The Literary Cookbook: The Day of the Locust

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May 1, 2013 · Posted in Miscellany 

By Lynn Bronstein

 

In the 1930s, America was trying to pull its way out of a depression that had devastated the lives of millions. From the slums of eastern cities to the Dust Bowl, people looked to the West, to California, and especially to that place, originally a highly religious little village near Los Angeles, that had become synonymous with the American concept of glamour and magic: Hollywood.

Not all of the people who relocated to this special land found the gold at the end of the rainbow. Those who did not make money right away, and those who never would make money or be discovered for their talent and beauty, would live out their lives in tiny bungalows or seedy apartment houses, working as extras, waiting on tables, selling dubious products door to door or surviving through shadowy activities. These were the people whose lives interested 1930s writer Nathanael West and it was these souls, “the cheated,” who were the subject of his bittersweet 1939 short novel The Day of the Locust.

Food is a constant metaphor in this, and in all four of West’s novels. In Locust, there is actual food and symbolic food, for as West writes of the people who did not find their dreams in Hollywood:

“…..They discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time.” According to West, the fact that life goes on, in its ordinary and unfair way, even in the land of fantasies made real, requires them to find vivid and violent fantasies to feed on.

“[Newspapers and movie] fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love-nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. Their daily diet made sophisticates of them.”

Even the book’s title hints at this dual diet of real and spiritual food. Locust is another name for the grasshopper and grasshoppers were one of the Ten Plagues in the Bible. Many readers of the book assume that “the day of the locust” is a phrase from one of the revivalist preachers described in the novel, a warning of plagues that would be visited on the sinful denizens of Hollywood as well as upon the world. But “locust” could also refer to the honey locust, a deciduous tree, Gleditsia triacanthos, the pods of which are edible, once eaten by Native Americans, now used largely for cattle fodder.

It is also written that John the Baptist survived during his time in the desert by “eating locusts and wild honey.” While this legend conjures images of John munching on insects with long legs, the more probable explanation for the use of the word locust here is that he used the pods of the locust tree or, in that region of the world, the pods of the carob tree which has been called “St. John’s Bread” ever since.

Thus the title suggests divine retribution, practical survival, and unexpected sweetness, all in five words. Religion, work, lust unrequited love, and unfulfilled dreams are the subject of the book’s lonely 154 pages. The characters eat, drink, and crave food, success, attention, and each other. The most memorable scenes involving food are about the near-impossibility of getting sex (for two of the male characters) and the conjunction of food and sex for the leading female character (who seems to get all she needs of both).

Faye Greener, the femme fatale of the novel, is a seventeen-year old blonde, daughter of a failed vaudevillian, who works occasionally as an extra and briefly as a call girl, and attracts every male who looks at her. The story line involves Tod, a young artist who works in the design department of a movie studio and longs for Faye; Homer Simpson (not the cartoon character), a repressed, middle-aged Midwesterner who comes to Los Angeles for his “health;” Faye’s father Harry, who can’t get work and dies in a rented room, barely known to anyone, and the frustration felt by Tod and Homer as they both woo Faye unsuccessfully.

Tod, whose ambition, apart from having Faye, is to be a serious artist, feeds on his art and has only art to offer Faye. She likes him only as a friend because he is a “good-hearted” man, not a good-looking or rich man. She prefers the company of good-looking men like the simple-minded cowboy Earle Shoup. In her search for a sugar daddy, she probably hopes for a producer who can mentor her into stardom but she settles for Homer, who has saved thousands from twenty years of living a very dull life as a hotel clerk. Tod has to stand by and observe as Faye enjoys the attentions of Earle, who is actually homeless (he lives in a “camp” in the Hollywood Hills with a Mexican buddy), and the old-fashioned courtship of Homer, a 40-something virgin, who lets Faye stay at his rented house, buys her everything she wants, even lets her invite Earle and his friend and their game roosters to live in the garage. In the end, Faye leaves both Earle and Homer and flees to parts unknown.

While Tod can afford the occasional ice-cream soda for Faye and often stands Earle and Faye for dinners at moderately priced restaurants, he is not depicted as someone who literally feeds Faye. But Earle and Homer both fix meals for her. It’s a study in contrast. Homer is, in Faye’s own words “strictly home cooking” and his impromptu lunch is made from store-bought staples. Earle, living in the hills, sets traps for feathered game and succeeds in trapping several quail, which he and his friend roast over an open fire.

Homer meets Faye and her father when the latter is selling homemade “silver polish” door-to-door in the Hollywood Hills residential area where Homer has rented a house. Harry Greener experiences chest pains and has to lie down following his sales spiel. Homer helps Faye to get him settled and while Harry is resting, Homer makes lunch for himself and Faye.

 

“Do you like salmon salad?” Homer ventured to ask.

