People of cold-wintered climates have fantasized for centuries about the warmth, sensuality, and spiciness of exotic Morocco. Romantic artists, musicians, and poets often depicted such fantasies. John Keats, the youngest and most sensual of the British Romantic poets, exemplified this imaginative preoccupation—at one point with a wonderfully gustatory flair.
"The Eve of St. Agnes" is Keats's long hymn to rapture in a physical world. The poem highlights his worldly approach to spirituality, reflecting his fine knack for setting up evocative contrasts. Keats glorifies the senses, including the sense of taste. Set in the depths of winter, this tale of heightened warmth and love, exotic feasting, and sensual delight is made ironic by interplay with the spiritual. But we must wait for the abundant banquet in this poem.
The drama opens with a symbolic Beadsman performing his penance in the castle of Madeline's family. In the bitter cold, with his natural affinity for fasting and asceticism, the Beadsman prays for immediate ascent to heaven—without even the intervention of death:
St. Agnes' Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold,
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in wooly fold.
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.
The Beadsman's icy piety sets up a contrast with the middle of the poem, in which Keats recounts the most passionate part of a wintry version of Romeo and Juliet. Madeline, the heroine, loves Porphyro, a sworn enemy of her family.
Bridesmaid-superstitionists of the past century believed that if they placed a piece of fresh wedding cake under their pillows, they would dream of their future husbands. In Keats's earlier tale, the virginal Madeline believes that the night before the January feast of St. Agnes (St. Agnes' Eve), she will be able to see her future husband in her dreams—if she goes to bed without dinner ("supperless to bed"). Oh yeah, by the way, dreamers: She must also "couch supine their beauties, lily white" (i.e., sleep undressed, on her back)!
As Madeline sleeps under guard of superstition (naked, on her back), Porphyro makes his way across the moors to the hostile castle. He slips past oblivious drunken revelers, in pursuit of his private union. With the reluctant help of the pious, frightened nurse Angela, an elderly friend of the family, Porphyro creeps forth to gaze on Madeline's form as she lies in the moonlight "in azure-lidded sleep"—an erotic image juxtaposed with the chaste quality of her "blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd." Porphyro then arranges a feast for the fasting maiden, one full of rare delicacies reflecting the exotic Middle Eastern tradition of preparing meals with sweet cooked fruits and elaborate spices. Unlike in Christianity, medieval Muslim theology involved a conception of heaven as a realm of sensual delight and therefore included no injunction against pleasure:
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies smoother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon,
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
From Fez; and spiced dainties, everyone,
From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.
The reference to "manna" recalls the heavenly food that God provided Moses and his people as they were tested in the desert. Puritan poets such as Andrew Marvell celebrated the purity of this sacral sustenance. But here, in Keats's description, that manna is "transferr'd from Fez," along with all manner of "spiced dainties."
In one draft of the poem, Keats describes this exotic and "delicious food" as the equivalent of a sacrifice in a dream, one that can "touch" Madeline's "palate" with "the fine extreme / Of relish." Though Keats's depiction of a purifying ritual may seem decadent, the impulse that drives it is not unlike that of the biblical Song of Songs, which celebrates youthful passion in highly sensual terms.
Keats's musical language, including his elaborate Spencerian rhyme scheme, plays the measures most in harmony with the Romantic soul. These lovely sounds, these vividly visual images ("candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd"; "And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon"), and tactile terms such as "smooth" and "silken"—all heighten the full range of our sensual responses, not least of all our gustatory response.
By the way, are you, like us, wondering how Porphyro manages to arrange and prepare this sensuous, sacrificial feast? Where does he find the exotic ingredients? Is the closet some kind of larder stocked with expensive items brought in over distant trade routes? Where does Porphyro find the equipment he needs? (Hoffritz didn't yet exist!) Keats just has his lusty young hero place everything "with glowing hand" on the table beside his lover's bed.
The poet is slipping one by us, just as Porphyro has slipped by the castle revelers and nurse Angela! Keats believed in the spiritual power of the Imagination to help us escape our mortal confines; and we are within the fairy realm of a quiet chamber, surrounded by a drunken ball, within an imaginary castle: But only Madeline is dreaming. Keats's hero Coleridge coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief." Just as it will be up to Madeline, so is it up to us to suspend our doubts in service to the story.
How does the story end? Madeline wakes from her ardent fantasy within the "iced stream" of her sleep to see Porphyro exactly as she had envisioned him in her dream. It is as if Eve has dreamed Adam. Mistaking him for her fantasy, Madeline invites the real Porphyro to become part of that dream, and they consummate their love. Madeline experiences shock and fear when she realizes that her lover has seduced her with this improbable feast and deceived her into mistaking him for an illusion: "No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!"
Still, Keats does not let Madeline's disillusionment win. The passion here is complemented by the innocence of the couple. In the original version of this scene (which Keats's publishers thought too graphic to include), the ethereal glamour of the couple is marvelously and ironically contrasted with their physicality. This naturalistic, rapturous fruition, like the afterglow of joy the lovers take in the feast they have consumed, becomes the heaven they take with them when they escape the castle and flee into the night "like phantoms."
