Michelle Wildgen had established her reputation as the resident gourmand in Tin House’s New York office, where she was then managing editor, long before I set foot there in the mid-aughts. In need of obscure spices, olive oil, fresh mozzarella? Michelle would promptly send you up to 125th Street, down to Vinegar Hill, off to an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. She regaled the office with English toffee before the winter holidays, showing her behind-the scenes-mastery of the candy thermometer. Rumor of an enigmatic past as a cheese reporter in Wisconsin trailed her. It became obvious, quickly, that for Michelle, food was central as a medium, as a subject, as a way of life. She gave me recipes for dishes I loved to eat but didn’t know the first thing about how to approach. Chana masala, for example, which at that point I ordered from an Indian joint in my neighborhood at least twice a week. Upon request, she also supplied me with a list of must-have cookbooks, which included Nigel Slater’s Appetite, the perennial classic Joy of Cooking, and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. Part of me still holds on to the idea of becoming a culinary goddess, but with each passing bout of inspiration I’ve learned that this desire to up the ante in the kitchen only lasts until I’m confronted by my own knives and cutting board and sink. This doesn’t diminish the pleasure I take in dining, of course, or overhearing an explicit description of a lavish feast. And so, for a while I lived vicariously while working with Michelle and listening to her mastery and enthusiasm for food, her robustness of detail. Those were hopeful years for me.
Food plays a central, steady, and rather predictable role in most of our lives. Three meals a day, coffee with breakfast, nightcap before bed. Or, if that’s not right, perhaps it’s coffee for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, dinner out, and a nip of dark chocolate after? To each her own. Continuing to consume is necessary to continue living but this ongoing cycle of hunger and feeding doesn’t usually incite a predicament in the way that narrative fiction requires.
And just how many meals do characters prepare? How many do they eat? Oh, there are significant meals. There are wedding banquets and funeral meats. The tears of longing that fall into the wedding cake batter in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate afflicts each wedding guest who has a piece. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus ends with a banquet where the guests are served a pie filled with meat cut from the bodies of Titus’s daughter’s assailants. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way is forever linked to the madeleine because of an ecstatic memory of a morsel of that small French cake. And that’s not Proust’s only paean to food in Swann’s Way. His description of the kitchen scullions at work and the rows of all things vegetables sent me into a deep hunger the first time I read it:
I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations of their white feet — still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed — with an iridescence that was not of this world.
Proust’s peas and asparagus evoke the 19th-century still lives of Édouard Manet, whose numerous depictions of kitchen stock and cuisine include a hare hung by the legs and a platter of raw oysters accompanied by lemon wedges. Consider also Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and its portraits of food. The rhythm and sound come together to convey the object’s essence, making Stein’s “Asparagus” a different stripe than Proust’s. But Stein’s cubist rendering also aspires to art: “Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.”
A chef knows how to stiffen the egg whites so that the soufflé stands; a fiction writer develops a sense of how to craft sentences and paragraphs to support the narrative and its central characters. There are prescriptive recipes for many types of writing just as there are for all kinds of dishes, and yet the ability to follow directions is more skill than art. It’s only after the procedures are internalized and diverged from that both cook and writer can pull off an original concoction.
Perhaps in this way, writing a novel is similar to planning a feast.
Wildgen’s depictions of food hew closer to Proust’s than Stein’s in that they are indulgent and languorous. And she’s as skilled at the mechanics of whipping up a well-crafted story as she is describing how to make a béarnaise. In her essay “Ode to an Egg” Wildgen confronts the egg, a character that is both pliable and stubborn: “Faced with gracelessness, an egg asserts itself…Just try skipping the tempering of beaten yolks with warm liquid before adding them to a béarnaise and watch the egg clench its proteins like fists. You will be no more successful with a chilly egg yanked from the fridge than you will with a date you have shoved into a swimming pool.” And yes, her fiction contains an abundance of edibles, too. In her first novel, You’re Not You, the narrator, Bec, is a young college student who takes a job as a caretaker for a woman afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The novel is peppered with vivid scenes of shopping in Madison’s farmer’s market, among the cascades of vegetables, cheeses, and meats. Wildgen’s second novel, But Not for Long, is set within a food co-op, and now, her latest, Bread and Butter, is nestled firmly in the restaurant industry as it follows three restaurateur brothers. Leo, the businessman, works in partnership with Britt, the charmer who oversees the front end of their well-established restaurant Winesap; and Harry, their upstart younger brother who wants to make his mark decides to open his own, edgier place, Stray.