“Salmon sah-lade?”

She seemed to be repeating this question to her stomach. The answer was yes.

“With plenty of mayonnaise, huh? I adore it.”

“I was going to have some for lunch. I’ll finish making it.”

Homer’s salmon salad is made from canned salmon-what else he puts in it and whether or not he serves it on a bed of greens is not clear. Along with the salad, Faye has a slice of buttered bread, a glass of milk, and an apple. Later, Homer makes coffee for her and offers her a plate of gingersnaps.

Homer serves her as if he were a waiter, ignoring her obvious rudeness as she gobbles the food and demands this or that. He also delights in watching her eat and in listening to the sounds she makes. “The dainty crunching sound she made chewing [the gingersnaps] fascinated him.”

We are fascinated that the food he gives her holds symbolism: the salmon is seafood, “the food of Aphrodite” in tradition; the milk suggests kindness and maternity; while the apple is Eve and temptation. The gingersnaps? Sweet but spicy-just like Faye.

Homer buys his food at the SunGold Market, one of West’s spoofs of the way buildings and businesses in Hollywood often mimicked imaginary or real exotic buildings and places. At SunGold, the food products have their own “key lights” in the sense of the lights used to highlight the best features of actors on screen.

“The oranges were bathed in red, the lemons in yellow, the fish in pale green, the steaks in rose, and the eggs in ivory.”

But appetizing as these items might look, Homer buys canned sardines, canned soup, and soda crackers, items that probably don’t have their own key lights and are hidden away from view. Just like Homer, the home-cooking guy, the non-movie star, the asexual loner.

Earle’s repast is served for Faye, Tod, his friend Mig, and himself. He’s on a date with Faye but admits he’s out of money and Tod is reluctant to foot the bill yet again. Earle suggests they check out “camp” for grub and the foursome journey to a valley-like area of the Hollywood Hills (possibly the north part of Laurel Canyon). Here Mig keeps his game cocks which he proudly shows to Tod and Faye. Earle goes to the traps he’s set, to collect his hunter’s prize: five quail. Roasted quail is a gourmet treat that is often expensive when served in restaurants. But while anyone who has tasted roasted quail will probably agree that it is delicious, West’s description of Earle’s preparation of the birds might drive even the most particular of carnivores to vegetarianism:

“Earle caught the birds one at a time and pulled their heads off before dropping them in his sack….He lifted the birds out with his right hand and plucked them one at a time. Their feathers fell to the ground, point first, weighed down by the tiny drop of blood that trembled on the tips of their quills…..

“Earle tried to show Faye how plump the game was but she wouldn’t look. He gutted the birds, then began cutting them into quarters with a pair of heavy tin shears. Faye held her hands over her ears in order not to hear the soft click made by the blades as they cut through flesh and bone. Earle wiped the pieces with a rag and dropped them into the skillet where a large piece of lard was already sputtering.”

This description is undoubtedly drawn from experience-West hunted regularly with writer friends in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In Bucks County the hunters might have washed down their game meals with the local rye whisky; Earle and his guests share a mug of tequila, a beverage new to Tod.

Tod notices that Faye, despite her squeamishness during the preparation, enjoys the game and she also enjoys drinking straight from the mug. Later, everyone is drunk; Faye’s erotic dancing with Mig sparks a fit of jealousy on Earle’s part (foreshadowing their fight later in the book), and Tod, in an alcoholic haze of his own, envisions an apocalypse that also foreshadows the movie premiere riot of the climax.

Freshly caught meat, the food of hunters, and alcohol, the drink of sinners (Homer is a teetotaler) are the “macho” food and drink that seem to fetch Faye sexually, while Homer’s packaged-goods spreads speak to her of security without passion. While the fighting roosters, two of whom are pitted in a fight in a later, gruesome scene, are never considered for the cook stove, the chickens share with the quail the literary assignment of being symbolic stand-ins for Homer. When Homer realizes that he loves Faye, he feels sad, “. ….a pleasant sadness, very sweet and calm.” He finds himself prodding at his sadness “to make it more acute and so more pleasant” and ends up making himself cry.

“Only those who still have hopes can benefit from tears,” West writes.

Likewise, the quail in the hills make a sound that is “full of melancholy and weariness yet marvelously sweet.” The sound of the quail caught in the trap has “no anxiety in it, only sadness, impersonal and without hope.”

And in the cock fight, the big red rooster that is defeated by Mig’s smaller, quicker Juju, obviously represents Homer. Juju pecks at the dead bird’s eye until one of the spectators cries out “Take off that stinking cannibal!”

