LiterEature 101: The Handmaid’s Tale

strawberries too!Speculative fiction. Chances are the common reader won’t have heard of that term, much less know what it means. Generally, it is the umbrella term that includes all fantastic literature, including (as according to the Speculative Literature Foundation) “hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making — and more.” It can also be used for those works that don’t contain the stereotypical characteristics of science fiction, and more so, may feel more like a future not so far off from our own. The recent books I have read have fallen under this genre, and it leaves me with a disturbed notion of what our world is capable of. That is entirely the point; certain novels set out to challenge, examine, and criticize our current social structures, tendencies, and behaviors. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale brilliantly portrays a dystopian world that in some ways is not as far off from our own as I may have thought even a few years ago.Observations:

Currently there seems to be a growing war against women’s health. I never knew anything about this novel except that I ought to read it, and so I did without knowing how applicable it would be to current situations. What you essentially have is a dystopian world constructed around the complete minimization of people’s roles and the objectification of women into the most basic places in society. If women were stripped entirely of their rights (namely health-related), and the world (or even just the country, as it seems in the book) challenged the notions of choice, democracy, and freedom, then in some ways this book could easily come to life. Every person is subjugated to a role, man and woman alike, but the women carry the brunt of the society’s struggles and blame. Specifically, the fertile women–Handmaids–are forced to wear wed, a symbolic shout-out to The Scarlet Letter. The Power of their fertility is glorified and demonized, carrying a stigma that enforces a lack of kinship amongst women of different classes.

The titular handmaid’s identity is never revealed (only known as Offred, as in “the property OF FRED”) but truth lies in more than a name, and the reader is taken through her disjointed memories like a fragmented mirror, left to piece together her life. Reflections of the past and present bounce off each other and the reader becomes firmly aware of the difference between “Freedom to” and “Freedom from”. That’s one of the most poignant lines of the book, and encapsulates what we currently take for granted: The freedom TO DO that which we want, to achieve dreams and to be ourselves, whatever strife and pain comes with that. Would you choose those heartaches and struggles over the freedom FROM having to make any decisions, from having to carry so many responsibilities and from the many possibilities that may unfold?

Review:

Big fat love for this book. I couldn’t put it down due to extreme awe and ridiculous frustration; the sense of hopelessness infiltrates every pore, and yet the fact that this woman is telling her story makes you feel that she survived the ordeal and that cruel world does get better. (Spoiler: Indeed things do get better, and for once the structure of having read someone’s journal/transcript isn’t cheesily done. Rather it shows how trivially we may look at our own history sometimes, with what kind of novelty and curiosity. Heartening that there is a reprieve, but disappointing that we can’t honor the tragedy that our former generations and civilizations suffered through without levity).

Food factors majorly in the story as well. Anyone interested in reading a good article about that should read “Food for Survival in Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Worlds” by Kiyomi Sasame (from The Japanese Journal of American Studies, No 21 (2010)), which offers a well-developed examination of the symbolism of food as well as places that nurture food, eating, and bonding between women no matter how discreet or subtle. Eggs have a particular spotlight, from the soft boiled egg to the shattering of shells, and this choice is by no means random; what would typify the role of a woman better than something that only comes from women, and represents the complete reduction of a woman’s role in a patriarchal society? Certainly well done.

Definitely a favorite book of mine now, especially thematically in addressing the struggle, roles, and ultimately power of women no matter how reduced in stature. Even the smallest connection between two handmaids can make all the difference.

The Food:

I struggled on this for a while, hitting a bit of a roadblock. I wanted to make something that in my mind really captured the heart of the female spirit. So… I polled my friends, and basically 90% of my responses involved chocolate in some form. No surprise there, although it did get me thinking about the Westernized notion of womanhood, and in another time I’d love to do a study on the global culinary appetite and vision of the female spirit. Does chocolate really reign supreme?

