Eating My Words: To the Lighthouse’s Boeuf en Daube

Rebecca Peters-Golden

by Rebecca Peters-Golden on March 24, 2014

Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden
In a shimmering novel of recollection, emotion, and longing, the Boeuf en Daube that Mrs. Ramsay serves at her famous dinner party might be most concrete thing in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

“An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion . . .” (100).

Boeuf en Daube from To the Lighthouse, via goodfoodstories.com
It is a recipe, Mrs. Ramsay explains, from her French grandmother. Daube is a Provençal stew that gets its name from the daubière (the terra cotta pot) it is cooked in, which doesn’t allow for evaporation of the cooking liquid, since the stew is traditionally made with less tender cuts of meat.

To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, the same year as the publication of the final volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which I also wrote about in an installment of “Eating My Words.” Both are modernist works that are noted for their use of stream of consciousness, though where Proust’s madeleines trigger a waterfall of sensation and memory, Woolf is more likely to scatter tiny bombs of culinary deliciousness throughout her works.

The extended scene of guests enjoying Boeuf en Daube in To the Lighthouse, then, is unusual in Woolf’s work, despite her clear fondness for description in general. Still, though she is often remembered as rather severe and ascetic, she is also the woman who penned the line immortalized in many a sampler and pseudo-literary serving platter, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (A Room of One’s Own, 18).

Boeuf en Daube from To the Lighthouse, via goodfoodstories.com
To the Lighthouse is a book about vision: visions of the past, perception of the present, artistic visions. And, clearly, culinary vision, because this stew is freaking delicious. Some recipes (Julia Child’s, for example) scent Boeuf en Daube with cinnamon, orange, and cloves, but I prefer a more Provençal flavor signature, with olives and capers, and I add bacon and brandy to give it a mellow smokiness.

Mildred, Mrs. Ramsay’s cook, spent three days preparing her Boeuf en Daube. Don’t worry; mine doesn’t take nearly as long. Mrs. Ramsay (clearly not a fan of leftovers) says, “Everything depended upon things being served up the precise moment they were ready” (80). To the contrary, this stew is equally delicious the next day, cold or reheated. It’s often served alone or over noodles. I love to dip huge chunks of bread slathered with butter into it. Mmm, y’all, “I have had my vision” for sure (209).

RPGRebecca is a writer living in Philadelphia. When not writing fiction and poetry, she blogs about young adult books at Crunchings & Munchings and copy edits at Hermes Editing. She likes bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and cheese. But mostly cheese.

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