Food Porn From the Mistress of Lust

By Tejal Rao
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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 The Romance of Food is a feast of delightfully outdated taste with extravagant photography and writing strung together by enough gently racist asides to write The Harmless British Racist's Handbook.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.

Cartland's estate, also in Hertfordshire, is the setting for the book's photos—must-sees for anyone with either a soft spot for old-fashioned French dishes or in-focus, highly-styled food photography. There's an absolute symmetry to each plate, finished with terrifying twee set pieces borrowed from other rooms within the home. Pink Chicken (that's what it's called) is guarded by several pink quartz elephants. Beef Wellington is flanked by dueling pistols and a statue of Wellington himself. The most outrageous one, Oriental Chicken (hey, it has soy sauce in it!), is decorated with blue ducks and what can only be described as a porcelain figurine of Dr. Fu Manchu. The tiered cake on a lace doily on a pink tablecloth has the green estate grounds slightly blurred in the background, the white Rolls-Royce just in frame.

Almost every recipe includes barely relevant train-of-thought commentary from Cartland. On partridge in wine: "They are the most courageous little birds, and wonderful mothers. A partridge only has one wife." On porridge: "The 5th Duke of Sutherland was one of the best looking men I have ever seen ... Every morning at the fairytale Dunrobin Castle, which I have made the background for many of my novels, he ate his porridge from a wooden bowl, edged with silver, which his Nanny had given him." For anyone wanting to know how to actually make the recipes, the book also includes straightforward instructions from the family chef, Scotsman Nigel Gordon.

"I have never known a man who was not thrilled with it and relaxed and very amenable after eating it," Cartland says, of Gordon's cold smoked salmon and cottage cheese pâté (surely Cartland meant cat there, not man). To Cartland, there was no food ill-suited for romance. With the exception of white bread and white sugar, which she didn't touch, every ingredient was an aphrodisiac, including duck, gooseberries, paprika, mushrooms, asparagus, fish, and crab. Which might well be true, but not for the reasons Cartland suggests.

The sexual magic associated with aphrodisiacs is cultural propaganda. If oysters were prescribed as a cure for impotence as early as the second century, it was because they contain a high level of zinc, needed to produce testosterone. If Cassanova tucked into 50 oysters a day while administering spankings to aristocratic women all across Europe with his other hand, it's because in the 1700s oysters were plentiful, nutritious, and cheap—everyone ate them, not just virile memoirists.

And if Botticelli's image of Aphrodite floating onto the beach atop an oyster shell is even vaguely romantic, perhaps remember that her beautiful body has just been formed from the bloody remnants of someone else's violently severed genitals. Indeed, aphrodisiacs are simply foods that increase the likelihood that you will think about sex.

In this sense, Cartland's book isn't just funnier, it's more insightful: it doesn't matter if it's Mandarin cheesecake or pork tenderloin because every dish is a romantic prod, a sexual post-it note. And every dish is equally magical because no dish can be more magical. In which case Cartland's Coulibiac (page 14) might be just the thing for Valentine's Day.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/02/food-porn-from-the-mistress-of-lust/35638/