You haven’t met Professor Melissa Malouf until you’ve met her house. The fiction writer has colored herself into the place like an abstract artist composes a self-portrait; its appointments are vibrant and unrestrained, personal, jolly in the utmost.
The front door is hot pink. In the kitchen, she picks colors out of her greenish-rainbow linoleum flooring and throws them about the room—into plates, wallpaper, those armchairs she pulled off the street and reupholstered. A coil of Christmas lights twinkles in the fireplace like it’s the portal to a fairy world.
I first visited the Malouf cottage on Monmouth Ave. two years ago during our fiction class’s holiday fête. A few weeks back, I was her partyguest again when the topic of conversation turned to her spring retirement date. In the kaleidoscope kitchen, I wondered aloud whether I’d ever see the place again. She asked if I might like to come over and cook sometime—and, oh, had I ever tried her pancake soufflé?
When we walk through that pink front door, the air is thick already with the smell of hot butter, made fuller by a note of nutmeg. Malouf, the consummate hostess, has set a gorgeous spread before us: bowls of fresh berries, orange juice and—stunningly craggy in a cast-iron skillet—the pancake soufflé itself, which turns out to be a Dutch Baby.
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It looks like a crater on Mars, she says. She cuts three pieces, produces a bowl of warm syrup—“Ladies, always heat your syrup”—and lets it run in little rivers over the bubbled surface of her slice. When I ask for powdered sugar, she presents it immediately, with a silver-plated spoon to boot. Between the velvety yellow of egg yolk and butter, the berries and the light dusting of sugar-snow, the dish is shot through with dazzling color.
It’s clear Prof. Malouf relishes surrounding herself with the rainbow’s full gamut: on her breakfast plate, in her home and in the people who fill it. Her partner of over 20 years is the prominent Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue, whose daughter Emma wrote the novel Room and its Oscar-nominated screenplay. And though she keeps a bevy of academics, artists and humanitarians close, her “most fabulous” dinner guest was Joan Didion.
Melissa Malouf can tell a good story because she knows about people. Well, she knows about most everything. We learn this while whipping up another pancake soufflé.
So here’s Melissa Malouf on...
“Here are all these ingredients, and if I put them together I can make something, unlike with writing, where all the pieces are in my head and the paper starts out blank. It’s just like with gardening, where you can say, ‘this bush is beautifully trimmed’ and just be done. And meanwhile I’ve been working on this paragraph since last night and it’s still not done.”
Among Malouf’s most memorable dishes are her Lebanese grandmother’s tabbouleh and a 25-spice pork whose sheer potency sent poor Denis Donoghue to the ER.
On the disarmingly rugged Tommy Thompson, who swaggered onto the ranch when she was a 14-year-old riding student: “He gave me a ring made out of a horseshoe nail and said ‘I want you to marry me, and I want you to stay a virgin for the next five years.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And then I said, ‘I need to call my mom.’”
(Afterwards, they enjoyed a coffee date while her mother watched from the parking lot. The engagement didn’t last.)
On her more recent partner, the Irish academic: “One of the things I learned from Denis is that he thinks that women are just such awesome and important creatures, way more than men. And I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I like this one.’”
“Never marry [a man] until he’s at least 30,” because (in a hushed, confiding tone) “the boys are more grown up then.”
“If I’m by myself, I’m okay. You don’t ever want to be in a position where you have to stay with a guy because he’s the only one who pays the rent.”
The Creative Process:
An assistant professorship in Houston—“just a terrible appointment”—left her low, lonely, and struggling to fictionalize a certain cowboy named Tommy Thompson. Miserable, she wrote on a sticky note, “I just have to live with this lump in my throat.”
And there it was: the inspiration. Her next protagonist was himself a storyteller who can hardly choke out his words for the physical lump in his throat. When he hacks the thing up, it turns out to be a magical seed, which grows into a tree bearing fruits of every kind.
On which aspect of her life today would most surprise 20-year-old Melissa: “the fact that I’m still alive.”
Did she think there was a reason she’d been kept on Earth this long?
“What an interesting question! Of course, I would say, because I’ve been able for the last 25 years to have this extraordinary partner in my life, who is fun and kind and sumptuous. So that’s just been a real gift to me, really great.”
“It’s all part of a long conversation—you’re dipping your oar into the whole river, going back as far as your reading goes back. So I could write something like ‘Alas, poor Margot’ in a short story and participate in that tradition.”
“Experience bioluminescence. It’s really important.”
Take her word for that one.
And before we go, here’s the recipe, which Malouf has been making since 1966. It’s simple; we got it together well enough even while dreaming of a sinuous Tommy Thompson riding the land.
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 pinch nutmeg
in a bowl and leave a little lumpy.
Then melt half a stick of butter in a 12-inch skillet. When all that fat is piping hot, pour in your batter (carefully!) and slide the thing into the oven at 425.
15-20 minutes later, it’s puffed to new heights and golden brown. Remove, and top it as you like.
We’re sure you won’t forget to heat your syrup.
Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled “Donoghue” and incorrectly referred to the cowboy Tommy Thompson as “Johnny Johnson.”