Two major things happen to the appetite when tragedy occurs—either it disappears completely or it is bottomless, gnawing, insatiable. After losing a friend in college, a boy whom I had loved since I was ten or eleven years-old, I was rabid with cravings for things I never ate or didn’t even know I liked—goldfish crackers slathered in yellow mustard, Little Debbie oatmeal cakes, Cadbury Cream eggs—things that turn my stomach to even think about now. In The Goldfinch, after Theo’s mother dies, he loses interest in food completely and has to be constantly hassled and reminded by Mrs. Barbour to eat. At breakfast she offers him blueberry muffins, cinnamon toast, oatmeal and waffles, but nothing appeals to him. “Food” he said, “tasted like cardboard; I hadn’t been hungry in weeks.” He loses so much weight that he has to report to the guidance counselor’s office every day to be weighed “on the scale she used for girls with eating disorders.” When he shows up at Hobie’s house Hobie asks Theo if he’s eaten.
I was too surprised to answer. Food was the last thing on my mind.
“Ah, I thought not,” he said, rising creakily to his big feet. “Let’s go rustle up something.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, so rudely I was sorry. Since my mother’s death, all anyone seemed to think of was shoveling food down my throat.
“No, no, of course not.” With his free hand he fanned away a cloud of smoke. “But come along, please. Humor me.
Perhaps without even knowing it, Hobie has followed the cardinal rule of caring for the grieving, which is to unobtrusively place food before them, even if they say that they don’t want it. In Emily Post’s book of etiquette, published in 1922, she talks about this saying: “Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need.” Instinctively, Hobie knows this, and sets about making Theo the first snack that he enjoys since his mother’s passing.
The plate of food, when he set it before me, was nothing to look at—puffy yellow stuff on toast. But it smelled good. Cautiously, I tasted it. It was melted cheese, with chopped-up tomato and cayenne pepper and some other things I couldn’t figure out, and it was delicious.
“Sorry, what is this?” I said, taking another careful bite.
He looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, it doesn’t really have a name.”
“It’s good,” I said, slightly astonished at how hungry I really was. My mother had made cheese-on-toast very similarly which we ate sometimes on Sunday nights in winter.
“You like cheese? I should have thought to ask.”
I nodded, mouth too full to answer. Even though Mrs. Barbour was always pressing ice cream and sweets on me, somehow it felt as if I’d hardly eaten a normal meal since my mother died—at least, not the kind of meals that had been normal for us, stir fry or scrambled eggs or macaroni and cheese from the box, while I sat on the kitchen step-ladder and told her about my day. (135)
Hobie insists that the snack he makes for Theo doesn’t have a name, but from its description it sounds a lot like Welsh rarebit to me. Welsh rarebit is a fancy British version of the Velveeta slices melted on toast that I ate growing up. It starts with a rue and ends with loads of cheese, and there’s mustard powder, cayenne pepper, beer, and Worcestershire sauce in between. It’s comfort food of the most serious kind. When making Welsh rarebit, beer-choice is a contentious subject. Many people swear by a dark beer like a porter or a stout, others insist that an ale is the proper choice. In this case, I went with an ale because it was what I had in the fridge, but I’m sure a porter or a stout would be delicious too. Instead of chopping the tomatoes up like Hobie did, I roasted them to bring out their sweetness and cut the rarebit’s saltiness. If you can’t use the sauce up all in one go, it refrigerates nicely for about a week and just has to be re-heated before spreading onto toast. I hope you guys are enjoying reading this series as much as I’m enjoying writing it. Now go! Melt some cheese!
Makes 4 servings
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon mustard powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
½ teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper (or to taste)
¾ cups ale or porter
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ pound sharp cheddar, shredded
½ pound gruyere cheese, shredded
4 large slices of crusty bread
Directions: Melt your butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch-oven and add flour. Whisk constantly over medium-low heat until your roux is toasty-brown and smells fragrant and biscuit-like. Add mustard powder, cayenne, and black pepper and whisk until smooth. Add beer and Worcestershire and whisk until there are no clumps before adding your cheese. Add the cheese and stir constantly until it’s smooth. Remove from heat and set aside to roast your cherry tomatoes (recipe follows) and lightly toast your bread. Once your bread is lightly toasted and your tomatoes are roasted, spread your cheese-sauce in a thick layer on top of your toast, place it on a sheet-pan lined with tinfoil and place it under the broiler for about 2 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and lightly-browned.
Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
1 pint cherry tomatoes
freshly-cracked black papper
Pre-heat oven to 400F. Spread cherry tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with tinfoil and sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast 15-20 minutes, or until skin begins to shed and tomatoes are soft. Crush the tomatoes with the back of a fork before spreading them on top of your cheese-toast (you don’t want those things exploding when you bite into your toast).