BRATTLEBORO -- Like good sausage, or a breakfast I once had in Manilla, Rebecca Coffey’s new book is filled with things I can’t describe and maybe don’t want to know about. I only know it’s wonderful.
Part mandatory English lit for people who’d rather be in culinary school and part home economics for English majors with their heads in the clouds, "Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake ... and Other ‘Recipes’ for the Intellectually Famished" is like no other book.
Coffey, a science journalist, humorist and longtime Putney resident, has created her own genre with this book of humorous "recipes" that fuse the literary and culinary worlds in smart, savvy, mischievous and completely funny ways.
Treating an author’s life work as if it were a recipe or gourmet dishes as if authors created them, Coffey serves up such intriguing dishes as Anaïs Nin’s Hot Cross Buns, The Coen Brothers’ Christmas Goose, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenfurters, Dorothy’s Parker House Rolls, Ian Fleming’s Lemon Caper Dip, Harper Lee’s How to Kill a Mockingbird, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Buns, John Steinbeck’s Crêpes of Wrath and several others.
She tells us what Ernest Hemingway would have done with his favorite bullfight souvenirs, what Freud was thinking when he handled raw fish and how Dante and Bob Dylan sound together. The book is unique, fun-to-read and good for laughs.
The project was born out of boredom, Coffey explained.
While recovering from Lyme Disease a couple of years ago, Coffey found herself with too much time, and thyme, on her hands.
"One of the problems with being sick is that it’s so boring. I would find myself exhilarated with the process of plucking thyme in my garden," she said.
At the time, she was working on a novel about Anna Freud (titled "Hysterical," it’s due out in 2014), cooking a lot and spending time on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which she calls "the premier humor site on the internet."
Particularly amused by the humorous lists she found on McSweeney’s, Coffey determined to write one herself. She put all these elements -- the worlds of literature and psychology, humor and short form writing -- into a blender and out came her first recipe.
"I just started thinking ‘How would you making angel food cake if you’re Nietzsche?’" she said.
Starting with the directions "Allow the angels to reach room temperature. Kill them," Coffey created the recipe and sent it off to McSweeney’s.
"He got back to me so fast I thought the e-mail had bounced," recalled Coffey, about the enthusiastic response she got.
Buoyed by that response, she began writing more, researching great writers and thinking, reading their works and dreaming up recipes about them.
"It was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done. I got to read great literature and criticism and write whatever I wanted about it," said Coffey, who also drew the illustrations in the book and has since recorded podcasts and done animations of her recipes, too. "I wrote the first batch and submitted them successfully, everywhere. ... I thought, ‘OK, there’s a collection here.’"
That collection is "Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake," which was published on Oct. 15 by Beck and Branch. This Friday, Coffey will read from her book at Everyone’s Books, 25 Elliot St., in Brattleboro at 6 p.m. In addition to reading, Coffey will serve delicacies from the book -- Ayn Rand’s Head Cheese, James Joyce’s Spotted Dick and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pickled Tomatoes.
"It will be a culinary experience with my victims," she said.
Indeed, some of the recipes in the book will actually help you create good food. Most provide nourishment of another kind -- laughter and a bit of learning.
"I wrote this book because I love literature," said Coffey. "It’s for people who love literature and who love to laugh. ... Part of what I wanted was to be mildly instructive."
Coffey, who, by trade, writes about such heady stuff as physics, chemistry and evolutionary biology for Scientific American and Discover magazines and elsewhere and is also a commentator on Vermont Public Radio, comes by humor honestly.
"Everybody is funny in my family," she said, pointing out that an older brother is "Dr. Science" on the radio, a younger brother is a comic juggler and a sister is a former performance artist.
Coffey came to realize, a bit accidentally, that she was funny, too, when she showed a friend a bit of her writing some years ago.
"I wrote what I thought was a serious and poignant short story, and she thought it was the funniest thing," Coffey recalled. "Gradually, it dawned on me that my take on the world is different."
For more information about Friday’s 6 p.m. reading, contact Everyone’s Books at 802-254-8160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about Coffey, visit www.rebeccacoffey.com.