This is one of those classics, one that nearly everyone has read one time or another. However, while I admire John Steinbeck’s clear and concise writing style, I can’t say that I’ve read too many of his works. I’ve only encountered The Grapes of Wrath (and enjoyed it, mostly) and The Pearl (loved it). He’s not known for painting pictures of literary escapism, but rather, his books tend to provide subtle commentary on human nature by telling the stories of ordinary people. There are no whirlwind adventures or captivating scenes in this novella, but it did force me to think about the many reasons why we read.
Tortilla Flat is so short, you guys. It’s only 158 1/2 pages long, but I reallllyyyy struggled to get through it at first. The beginning was charming. The main character is Danny, a paisano (person of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and Caucasian mixed heritage) who inherits two houses after “serving” in WWI, and the book chronicles the deeds and everyday happenings of Danny and his friends. As the first sentence of the preface puts it:
This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house.Tortilla Flat, Preface
Each chapter tells a different day’s happenings featuring different characters at different times, but one common theme seems to prevail–Danny’s friends have a noble idea, they come into something of value that will help them achieve their goal, they completely abandon the original quest and use their thing of value to obtain wine.
A few chapters in, I started to get frustrated with the book. What on earth was its point? I can only feel empathy for people who keep making the same mistakes toward each other for so long. There’s a conversation between a few of the characters that adequately describes how I felt. Indeed, this passage sort of feels like Steinbeck is providing commentary on Totilla Flat directly to the reader:
‘It is not a good story. There are too many meanings and to many lessons in it. Some of the lessons are opposite. There is not a story to take into your head. It proves nothing.’
‘I like it,’ said Pablo. ‘I like it because it hasn’t any meaning you can see, and still it does seem to mean something, I can’t tell what.’Tortilla Flat, Chapter XIV
However, toward the end, I started to get it. For all of their flaws, the characters in this novel were meant to portray reality. They are not painted in good or bad light. They are portrayed as normal paisano people living in Monterey, CA, after the first World War, and Steinbeck is here to shine some life on that way of life. Reportedly, Steinbeck actually felt a little regret after sharing the stories of the paisano people because some readers enjoyed the novel not for its intended purpose but because they enjoyed the “spectacle” of the adventures of the lower class “peasants.” You can read about that here. It shows that Steinbeck’s intention was to never degrade the characters.
It’s not the type of book I’d go for most often these days, but I am really glad I read Tortilla Flat. We don’t just read for entertainment. We read to relate to others, to learn, to challenge our own thoughts and beliefs. This book brought me back to that state of mind, and though the writing is simple, there are so many underlying themes that I could discuss them for days (but I’ll spare you). One big one is the burden material possessions bring. It asks the question if one can ever truly be free if he is tied to the responsibility of possession. Steinbeck also has a great talent for dry, sarcastic humor, and you can find his little witticisms peppered throughout, though you’ll never really be sure if he’s joking or not. All in all, I would recommend that everyone read this book. It’s beauty is that we’ll all get something different out of it.
Chocolate-Red Wine Bundt Cake
I chose this recipe because “wine” might actually be the most used word in this book. It seemed that some sort of wine-centered dessert was my only real option, as the characters rarely indulge in anything sweet. This pairing turned out to be a great match because though the cake is deceptively simple, once you delve into it, it is deceptively rich and complex, much like Tortilla Flat.
I found the recipe used here over at Food & Wine’s website.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Then, gather the following ingredients:
- 12 -up Bundt cake pan
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: soften your butter by leaving it out at room temperature at least a few hours before you start baking.)
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups dry red wine (I used Merlot.)
- Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
- Whipped cream, for serving (Make your own using this recipe.)
Grease your bundt pan with either baking spray or flour and butter. Then, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa.
Cream the butter and sugar together until whipped and fluffy.
Once you reach that level of fluffiness, beat the eggs in one at a time. Add in the vanilla and beat well for a few more minutes. Next, alternately add in a bit of the wine and the dry ingredients, stirring slowly between each addition.
Be very careful not to over mix! Once mostly incorporated, I removed the batter from the mixture and used a rubber spatula to finish it off.
Pour your batter into the bundt pan and level. It’s helpful to knock the pan against the counter to ensure that the batter lays evenly.
Bake for 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Once done, cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Then, remove from the pan (carefully!–I ended up splitting my cake) and cool on the rack until cooled completely. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream!
Enjoy! Do you have thoughts about John Steinbeck or wine desserts? Let me know below!