Food is the true currency of Bread and Butter. Food is an art, a language of affection, of consolation, a way of life. The culinary imperative is present from the opening scene, where a young Harry buys a lamb’s tongue with his allowance. The long, lingering pass over the butcher’s case establishes the narrative eye as unflinching and artful:
Inside a butcher’s case, denuded rabbits curled pink and trusting in white bins, while the sheep’s heads appeared chagrined and surprised by the depth of their eyeballs, the narrow clamp of their own teeth. The display of calves’ brains and kidneys, livers and tripe, repulsed Britt, struck Leo as regrettable but unavoidable, and entranced Harry who was six.
The brothers’ reactions foretell much about their future adult selves, from Leo with the rational mind to Harry the adventure seeker. Their lives are defined in relation to food. This is true whether Leo and Brit worry about whether their warm chocolate cake has become outdated, or when the Harry argues for keeping a provocative dish on his menu: “you’ve also gotta give people something they haven’t tasted, something they can’t imagine and have to come in and try.” And, well, this scene also provides fair warning for readers who find so much meat unsavory, much like Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar whose the menu of which announces, “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items.”
Human behavior is observed within the context of the rules of the trade (and the rules that are broken): don’t date coworkers; the staff is young, desirable, and often temperamental; key players in the kitchen will be lured and poached by other establishments; extreme focus is required during rushes, when on a good day the kitchen and wait staff merge into complimentary sides of a well-oiled machine. And the food! If nothing else (and there is plenty else), the novel revels in its cuisine. Sentences are peppered with exquisite dishes throughout and take detailed note of the textures and presentation and garnishes, allowing reader gorge. Dishes served include pig’s ear, hard salami, putty-colored lambs tongue, rabbit ragù with pappardelle, salted brittle, and sardines. An entire hog has been butchered and transformed into barbeque and charcuterie for a staff party. This physicality grounds the brothers’ struggles, caught up in assuring Winesap’s relevance as Stray establishes its name. When Britt first tastes Harry’s signature dish of lamb’s neck with Jerusalem artichokes he’s concerned that it’s too adventurous to lure small town diners. The same dish dazzles Leo and makes him worry he’s become too complacent. It’s the kind of conundrum that plagues the brothers, as well as all forms of art and commerce — the inspired dish won’t lure diners despite its brilliance, while the reliable dishes that sell are often staid.
Bread and Butter is a tremendous feast of a novel. Like a meal served at the streamlined Winesap, it adheres to a more classic ideal of what makes a book worth reading. It doesn’t aspire to rework the novel as form, nor does it attempt to. Instead, it achieves with excellence what it sets out to do, with its well-crafted characters and the subtle development of their entanglements, as it offers an insider’s view view of the restaurant industry, including the struggle to balance business and creativity, the intermingling of family and business, and of course, the cuisine. The food’s physicality is so palpable and inviting, and is rendered with precision and balance — this too is art. I’ll leave you with a morsel to whet your appetite, as Harry serves the lamb’s neck: “He drew something meaty and brown, dripping, from a braising pot and set it on a metal dish and slid it into the oven. Then he arranged some crisp root vegetables and broccoli rabe on a round white plate, placed the meat at the center, and scattered the whole thing with something golden and green and finely chopped. He placed this before Britt with the air of a cat delivering a freshly killed gopher.”
Of all the methods by which I poisoned myself in college, my frequent trips to McDonald’s have assumed outsize shame in my adult conscience. Forget the cases of Utica Club, the double cranberry vodkas from the Village Tavern, the array of other substances with which I dulled my wits — in my embarrassed memory it is the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese that bulked up my ass, muddled my judgment, and transformed me from the sylph-like high-schooler with good accessories and great skin, to a pallid, voracious, bleary-eyed monster. As years pass, my McDonald’s-going former self assumes increasingly monstrous proportions in my recollection — as Michael Pollan becomes ubiquitous in New York Times-reading households, books like Salt Sugar Fat hit the Terry Gross circuit, and news stories beam the equally ubiquitous “headless fatty” imagery into our living rooms. The specter of nine-year-olds so rotund they can barely fit into their schoolrooms has Michelle Obama doing arm-lifts with squads of youngsters. Today, I live down the street from a McDonald’s, but would no more eat there than I would take a crap in the aisle of the caddy-corner Whole Foods, where I buy even my cat food, where I scrupulously avoid the middle parts of the store unless it’s to get a box of organic pasta, or, if someone is coming over, water crackers upon which to spread my soft, fatty cheeses.
Imagine my shock, in this twin state of privilege and indoctrination, when a new book by a food historian invites me to imagine “burger joints more brightly lit than any monarch’s dining room,” places where “ordinary people…could feast on grilled beef on fluffy white bread, accented by a creamy sauce and fresh lettuce and tomato, with perfect French fries on the side. With the meal…a tall, icy drink, perhaps a shake of milk and ice cream or perhaps a sparkling cola.” As if that were a good thing. With no attendant come-down, no pronouncement about our path to dietary and moral ruin, this tableau, argues Rachel Laudan in her wonderful new book Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, represents in many ways the pinnacle of collective human ingenuity — the work of millennia during which cooks from royal kitchens to the hearths of the nameless masses figured out how to feed themselves and other people. McDonald’s and places like it represent, she says, “a welcome end to millennia of inequality forcibly expressed by culinary distinctions.”
