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It was the enigmatic murmur of a “Bacchanal Brew” on the menu that first intrigued me. A three-course meal based on Donna Tartt’s hugely successful 1992 debut, The Secret History, a Greek tragedy set in an elite liberal arts college in Vermont, New England, apparently fashioned on Bennington College, also in Vermont, which Tartt and her contemporary Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) attended.
The Novel Diner is part of a new trend emerging in London of dining experiences celebrating literature (also Literary Dinners, The Literary Supperclub). Founded by Claire Coutinho, who also helps run and host the live storytelling salon Tomax Talks, and Mina Holland, a arts and food writer for The Guardian, the first pop-up was first held in April around Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, then In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The big idea is to relive the novel by appealing to our appetites, picking out particular scenes in which food features and bringing those recipes to the social dining table. Claire and Mina recreate all these recipes themselves and do the cooking too—”We both grew up in food-loving households and have done quite a bit of travelling, so have diverse influences.”
Each gathering is held at a different restaurant or other venue around London, which best matches the ambience and mood in which the novel is set. There will be readings, live music, or other performances—whatever’s appropriate, depending on the book. Guests are also encouraged to dress up (or down) to reflect the novel, though it is by no means obligatory. I’d vaguely entertained the idea of turning up to dinner in a bleeding chiton, but was later relieved that I hadn’t, opting to follow Claire and Mina’s Twitter advice instead: “Any excuse for early 90s wear really will do.” Only a handful of people dressed for the theme—at least, overtly. The period in which The Secret History is set wasn’t all that long ago, and is less singular compared to Proust’s belle époque.
The Secret History revolves around five Classics students under the tutelage of professor extraordinaire Julian Morrow at Hampden College: Henry Winter, the leader—imposing, cold and expressionless; Francis Abernathy, an exotic red-haired “cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper”; Charles and Camilla Macaulay, fraternal twins who have an unsettlingly close relationship; and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran—“blond” and “sloppy”, with a “relentlessly cheery demeanour”. The dynamics of their relationship are tellingly described by how Richard defines Camilla, with disquieting undertones, as “the Queen who finished out the suit of dark Jacks, dark King, and Joker”. They are jarringly different from the rest of the student body—the hippies, the beatniks and preppies, the punks—who generally avoid them. They are not liked, but they are treated with fearful respect (a bit like the Cullens of the Twilight universe).
Their intellectual misadventures are narrated from the point of view of Richard Papen, a newcomer to the exclusive group. They are a motley crew, he observes, but whatever their differences, they share “a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world”. Richard grew up in suburban Plano, a fictional silicon village in the American desert, of drive-ins, tract homes and gas stations—a repository of his past, which he regards as “disposable as a plastic cup”. He seeks beauty desperately, trusting that it will elevate him above this humdrum existence:
Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
To Richard, these students, who dress formally in white tennis sweaters, billowing great coats, dark suits and ties, and monogramed cuff links, are beautiful and mysterious; they are the opposite of everything that Richard has ever known in his life, and Richard wants to be them—seemingly rich, whip-intelligent, exquisitely mannered. What he doesn’t know, however, is how seriously they take their Greek studies, how literally. But even when he finds out about their attempts to recreate the ancient rites of the Bacchanal and that terrible thing they did when they succeeded, he is unwavering in his support of them, which earns him Henry’s gratitude and cements his place within the group. Richard even takes their side against Bunny’s when an irrevocable fall out ensues.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I arrived at Swan and Edgar, a book-themed pub in Marylebone. Having started on the book only that morning, I had spent the whole day immersed in it, in the slow cumulation of deceits, cover-ups, petty jealousies and revenge culminating in the hard-eyed elimination of one of their own. One step out of the shadows, one motion. A lone boy was taking a walk through the woods and slipped, propelled by gravity along the height of the majestic green and black ravine… It’s the kind of dark, whispery tale that oppresses you in its churning mystery. I only put the book down half an hour before I left my flat, so it was still with me when I arrived for dinner, and for a moment I was jarred by how normal and sunny everything was.
Luckily though, I did happen to sit next to an actual scholar of Greek and Latin literature. There must be plenty to live up to with a name like Scarlett, but whatever her eponymous literary heroines may be like (I know only of Scarlett O’ Hara), and whatever classics scholars are usually like, this Scarlett, at least, was not like any of the five young academics at Hampden College, by which I mean—and I say this with relief—that she had a warm disposition, knew how to crack a joke, and did not quote extensively from Plato.
