This is a transcription of ‘LoLT: Nun Cookies in Spain & New Books — 21 October 2022’
Melissa: Coming up, an adventure story that begins in an unusual theater.
David: A bittersweet walk through London.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: I am really looking forward to reading The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn.
Melissa: This is an adventure story set in the early 20th century. The heroine is an orphan — I love a story with a plucky orphan at its heart. Her name is Cristabel Seagrave, and it sounds like she is very put-upon indeed. She’s being raised by unloving stepparents because her father died in a horse riding accident! She also has a governess that’s described as brisk.
Melissa: One night, in 1928, a whale washes up on the shores of the English Channel. She and her siblings do the only reasonable thing. They build a theater from the whale’s rib cage and put on plays!
Melissa: By the time Cristabel is a young woman, Europe is in the throes of World War II. So, she and her brother put their theater skills to use again. They become British secret agents. Their missions take them into Nazi-occupied France. I feel like the author Joanna Quinn was peeking at my list of favorite things to find in a story.
Melissa: This is the author’s first novel. The New York Times said it’s quote absolute aces and The Washington Post said the author has a deft way of depicting lost worlds like a fading seaside aristocracy, a training school for British agents, and a Parisian theater in wartime. That all sounds great to me! It’s The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn, and it’s out now.
David: My book is The Hero of This Bookby Elizabeth McCracken. This book is funny and charming and well-written and engaging. I have a copy, and I was writing this, I kept picking it up and reading large chunks of it, just because I enjoyed the writer’s voice. And I need you to hear all of that because the premise isn’t necessarily going to take you there.
David: The premise is that the narrator is a writer – an unnamed writer, although it feels very much like a thinly veiled autobiography. That writer’s mother has recently died. And the writer is taking a walk through London, which was one of her mother’s favorite cities.
David: And so it all comes out. It’s a portrait of the writer and the mother and their complex relationship. There’s also a strong sense of London. There’s grief and there’s release and there’s a fair chunk about writing and how that art plays against all of this. Here’s a paragraph from the book …
My father loved trains, and my mother took many to humor him, including, when they were in their mid-seventies, from Copenhagen to Prague, switching in Cologne. My father had gone ahead with the luggage while my mother walked alongside the cars, wondering how to board. She hadn’t figured it out by the time the train pulled out of the station. Aboard, my father understood that my mother was on the platform, panicked, looked around, saw the emergency-stop cord, considered things for half a moment, and pulled. The train stopped; my mother was lofted by the hands of half a dozen Germans, light as a feather, and everyone involved agreed that this was a reasonable use of the passenger emergency brake.
‘And was that a lifelong dream of yours, to pull the cord for a good reason?’ I asked when my father told me the story.
‘Yes,’ he said quietly, moved to be so understood.
David: That’s The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
Melissa: One of the things I love about cities with medieval old towns is that there are hidden spots where magical things can happen. Here in Prague, there are sort of tunnels between buildings called passaz. From the street, it just looks like a doorway, but inside, you might find a cozy little bookshop or a hidden cafe with delicious coffee and pastries.
Melissa: As you listen to this, we’re visiting Madrid. On our self-guided walking tour of the city, we’re going to a hidden window where we will buy cookies. From nuns. Hidden nun cookies.
Melissa: On a narrow side street lined with imposing brick buildings, there’s a heavy wooden door that leads to an Augustinian Convent. The Monasterio del Corpus Christi. It’s home to cloistered nuns — that means that from the time they join the convent, they never go outside.
Melissa: Next to the door is a sign that says Venta de Dulce, which means, roughly, Sweets Sale. And there’s a buzzer marked Monjas. That means nuns.
Melissa: Inside, there’s a long hallway. At the end is a big lazy susan called a torno. That’s where the magic happens. Without seeing the sisters, you can order cookies from a posted menu that’s written in Spanish and English. There are orange-flavored cookies, shortbread dusted with confectioner’s sugar, lemon biscuits, and more. You have to request your cookies in Spanish, then the torno will spin, and the cookies will appear.
Melissa: You then place Euros next to the cookies, and let the sister know by knocking on the torno. As it spins, the money disappears and the delicious homemade cookies are ready to be picked up. This monastery was founded in Madrid in 1607. Selling cookies, rosaries, and prayer books is a way for the nuns to make a living while staying cloistered from the outside world.
Melissa: They’re not the only ones. There are more than 900 nunneries in Spain and about 1/3 of them make and sell sweets. According to culinary legend, the nuns of the Convent San Clemente in Toledo invented marzipan. In the 11th century, when there was no wheat for bread, the sisters mixed sugar with almonds to make marzipan instead. You can also find cloistered cookies in Barcelona, Sevilla, Avila, and Granada. And every year, the city of Salamanca hosts the Feria de los Dulces de as Monjas — that’s the Fair of the Nuns’ Sweets. It showcases cookies baked at all the area’s convents.
Melissa: We will surely put photos of our sweet convent adventures on Instagram, so follow us there if you want to see our cookies.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more details about the nun cookies of Spain and the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock.
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