Laudan’s scope, which is the entirety of food production in human history, may seem ludicrous, but her work is in the tradition of world history currently enjoying a kind of vogue. As Laudan told Elatia Harris in an interview, world historians have been “drawing on decades of detailed historical scholarship to see if they could trace big patterns of disease, warfare, enslavement, ecological change, and religious conversion. Why shouldn’t I jump into the fray and see if there were big patterns to be traced in food?” Her book thoroughly outlines these patterns, identifying a few major cuisines, what she calls “ordered styles of cooking,” that have played the greatest role in shaping human culinary styles and methods: the “Barley-Wheat Sacrificial Cuisines” of ancient empires located in and around the modern Middle East; the Buddhist Cuisines cohering in the third century B.C.E.; the transformative force of Islam, aided by Mongols; and then Christianity, which Laudan identifies as the major unifying force within European cuisine and then that of the Americas — first with the early Christian and Byzantine, then the Catholic cuisines of the Habsburg and Bourbon reigns, and finally in Protestant, republican cuisines. As she traces these currents, Laudan points out the way that engagement between these overlapping world realms created hybrids and permutations, with paella and pilau sharing the same family tree. As colonial empires expanded, the food of the colonized and enslaved was stamped with a colonial flavor, and vice versa.
Throughout history, class dictated the flavor and variety of one’s food, how much fat and sweet one got, and so forth. Cuisines were divided into the vastly different high and humble, and available to the elite and the non-elite accordingly. Modern cuisines are what Laudan calls “middling cuisines,” tasty food born of a confluence of a political ethos dissatisfied with centuries of monarchy, a mode of Christian religious thought the highest expression of which was the family meal, and a hitherto unimaginable access to food in quantity and variety. Modern, middling cuisines spread throughout the world with new ways to process wheat, meat, milk, fruit, and vegetables. In industrialized nations in the 20th century, non-elite cooks became able “to turn out a variety of different meals from different culinary traditions, instead of the nineteenth-century pattern of a weekly sequence of meals, or the yet-earlier pattern of a series of minor variations on pottage.”
Cuisine and Empire is complex and highly academic, but Laudan is a good writer and her owlish wit pops up just when your eyes are beginning to glaze at the varieties of millet (there are a lot of millets). There is nothing argumentative or prescriptive about her book — it is hard to argue with her assertion that “the problems of the diseases of plenty…are surely less appalling than the diseases of poverty.” But in our current American historical moment it seems breathtakingly transgressive, airing views I have hitherto encountered only on Size Acceptance blogs (which typically avoid defaming specific foods). Some of Laudan’s findings carry an implicit rejection of things that many of us have lately come to believe — that McDonald’s is the death knell of civilization, for one. She also neatly demonstrates the process by which certain ideas become dogma, and how our ideas about food change with our understanding of science, nutrition, religion, and the state at any given moment. Rousseau, as it happens, was one of the early adopters of the Slow Food Movement, believing “that what was natural was as little altered as possible, not an essence achieved by lengthy processing and cooking. Simply boiled vegetables, fresh fruit, and milk…were natural.” In fact, most interventions in food production have been met with backlash on scientific or moral grounds. Rousseau’s vegetables, milk, and fruit were themselves anathema to millennia of culinary philosophies, which held that food was not really food until it was cooked, and spiced, and had undergone a religio-scientific change that varied depending on one’s particular religious cosmology and ideas about nutrition.
Reading history typically does two paradoxical things: it tunes you in to the unique, specific fuckery and magic of your own moment, while simultaneously proving the old adage, “Same shit, different day.” Our peculiar historical moment is one in which Michael Pollan and his cohort have hardened hearts against the fast food hamburger, while the fast food hamburger remains the most available thing to eat in large tracts of the country. Children are told to eat their fruits and vegetables, and presented with lackluster pink wedges. Great swaths of Americans are hungry, while the non-hungry Instagram sumptuous meals. A recent New Yorker described an establishment with $15 to $27 entrees as “the ultimate neighborhood restaurant, the type of place where the food hits the sweet spot of being good (not to mention affordable)…” Food gentrification, Mikki Kendall wrote recently, puts “traditional meals out of reach for those who created the recipes.” Books like Wheat Belly and proponents of the so-called Paleo diet are slowly vilifying grain. (Laudan’s book does not mention this trend, but nothing could appear more farcical set against the backdrop of her scholarship, which tells us, basically, that grain is civilization. Liberty, even.)
