Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dear Katherine Mansfield (1888 - 1923),

You are one of New Zealand's prime exports.

We have a way of idolising anyone or anything famous that spent any time here Cases in point:

Russell Crowe: hooligan / actor, born here, moved to Australia when he was four, became famous for pouting violently on-camera and behaving violently off-camera, claimed as a Kiwi.

Pavlova: semi-palatable meringue dessert, not really a big deal, except that we argue with Australia as to who 'invented' it. Apparently Kiwi.

Kiwifruit: Chinese in origin. Eat too many and your lips will dissolve into pools of acid-soaked sores. Very, very tenuously Kiwi - so of course, we name ourselves after it.

Kath, you belong on this list because, despite not having been particularly fond of NZ at times, you were raised here and became famous. Therefore, you are KIWI, capital letters, ours and ours alone. The fact that you lived and worked in England, and died in France, are mere details. You were successful, therefore we cling.

Kiwi kids are usually forced to read your stories in school. This is awkward, because your stories are generally about social mores and dinner parties, and Kiwi kids, stereotypically covered in mud and Weet-Bix crumbs, are not too concerned about the proper ratio of cream to puff. I remember my Year 10 English class, huddled over our copies of "Bliss and Other Stories," reading of a society lady who had bought grapes for a dinner party because they matched her carpet, when we heard a "baaaaaaa" from outside the window. The sheep had gotten out! Now I realise that this possibly sounds like a hyperbolic recollection of a New Zealand childhood, but I'm being quite literal. Our school bordered a farm, and the gates were shoddy. So hearing a bleating noise in the middle of English class was not uncommon, and it was usually followed by a raucous half-hour of wading around on the rugby field, shouting "come on, Baaarbra!" or "go on home, Stewie."

Here's how we done did our learnin'
What was left on our desks was far removed from our reality. Because Katherine, you didn't write about the typical Kiwi existence. While we were out chasing mutton, your stories told us of social etiquette in the age of modernity and sexual liberation. Your characters mulled over chic bowls and scarves, had affairs, and exclaimed things like "wasn't that too absolutely creamy" after telling a joke. In other words, Kath, if you wrote today, your stories would be the 1%, and the literary 99% (presumably led by Kerouac, Frank McCourt & Raymond Carver) would rise up against you.*

But for our purposes here, you are quite useful. Because inevitably, in the course of writing about the upper classes and their elegant party lifestyles, you wrote about food.  In "Bliss," for instance, there is an inside / outside quality to fruit. There is a bowl of fruit inside, for a dinner party:

          There were tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink. Some yellow pears, smooth as silk, some white grapes 
          covered with a silver bloom and a big cluster of purple ones.

And there is a pear tree outside:

          At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though 
          becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn't help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a 
          faded petal.

All the fruit is perfect, unblemished, manicured. Except that, as the party progresses, the fruit in the bowl gets eaten - notably by a woman who turns out to be rather overfamiliar with Bertha's husband. But as Bertha's family life is shown to be full of blemishes, the pear tree is still there, "as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still." Its perfection mocks the shallow pleasantries of Bertha's home life.

Now Kath, it's hard to feel particularly sympathetic for Bertha, because she is a style-over-substance character. However let's assume she is hurt by her husband's affair, on some deep and genuine level. I don't mean to question your authorial choices - leaving Bertha hanging on the mocking, perfect pear tree was a fine ending to the story. However as a culinary continuation, let's take that mocking pear tree DOWN. Let's strip it, and turn its fruit into something... well, fruitful. Because when life gives you mocking pears, Ms. Mansfield, there's nothing left to do but make pies.


Serves 4


4 pears
4 tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 C plain flour
2 tbsp flour, extra
1/2 C cornflour
100g butter
2 tbsp white sugar
1 egg
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
Greek yoghurt and honey, to serve


Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cut the tops off the pears. Using a melon baller, scoop out the fleshy insides (but leave about 5mm of flesh on the skin to ensure structural integrity). Try to get the seeds out in one scoop, and discard. Place the rest of your pear scoops in a bowl, and sprinkle over the brown sugar, cinnamon, and 2 tbsp flour. Mix well and use this mixture to refill the hollowed-out pears.

Place the cup of flour, cornflour, butter, white sugar, egg, baking powder, and salt in a food processor, and blend. This is the fun part: for a minute or two, the mixture will go through phases of looking floury, then breadcrumby, then buttery. Then all of a sudden, WHOMP! It will coalesce into a golden ball of pie dough. Magic! Turn off the food processor and extract the dough. Divide it into four, then split each quarter into six mini balls. Shape each ball into a strip, like a bookmark. For each pear, form six strips into a woven square (three by three, laying the strips over / under each other). Form each woven square over the top of a filled pear to form a pie.

Arrange the pies in a baking dish and bake for 40 minutes, or until the tops are browned and the pears are tender. If your crusts are browning too fast, you can cover the dish with foil to calm them down.

Once baked, serve with Greek yoghurt and honey.

*But to be fair, your stories showed an understanding of the class structures your characters lived within, and you made a theme of them at times.

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