Several years ago, when I was writing for Tatler, I was invited to cover the Hennessy Gold Cup. A disparate, rather mismatched collection of celebrities populated the sponsor's box: a smattering of Windsors; Richard Madeley strode back and forth with an extremely serious expression - perhaps he had a large bet on. A newly thin Carol Vorderman. Small assemblies of aristos, both minor and major, ambled around, behatted. Salman Rushdie advised a gaggle of worshipful young ladies (incorrectly, it transpired, although with great charm) that a certain horse preferred to run the other way around a racecourse, and so would make a bad bet.
And I busied myself as I usually do at sporting events - in a serious investigation of the food. Hot pursuit of the canapés was every bit as exciting as the thundering hooves far below us on the Newbury course. Perhaps more exciting. A rather grand colleague drifted over to me as I was flagging down a passing tray of miniature devilled eggs. "Your people", he observed, eyeing me over his cognac, "do like to eat."
Well yes, we do. And where's the shame? Jews and food - everyone knows it, and so it was impossible to take offense. I might easily have replied that his people do like to drink, but as he was deep into his fourth cocktail of the afternoon it hardly needed pointing out. We found one another equally amusing.
And so it was inevitable that my first book, The Innocents, a contemporary novel of manners set in Jewish north-west London, would emphasise the importance - one might even say the dominance - of meals in Jewish family life. Friday night dinner as a symphony performed in the key of M&S; a breakfast buffet in an Eilat hotel as a concerto of carbohydrates, described with love, and in detail. It's something my novel shares (with pride, I may say) with Jami Attenberg's lovely book The Middlesteins, although Attenberg has taken this emphasis several steps further. The Middlesteins' 300lb diabetic matriarch is literally killing herself with sugar and fat, and it is testament to the power of these lyrical, near-sexual descriptions of food that readers are actually tempted to pick up a burger and join her.
In The Innocents, Adam Newman is newly engaged to Rachel, his girlfriend of 13 years. He has long been considered part of her family. He is already heir presumptive at her father's law firm, and has been going to the football with him since he was a teenager. Adam has never questioned what he wanted - a safe, steady, settled life with Rachel, supported by and integrated into his community - until Rachel's cousin, Ellie, moves home from New York. Ellie is Rachel's antithesis. She's independent, vulnerable, promiscuous - and Adam, who is slightly pompous as the novel opens, disapproves of almost everything about her, and is drawn to her nonetheless. Fans of Edith Wharton might recognise a silhouette here, as the plot was loosely drawn from Wharton's magnum opus, The Age of Innocence. I simply borrowed a matrix from Wharton as the perfect vehicle for exploring questions of my own - questions about community, about independence, about growing up, and about the role of marriage, both in the twenty-first century, and in a twenty-first century Jewish community. They're not, as it turns out, quite the same thing.
Jami Attenberg and I will be speaking together at Jewish Book Week on 'Marriage in the Suburbs', another intersection of themes within our novels. But I would argue that in a Jewish home (and book), food and marriage are intimately connected - certainly food and family are. Cooking is a way of showing love, of offering sustenance, and Shabbat dinner in particular is of primary importance, although of course the same is true in many non-Jewish families where one can substitute Sunday lunch or any other regular gathering. I'm very much looking forward to the discussion. I met Jami for the first time in New York last week and so I now know another key facts about her - not only is the new book is excellent, but she makes fantastic maple syrup cookies. Which (see any paragraph above) is almost as important.
The Jewish Community Centre for London in association with Jewish Book Week presents Marriage in the Suburbs on Sunday 24 February, 8pm at Kings Place, 90 York Way, N1 9AG - Francesca Segal discusses her book The Innocents with Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins. To book tickets go to www.jewishbookweek.com
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