Food and Adultery

The lover had ordered steak and onions, the girl hesitated for a moment to take the onions because her husband didn’t like the smell, the lover was hurt and angry because he realized what was behind her hesitation, which brought to his mind the inevitable embrace on her return home. (Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

As I’ve written elsewhere food is commonly associated with romance: seductive encounters and marriage proposals frequently take place over meals both in life and literature. And that link between romance and food extends beyond the parameters of the socially acceptable and conventionally moral to the more morally dubious and problematic encounters.

Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair (published 1951) is a retrospective account of the adulterous affair between the narrator, Maurice Bendix, and the married Sarah Miles – and its aftermath. The novel opens with a chance encounter between Maurice and Sarah’s dull but decent civil servant husband, Henry Miles, on Clapham Common in January 1946 more than eighteen months after Sarah unexpectedly and without explanation broke off the affair. Henry’s stated concern on that rainy evening in January 1946 that Sarah might be having an affair – ironically he had no suspicions during Sarah and Maurice’s affair – leads the angry and jealous Maurice on a journey to find out both whether she now has a new lover and why she broke off their affair.

The passage quoted above comes from the beginning of Sarah and Maurice’s affair. They meet in 1939 at a party at Henry and Sarah’s house. On their second date Maurice, who is a writer, suggests they go to the cinema to see a film of one of his books. Initially Maurice thinks the date is a disaster:

The film was not a good film, and at moments it was acutely painful to see situations that had been so real to me twisted into the stock cliches of the screen. I wished I had gone to something else with Sarah.

He apologises to Sarah, and repeatedly says, ‘“That’s not what I wrote, you know”’. However, his opinion changes with the above scene when the lovers go out for a meal. The woman’s hesitation about the onions – which her husband will be aware of when he kisses her on her return home – awakens her lover’s jealousy. It is at this point for Maurice that the ‘film came to life’. He realises that, through this ‘common simple episode’ he has been able to ‘convey the sense of passion … without any rhetoric in words or action’.

Normally cynical and pessimistic, Maurice notes that ‘For a few seconds I was happy’ – and in this brief moment of delight the joy of writing overwhelms any desire for the woman sitting beside him in the cinema: ‘I wished, how I wished, that I hadn’t invited Sarah Miles to dinner.’

But he has. And so when the film is over they go to Rules, the oldest London restaurant, established in 1798. And in Rules, with life mirroring art, Sarah and Maurice both order steak. As the steaks arrive, Sarah comments ‘”There was one scene you did write”’. At the very moment she recognises that the steak and onion scene came from Maurice’s pen, ‘a dish of onions was put on the table’. Maurice asks if Henry minds onions. Sarah says ‘”Yes. He can’t bear them“’ and – without the fictional lover’s hesitation – helps herself to some. Her act, as with Maurice’s jealous lover, ‘convey[s] the sense of passion … without any rhetoric in words or action’ and it has a devastating emotional effect on Maurice:

Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions? It seems improbable and yet I could swear it was just then that I fell in love.

Steak and onions is not currently on the menu at Rules – – though lots of other wonderful sumptuously-sounding dishes are. This is my recipe – rest assured: whether you are single, married or otherwise involved this makes a delicious meal.

Ingredients (for two):
2 rump or sirloin steaks
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into thick wedges
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water
Salt and pepper

Marinate the steaks in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the crushed garlic and salt and pepper for 15 minutes.
Whilst the steak is marinating heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the onion until soft – this will take about 7 minutes. Add the granulated sugar, balsamic vinegar and water and simmer for another 3 minutes until the onions are soft.
Remove the onions from the frying pan and keep warm. Using the same pan, cook the steaks to your liking – 2 minutes on each side should give you medium-rare steaks, though it will depend on their thickness.
Serve the steaks with the onions and your chosen accompaniment – I chose mashed potato.



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