A Pike in the Basement

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A PIKE IN THE BASEMENT is a visually fascinating book in a way very rarely seen nowadays. Its elegant prose and vivid descriptions are matched by its sewn bindings and parchmentlike paper, and each chapter is headed by illustrations printed from appropriately carved wood engravings by Jonathan Gibbs. The whole effect is to make one feel that the book is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, just as many of Loftus’ descriptions are of small pockets of the empire tucked away and almost forgotten in places such as Lahore and Ambala.

The book is not organized in any easily discernible geographical, cultural, or culinary order; instead, the subjects wander from chapter to chapter, sometimes related, sometimes not. Loftus’ own ideas about travel seem best expressed by his reaction to the feeling of complacency; while in Greece, he discovered that the word “zesto” (Greek for “hot”) added greatly to his enjoyment of Greek food (tepid calamari not being the greatest of culinary experiences), and, as he wrote, “I began to think that I might stay. So I left immediately, heading north to Saloniki, to the Turkish border, towards Persia.” At the end of every chapter is an associated recipe and recommended wine; for example, Loftus’ chapter entitled “Shoot a Sheep for Breakfast,” which briefly chronicles his time as a laborer on some Australian sheep ranches, is accompanied by a recipe for Bulcamp Lamb, with suggestions for a claret or a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, depending on the season. Likewise, “In Praise of Pigs” ends with a recipe for Sausages and Red Cabbage, to be served with an Australian Shiraz or a Cornas from the Rhone, both made from the Syrah grape.

Each chapter is an anecdote complete unto itself, which makes the book a joy for bedtime reading, as it can be put down and picked up at odd intervals and still be enjoyed. Many readers, however, will probably wish to read this enticing book at one sitting, since it can also be dipped into again and again, whether for the recipes or for the talent of the writer.