West is not endorsing a Darwinist viewpoint in “The Day of the Locust” or in his other novels. He simply notes that this is the way the world often is. In a couple of his other books, he uses an obviously satirical tone to mask his horror at the savagery of life. In The Dream World of Balso Snell, the action takes place within the gastro-intestinal system of the Trojan Horse which seems to have swallowed, but not digested, a variety of failed writers who simply won’t let their literary dreams die. In A Cool Million, a book also infused with constant food references, a naïve lad seeking his fortune encounters injustice, trickery, and mutilation at every turn until he himself has been “consumed” by the world’s viciousness. In Locust, which was to be the last of West’s novels before his untimely death in a car crash, carnivorousness seems to be linked to blind ambition and amorality, as well as to the instinct for survival.

To be sure, the stage mother of child actor Adore Loomis, a ambitious neighbor of Homer’s, tells him that she is not just a vegetarian but a “raw foodist.” The raw food movement indeed dates back to the 1930s and like many health movements, gained ground first in Southern California. West might be shocked to visit present day Los Angeles where veggie cuisine, vegan cuisine, and raw cuisine all have their followers. But meat-eating always hearkens back to the idea of hunters and predators. So it is fitting that, after witnessing the bloody cock fight, and a real fight between the men who desire Faye, and after hearing from a disillusioned and shattered Homer about his final confrontation with Faye, Earle, and Miguel, Tod takes himself to one of Hollywood’s favorite restaurants and one of the very few old-time eateries that has survived into the 21st century, Musso and Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard. There, he orders a “manly” meal-a double Scotch and a steak-and he tries to imagine himself taking Faye by surprise and raping her:

 

“As he approached carefully, she would be pulling her dress down, smoothing it nicely over her hips.

“ ‘Faye, Faye, just a minute,’ he would call.

“ ‘Why, Tod, hello.’

“She would hold her hand out to him at the end of her long arm that swooped so gracefully to join her curving shoulder.

“ ‘You scared me!’

“She would look like a deer on the side of the road when a truck comes unexpectedly around the bend.”

 

Tod’s fantasy is interrupted by a waiter asking if there is anything wrong with the steak that Tod is not eating. The “rape “ fantasy feeds him more thoroughly than the meat. He fakes a bite or two, then discovers that he can’t get the rape fantasy going again-and he has lost his appetite for the steak also.

Tod is an artist. He has loved Faye as a model of physical beauty, has drawn her many times, is to use her as a central figure in his early masterpiece “The Burning of Los Angeles” (where, in his description of the painting, West again uses the bird metaphor-this time of a bird in flight-for Faye as she runs from the apocalypse), and he is sympathetic to her ambition to be “a star.” But sensitive artist that he is, he cannot even rape Faye in his fantasies. Tod leaves Musso and Frank’s to walk down Hollywood Boulevard toward a movie palace where a premiere degenerates into a riot and where Tod sees Homer for the last time, driven mad by life and by his unfulfilled love for Faye, driven to stomp on the child Adore and be carried off by an equally vicious mob. Like Tod, the reader never knows what happens to Faye (Tod thinks of her as a self-sufficient cork that can bob along on any wave and survive) or what happens to Earle, Mig, or the other Hollywood strugglers he has met. The reader knows that Tod, although his leg has been injured, survives to paint “The Burning.”

Tod is neither the hunter and eater of freshly killed meat nor the withdrawn homebody who makes hasty meals from store-bought products. He is neither the predator who copulates and fights and doesn’t care too much about meanings, nor the timid soul who cannot lust without burning and consuming himself. Thus Tod survives and is not consumed and is also not a conspicuous consumer. If there is a consoling moral to be gleaned from “The Day of the Locust,” it is that that art provides the food for emotional survival, even if it doesn’t put food on the table or help to seduce self-sufficient and self-absorbed young Hollywood blondes.

 

RECIPES

 

Hollywood Hills Salmon Salad

 

Homer’s version was made with canned salmon and it can be used for this, but steamed, poached, or grilled fresh salmon is much better if you have leftovers. Faye enjoyed smearing gobs of  mayonnaise on her salad and usually the mayonnaise is mixed with the fish but this recipe offers it as a side option.

 

Crisp leaves of lettuce or other salad greens (a mix of romaine, endive, and spinach is nice)

2 cans of salmon or 9 oz. of fresh cooked salmon

4 or 5 cherry tomatoes or 2 large tomatoes cut in chunks

8 olives (preferably black)

¼ cucumber, sliced

2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Vinaigrette dressing or balsamic vinegar dressing or 2 tbsp olive oil mixed with juice of I lemon

Mayonnaise (optional)

 

Mash up salmon (mix with a dab of mayonnaise or yogurt if desired for creamier texture). Arrange greens in salad bowl. Add tomatoes, olives, cucumber, and egg slices. Add salmon in center of bowl. Pour dressing over salad gently and serve with mayonnaise on side for those who like it.

 

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