Anyway, I will post details of the poll responses on our facebook page if you’re interested, but I did get some good feedback and thus developed two dishes I feel are iconic for the book.

First up: Asparagus and Onion Quiche

Because women are defined by their eggs, and in the book they are given absolutely no choices—there’s no room for what you like, what you prefer, what you desire—I therefore decided to make a decadent egg dish that completely challenges that and screams delicious, savory, and complex!

Ingredients

  • 1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 cup chopped asparagus (trimmed first)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 egg whites plus 1 yolk (You could just use 3 eggs, but I don’t like too much yolk)
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1/3 tsp chili powder
  • 2 cups grated cheese (Just loosely measured. I used 1 ¼ Wisconsin Pepper Jack and about ¾ mozzarella)
  • 1/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spread out your puff pastry sheet into a baking dish (I used a 9 in round one) and firmly pack it down. Prebake in the oven for 12 minutes to let it initially crisp up, and then remove. In a frying pan, sauté the chopped onions and asparagus in some olive oil for about 10-13 minutes, until the asparagus is crisp and tender. It will brighten up to a vibrant green. Set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs thoroughly and then add the remaining ingredients, mixing well. Add the veggies, giving a light stir and then pour everything into the prebaked puff pastry dish. Place back into the oven and bake for around 20-30 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean from the center. For me it took about 25 minutes.onions, asparagus, pepper jack, and fun

For best consistency, let it cool down a little; this will let the center set properly, and allow a golden hue to descend upon the entire dish. Serve immediately and enjoy.

And of course, Dessert: Chili Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce and Strawberries

This captured everything that speaks of a female: Desire for chocolate, Chili as the heat of our spirit, complexity of a sweet yet salted caramel—kick of appetizing saltiness to nurture the sweetness, and strawberries: fiercely red, naturally seductive, purely feminine.

Yum Yum, I got the Salted Caramel Sauce recipe from Brown Eyed Baker’s blog, which can be found here. The Cake recipe is an amalgamation of many different recipes, and thusly a concoction of my own.

Chili Chocolate Cake Ingredients (yields one 9 in round cake)

  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup hot water
  • 6 tbsp butter, room temperature
  • Scant 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp hot chili powder
  • A dash of clove powder
  • 1/3 cup sour cream

Preheat oven to 350° F. In one bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, chili and clove powder. In another small bowl combine the cocoa powder and hot water, mixing until smooth. Finally, in a large mixing bowl, churn the butter and sugar until superbly blended. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix medium speed. Reduce mixing speed to medium-low and alternate adding the dry ingredients and the sour cream (half of the dry, then the sour cream, and the last half of the dry). The batter should be airy and mousse-like.

Spread evenly into a greased cake pan, and bake for about 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick/knife comes out cleanly from the center. Mine took about 25 minutes.

Remove and let cool.

To serve, dice up a few strawberries and toss them in a little dash of balsamic vinegar and sugar. Slice the cake and drizzle caramel sauce on top (best to let both cake and sauce cool down sufficiently, else the sauce becomes very liquidy—not a problem for me, but to each their own), adding some strawberries as an enticing last touch.

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6 thoughts on “LiterEature 101: The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Great idea to combine reading with special dishes symbolizing the books. I’ve been wanting to read AHT for awhile but just haven’t gotten around to it. I, too, was deeply shaken by the politicization of women’s bodies and the right’s efforts to destroy women’s autonomy. Thank you for bringing attention to the important issue and for your decadent recipes in this post!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Jas! You really should read the book then! It’s crafted so well, and is emotionally striking. Part of me thought, “This couldn’t possibly happen–it’s too farfetched!” But then I see what battle women’s rights are under, how the body is valued (or not) and… yes, just read it. And then make the cake to console yourself 🙂 POssibly with some ice cream as well.

    • Thanks so much! Yes it was actually quite tasty… a moist, rich cake with just the right amount of kick! Definitely recommend trying it. I might try different spices another time, chipotle or something, just for the experience.

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