinese believe that ginger excites passion. German brothels serve lettuce to stimulate their clients. Gypsies eat mushrooms, which grow everywhere! I am sure (coq au vin) is one of the first dishes a French girl learns to cook, so that she will attract a handsome husband. In Morocco, the Moors believed implicitly that honey was a love stimulant and large quantities of honey were used in their marriage ceremonies, which often became sex orgies. Oh, Barbara!

Barbara Cartland was born 1901 to an old Scottish family with a reasonable amount of money. Her grandfather, a financier, shot himself after he lost a fortune betting on the rosy financial future of the Fishguard Railway, reducing the family's circumstances considerably. Her father died in the trenches of World War I in 1918. Young Cartland took her first writing gig at the Daily Express, writing gossip columns for 5 shillings each. She befriended the publisher, Lord Beaverbrook, and his friend Winston Churchill, who wrote the introduction to her brother's biography, and she finished her first novel at 23—the story of a socialite told in the wire-service style of the Conservative paper.

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Illustration by L. Nichols

Cartland received a few proposals, and in 1927 she married Alexander McCorquodale. Their divorce made headlines—she accused him of adultery after finding some love letters in a drawer and he accused her of sleeping around with his cousin. After the divorce (she won the house in Mayfair and the Rolls-Royce), she promptly married the cousin in question, Hugh McCorquodale. Cartland took her children to Canada at the outset of World War II, but, feeling frivolous, she returned as a welfare officer with the Women's Voluntary Services. Here, she collected a thousand secondhand wedding dresses, so women in the forces could marry in white, instead of in their uniforms.

Both her brothers died in Dunkirk in 1940. In the sixties, Cartland campaigned aggressively for gypsy rights, specifically for them to have a permanent place to live and the right to attend local schools in her community. It resulted in an act of Parliament—and a few romance novels with gypsies in them. Barbaraville, as the housing development was nicknamed, opened in Hertfordshire in 1964, a year after Hugh McCorcquodale died. In 1998, a docudrama based on Cartland's life aired on BBC Four. By then, she was a bit of a self-parody, famous for her pink outfits and gaudy make-up, ribbed on TV for her wrinkle-reducing face tape and belief in the power of honey as a cure-all. Still, the show had an unusual number of viewers. It was called, fittingly, In Love with Barbara.

Presented by

Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at www.tejalrao.com.

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