Strange Pilgrims was the first work I ever read by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A boy I once loved gave me a copy of it as a high school graduation present, and I read and re-read it all that summer, picturing my own impending homesickness while reading about all of Marquez’s displaced, exiled characters. The day my parents left me in New York to start my new life, I cried on a bench in Washington Square Park with my copy of Strange Pilgrims stuffed in my back pocket. Then, I walked to Ben’s Pizzeria and ate a piece of pizza with baked ziti on it, because there were no parents in sight to tell me not to. In the yellow booth under the florescent lights, I pulled the book out and read it with puffy eyes and a pounding head, I felt sick from the ziti and the loneliness.
In the ten years since that day, I’ve gone on to read nearly all of Marquez’s work, but Strange Pilgrims will always remain closest to my heart. Although the book was published in 1993, Marquez wrote most of the stories in the seventies and eighties, while he was living away from his native Colombia in Europe. The first of these twelve stories came to Marquez after a dream in which he attended his own funeral and saw himself “walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood.” In the dream, everyone, including Marquez, was having a wonderful time, until it came time to leave, and his friend stopped him, saying, “You’re the only one who cannot go.”
The feelings of loneliness and isolation present in this dream work their way into every one of the twelve stories in Strange Pilgrims, which is probably the reason why I clung to it so tightly during one of the loneliest periods of my life.
My favorite of these stories was “Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness.” In the story, two young boys are looking forward to a beautiful, carefree summer in Sicily, swimming, and scuba diving, and laying on the beach. Their plans for the perfect summer are thwarted, however, when their parents hire a tyrannical German nanny, Miss Forbes, to come and watch them. Miss Forbes is relentlessly strict with them, controlling their every move, down to how many times they chew their food. Whenever they don’t obey, their punishment is that they will not get dessert, which truly is a punishment, seeing as Miss Forbes’s “cream cakes, her vanilla tarts or her exquisite plum pastries,” are the best desserts they have ever had.
As the summer progresses, the boys learn that Miss Forbes is living a secret life while the family sleeps. They hear her padding back and forth all over the house in the dead of night, and one morning sneak downstairs early to find her “in the kitchen in her schoolgirl’s nightdress, preparing her splendid desserts. Her entire body, including her face, was covered with flour, and she was drinking a glass of port with a mental abandon that would have scandalized the other Miss Forbes.” In her secret life “as a lonely woman,” Miss Forbes watches pulpy television and drinks from their father’s special bottle of wine. She wolfs down entire cakes, “choking on [them] with a kind of uncontrolled passion.”
Anyone who chugs port wine with “mental abandon” and eats entire cakes in front of bad tv is pretty okay with me, but strangely, the boys in this story do not feel the same way. Instead, they decide that they are going to kill Miss Forbes. So, they dump four fingers-worth of deadly poison into their father’s special wine bottle and wait patiently for her to drink it. Finally one night, they see her pass by their door at midnight, “in her schoolgirl’s nightdress, carrying half a chocolate cake and the bottle with more than four fingers of poisoned wine back to her bedroom.” The next morning, Miss Forbes is dead, but what kills her is completely unexpected…
This chocolate cake has the wine already baked in it and slathered on it. Eat it with mental abandon, with uncontrolled passion, eat it as a toast to Gabo, whom the world is dimmer without.
Chocolate Red Wine Cake
From Smitten Kitchen
Makes 1 9-inch cake (8-10 servings)
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (plus more for greasing pan)
¾ cups packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk, room temperature
¾ cups red wine (I used Syrah)
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup + 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ cup Dutch cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat your oven, and butter a 9” nonstick cake pan. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat butter until it is smooth. Add sugars and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy—about 4 minutes.
Add egg and yolk and beat until incorporated.
Beat in red wine and vanilla. At this point your batter will look broken and scary, but don’t worry, that’s normal.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, salt and cinnamon. With the mixer running on low, slowly add this dry mix to the wet mixture, just until a smooth batter forms.
Pour batter into greased cake pan and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
Turn cake out onto cooling rack and glaze (recipe follows).
Chocolate Red Wine Glaze
From Bon Appetit
8 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate (at least 60-70%)
¼ cup (½ a stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup red wine
½ cup powdered sugar
Raspberries for garnish (optional)
In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water, melt the chocolate, butter and salt (don’t let the boiling water touch the bowl).
While the chocolate mixture is melting, bring the wine to boil in a separate pot. Once the wine has boiled, turn the heat off.
Whisk the powdered sugar into the melted chocolate mixture (it may clump up, that’s okay, it will right itself when you add the wine).
Whisk in the warm wine until the mixture is glossy and smooth.
Pour glaze over cake, smoothing the top with an offset spatula. I had some glaze left over, so I dipped fruit in it (and ate it with a spoon).