With his dark beard, round glasses, and ironic gaze, there’s something about Ian Sansom that reminds one of a professor from the late 19th Century, an intellectual from someplace in Eastern Europe, perhaps. Which isn’t to say that he’s always serious – or at least, it’s not easy to tell when he’s joking. Like, for example, when I ask him what he associates with the word “book”, and he answers “potatoes”. Potatoes? Maybe I heard wrong. «Potatoes!» He repeats. «In Ireland, potatoes are the side dish par excellence. They go with everything. A book is like a potato – it’s always appropriate, in any situation!»
Ian Sansom is an English literary critic and writer who lives in Ulster. And it’s impossible to look at him and not think immediately of the flesh-and-blood version of Israel Armstrong, the fictional librarian that Sansom writes about in the books that have made him famous all over the world. In theMobile Library series, Israel Armstrong, himself a fish out of water, finds himself touring around the “North of Northern Ireland” in a book-filled bus, which aren’t uncommon in the rural areas of Europe.
Sansom’s character Armstrong is an intellectual who is almost completely unsuited for dealing with real life: he dreams of living in New York and having breakfast with Paul Auster, and instead he finds himself living in a restructured chicken coop in the imaginary country of Tundrum, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rural country types who are decidedly un-bookish. This contrast is ever-present in his Mobile Library series, and continually provides an endless array of exhilaratingly hilarious situations to which a reader can quickly become addicted. Like opening a bag of crisps, as soon as you finish one of Sansom’s books you immediately want to begin another.
Ah, speaking of food: Israel Armstrong is a vegetarian. Like the author himself, perhaps? «No, not at all! I love a good dish of meat! I just thought, intellectually that making the character vegetarian would be another way of distancing Israel from the residents of Tundrum, who look at him as if he were an alien. I think that sometimes vegetarians lack a bit of irony: there’s something exhilarating about eating the cute little animals from our childhood books, if you think about it.»
Sansom’s vaguely ascetic aspect makes it a challenge to understand his relationship with food. When I ask him, he answers, «I love to cook! I’m the cook of the house and I have to admit I love cooking even more than I love eating. I’m the champion of roasted lamb, nobody can beat me.» And his family agrees? «Seeing as I’m the only one who cooks, they have to adapt. Obviously they do what any proper family does: they complain constantly.» I realise that he might not be merely joking when I ask him what food he would be, if he had to pick a dish that represented him. At first he looks at me strangely, as if I were one of the odd inhabitants of Tundrum. Then he smiles, with an irreverent glint in his eyes – I’m sure it’s the same look that comes over him when he writes. «You know what I would be? A pasta with tuna left too long in the oven. Overcooked, but highly nutritious, even though it’s not haute cuisine!» I think of Sansom’s family gathered around the table waiting for a meal he’s prepared and I get a little shiver. Maybe they’re not entirely in the wrong to complain.
«In my opinion,» says Sansom, «the taste of family is sweet. Every Sunday my mother would prepare a magnificent apple cake with cream. That taste and the smell that would waft throughout the house...it’s the flavour of childhood, the smell of family.» And friends? What food reminds him of friendship? «Sausages dipped into an enormous jar of Dijon mustard.» And the taste of love? «Buttered toast.» The taste of sadness? «Bitter herbs.» And happiness? «Bitter herbs.» I look at him, surprised. Then he adds, «It depends on the mood you’re in when you eat them, and what you are looking to find.»
Israel Armstrong, the main character of his novels, loves just one thing about Northern Ireland: a brand of cheese-flavoured crisps that can only be found there. Is it the same for the author? «No. But I’m still craving the cheese scones that I’d eat in the cafeteria in the Cambridge library. I could eat them until I die!» Personally, I’m quite happy that Sansom no longer lives in England: if he died from eating too many scones then I wouldn’t be able to read any more of his books, which have become a very pleasant habit for me. Just as I am about to say goodbye, the coffees that we ordered at the beginning of our chat finally arrive. «Are we already done?» asks Sansom, disappointed. «What a pity, I was having fun. It’s the first time somebody asks me about anything other than books and literature! We should do this more often. If you stop by my house, I could invite you to lunch sometime.» I would enjoy that, but perhaps I’ll do the cooking.
Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.