The penitent Beadsman and nurse Angela perfectly balance the pairing of young lovers by providing stark contrast. Keats reminds us of the inexorability of time: The Beadsman "slept among his ashes cold"; and Angela dies "palsy-twitched"—a fate anticipated by her pious and sinful fears. We are told this all happened "ages long ago," which means Porphyro and Madeline have also long been dead—yet the image of young passion is as if immortalized.
The fantastic romance of "The Eve of St. Agnes" was built upon real, alive, personal experience. Written when Keats was falling in love and anticipating marriage, the poem sanctifies glowing warmth and physical rapture against the wintry background of everything that might seek to extinguish such a passion. Aware of the limits of the actual world and the discipline required of the writer, Keats still strove in his life, love, and art to feast to the fullest.
In the deepest cold of winter, this sensuous Romantic poem full of delightful contrasts provides a delectable, passionate partner for the glorious Moroccan feast of Braised Lamb Shanks or Short Ribs, Moroccan-Spiced Bastilla, and all the exotic dishes celebrated in this section.
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Moroccan Braised Lamb Shanks or Short Ribs
Every fruit has its secret.
The fig is a very secretive fruit.
—D. H. LAWRENCE, FROM "FIGS"
Regardless of whether you make it with lamb or short ribs, this dish is a stunner. The meat—browned braised, moist, tender, and practically swooning in its own juices—is already one of the wonders of the winter kitchen. The fruit-chewy, oven-luscious, and distinct but complementary tangs of apricot and figs lend deep, unmistakable shades of the Near East. Luminously warming spices, including homemade harissa—it lasts for months and takes just minutes to make—make up the third wondrous element. When these three elements are combined, they cast a spell on your heart, transporting you to a fabled Keatsean version of the old medina in Fez.
SERVES 4 T0 8
4 pounds lamb shanks (4 to 6 shanks) or 4 pounds beef short ribs, on the bone
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons aroma-free coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil
4 cups thin sauté-sliced red onion (page 35)
1 tablespoon fresh harissa paste (recipe follows)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger (from a l-inch piece)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt
1 (12-ounce) jar roasted red peppers, drained and cut into thin strips, or 4 freshly roasted peppers, peeled and cut into thin strips
4 cups chicken, lamb, or beef stock
1 cinnamon stick
3 bay leaves
1 cup unsulfured apricots, sliced into thirds
1 cup dried figs (preferably black mission), quartered
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
2. Pat the lamb shanks dry and sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper. Warm the oil in a large, wide pot (such as a 6-quart Dutch oven) over medium-high heat until a hand held an inch above the pot feels uncomfortably hot. Add the shanks—they should sizzle when they touch the hot oil—and brown for about 5 minutes. Flip and brown for another 3 to 4 minutes on the second side. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
3. Pour off all but a thin film of oil. Lower the heat to medium-low. Add the onions and cook, stirring from time to time, until softened, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the harissa, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, and salt. Cook stirring continuously, for 2 minutes more to release the heady aroma of the Moroccan spices.
5. Stir in the roasted peppers and stock along with the cinnamon stick and bay leaves. Return the shanks and any accumulated juices to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Transfer the pot to the oven and braise for 2 1/2 hours until tender, basting the shanks a couple of times during the cooking.
6. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. (This is good to do the day before. See the Cook's Note if you are pressed for time.) Scrape off and discard the fat that has accumulated on the surface.
7. About an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 350°F.
8. Strew the apricots and figs over the shanks. Cover the pot and return to the oven to reheat for 20 to 30 minutes, until heated through. You can also do this on the stovetop: simmer gently for 20 minutes, until the shanks are heated through and the dried fruit is tender but chewy. Remove and discard the bay leaves and cinnamon stick.
9. If you want, thicken the sauce by removing and pureeing 1 cup of the fruit and onions, then stirring the puree back in. Alternatively, use an immersion blender to buzz some of the sauce right in the pot, making sure to move the shanks aside.
10. Serve the shanks hot, draped with the sauce.
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About the Authors
Myra Kornfeld is a chef, educator, and the author of three previous cookbooks, The Healthy Hedonist, The Healthy Hedonist Holidays, and The Voluptuous Vegan. She teaches in the graduate nutrition program at the Maryland University of Integrative Health and at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and she is head chef for the website myfoodmyhealth.com. She specializes in cooking parties and team-building events.
Stephen Massimilla is a poet, scholar, professor, and painter. Acclaim for his books includes a Stephen F. Austin University Press Prize; the Bordighera Poetry Prize; the Grolier Poetry Prize; and a Van Rensselaer Award, selected by Kenneth Koch. His work has appeared in hundreds of publications. He holds an MFA and a PhD from Columbia University and teaches literature, food ethics, and writing at Columbia University and The New School.