Because it quickly becomes apparent that this group of frighteningly erudite students are dangerously isolated, utterly cut off from everything but their studies, subsisting on too much alcohol and sleeping pills. Their beloved and much idolised professor Julian Morrow is a brilliant eccentric who only accepts a handful of students in his class based on personal, rather than academic, reasons: “one must have read the right things, hold similar views.” As a condition for entering his class, Julian also demands that they drop all classes with other teachers so that he, exclusively, is responsible for their education. In such circumstances, what else do they—can they—know besides the ancient world? None of them read newspapers or magazines. Henry, as smart as he is (he knows seven or eight languages, ancient and modern; he can read hieroglyphics; he translates Paradise Lost from English to Latin for fun), is woefully unaware of what goes on in the real world. He had heard vaguely of Marilyn Monroe, but had no idea who she was or what she looked like. He had not known, until Richard told him, that men had walked on the moon.
Early guests arriving at Swan and Edgar crowded around the book bar and mingled, perched hands garnished with black and tans—an equal mixture of champagne and Guinness stout. These simple cocktails had come straight out of the novel: at Richard’s first dinner invitation with the group at Charles’ and Camilla’s flat.
Many guests had come that evening, drawn not so much to the book (some had never read it) but the food. In that sense, even if you’re not a “serious” reader, or a reader at all, and even if you’re not in the least bit excited about dressing up in the era of the evening’s celebrated novel, you could still enjoy yourself. Most of the time, we didn’t even talk about the book, or about literature, so it’s a very accessible experience for everyone. The venue itself was a draw for me—the secondhand books for walls, the Scrabble tiles paving the bathroom, the Eames-style chairs printed with newspapers and tables decorated with garlands of leaves and fresh, bulbous grapes—and the food surpassed my expectations, especially considering that Claire and Mina did all the cooking themselves and had about 25 mouths to feed over two seatings.
For starters, we had morels—a kind of mushroom—cooked in red wine and coriander jus on sourdough, a sinister reference to the wild mushrooms that Henry considers using to “accidentally” poison Bunny.
With the rest ganging up against Bunny, Richard is able to become truly part of the group—instrumental, in fact. Julian even invites Richard to his office one day for a private lunch, which Richard feels to be an honour since Henry is usually the only one granted their professor’s sole audience. Claire and Mina’s main course, roasted lamb, was inspired by this lunch. It was a simple, comforting dish—the lamb supple and juicy, peppered with leeks, fennels, peas and small cuts of potatoes.
When dessert came, it was a surprise: marmalade cheesecake—light and spongy, topped on the side with two bite-sized madeleines. I couldn’t figure out where this came from, but Claire and Mina tell me the cheesecake is a reference to the twin’s fanaticism for marmalade cream cheese sandwiches, which they did a spin on.
Finally, drawing the evening to a close was the sweetly aromatic “Bacchanal Brew”—orange slices soaked in a concoction of red wine, rosemary, hibiscus flowers and honey—inspired by the mind-blowing euphoria described by Henry when they finally succeeded in recreating a Bacchanal:
It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye…
I could only match dish to page in the days that came after the supperclub, since I had originally rushed through the book so I wouldn’t turn up to dinner clueless. It was only afterward that I had time to read it closely, and with great satisfaction, relish the scenes and descriptions, remembering what Claire and Mina had served up. Perhaps in this way, it would have been illuminating to have a brief explanation of each course as it was being served, especially for guests who haven’t read the book, or have read it too long ago to remember. The readers did a great job of reading passages from the novel, setting the scene and the mood for us; however, on the whole, I would have liked the literary stamp on the evening to have been stronger. The novel could have framed the evening more fully, elevating the dining experience so that it’s not just eating good food accompanied by a reading, but rather, that they both be equal parts of the same whole. Then again, it’s only because I’m a bookworm, and it is an incredibly difficult balance to strike to satisfy everyone. I know a few people who are put off by the very notion of “literary supperclubs”, thinking (mistakenly, in my opinion) that it’s pretentious; and of course, the longer the readings, the less time guests will have to socialise and chitchat among themselves.
The verdict? I would recommend the Novel Diner without reservation. Claire and Mina have confirmed that the next pop-up will be based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The date and venue have yet to be decided but I’ve been told that it won’t be the usual sit-down dinner, which already sounds exciting. The novel is set in the Roaring Twenties and should give anyone more than enough inspiration as to what to wear; otherwise, just take a look at the trailer for Baz Luhrman’s new film adaptation.