Reading a book like Cuisine and Empire enriches the process by which you understand the world, both as you consider the grand sweep of history and assess your own troubled emotions regarding Hormel canned chili. All people are located within a dense web of spatial, financial, and cultural skeins that will dictate what they eat and how they prepare it. I found, reading Laudan, that even art was affected. Concurrent with Cuisine and Empire, I happened to read Anita Brookner’s perfect novel The Debut, and I was amazed by how much new information Laudan had equipped me to suss. The 1950s British heroine wishes to woo a man with chicken casserole; her parents’ louche middle class housekeeper advises her to bake the chicken in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, but she opts instead for the fancy version from Larousse Gastronomique, with expensive leeks purchased from Harrods. Her father brings home a half-pound of tongue and a tin of artichoke hearts, after having a “cup of tea, heavily sugared, and served in broad shallow cups.”
I’ll take almost any opportunity to think about myself, but it seems important to think about one’s relationship with food, and it is soothing, while reading Cuisine and Empire, to do so against such a vast backdrop. I am a big eater, a “known pig,” as my husband put it recently when he came upon me circling the unattended Christmas turkey while others set the table. (I love the soft, dark, fatty parts of a bird’s undercarriage, but at every turkey feast I attend, the knife-wielding patriarch insists on carving a platter of bland, uniformly sliced white meat. I find myself angling for a quiet moment with the carcass, filching discarded pieces of skin from the sink, pulling a perfectly good neck out of the trash.) A known pig, but over the course of my 20s I have been successfully indoctrinated against certain kinds of fast food and most grocery items that come in packages, which leads to confused, contradictory, and offensive positions on things. I won’t eat a Keebler Snack Cake, but I will eat an entire salami. I spurn the Olive Garden, but regularly eat a calorie-laden burrito filled with God knows what. I see fellow bus-riders with translucent McDonald’s bags to be fed to young children and feel sad, disregarding my past encounters with the Quarter Pounder and the Whopper.
Reading Laudan’s book also happened to correspond with the anniversary of probably the most special thing in my personal food universe. Seven years ago, I moved to San Francisco and struck up a friendship with three boys who lived down the street, friends of friends I had met on a past visit to the city. On a whim one afternoon, trying to woo someone probably, I decided to make us all food. I got a bunch of chicken legs and thighs. I found a recipe on the Internet and marinated the chicken in yogurt with lime zest. I still remember how beautiful it smelled; my disappointment, when the chicken turned to charred lumps on the baking sheet, was considerable — the lime hardly perceptible on the blackened skin. Like all of the really important things that have happened in my life, this was such a non-momentous occasion, such an accident, that I routinely thank divine providence for the instincts of my friends and my unperceiving 22-year-old self. (Around the time I made the chicken, but not because of it, I struck up a romance with one of the boys. Within six months we were installed together in windowless apartment in Chinatown, and now we are married.)
On a Wednesday night shortly after the chicken incident, one of the boys decided to try something fancy — fish in parchment paper — and invited us all to eat it. Days later, a friend who lived in Oakland got accidentally drunk in San Francisco and stayed over for dinner; she and her husband showed up together the next Wednesday. The following week, their bandmate and her boyfriend came to what we began calling “Family Dinner.” Depending on a variety of factors — how many people were coming, how much cash people had at the time — the meal was either ambitious, or a staple from our childhood. I made a mis-spiced version of my mother’s spaghetti with clam sauce; my now-husband made Brunswick stew and strawberry salad. One of the boys made his Aunt Hazel’s meatloaf.
In her interview, Rachel Laudan told Elatia Harris that “the concept of family dinner, much lauded now the world over, is relatively new. The importance of the family meal as the foundation of society and the state is so deeply ingrained in the American tradition that it’s hard to appreciate just how American it is.” As young and extremely carefree 20-somethings who spent their weeknights drinking $5 pitchers of Busch at the now-defunct Jack’s Club, we conceived of Family Dinner as a pseudo-ironic mimicry of the middle class practice with which we had all grown up. But seven years later, we are still at it. The group has grown from four people to 16. We have a calendar and a Google group, and we get together around 49 Wednesdays out of the year, rotating between approximately seven dwellings. One person cooks, everyone else brings beer or sometimes wine. We even have a family name: We’re the Boehners, and we love each other.
We have had six weddings, one divorce, and four babies, with another one on the way. The kids go side by side in the host’s darkened bedroom, like a row of little pod people. (Our single bedroom also houses the sole bathroom, so when it’s our week we take the litter box out of the laundry room and put the babies there.) Sometimes our relation to one another seems more familial than friendly. There are moments when we think that all or some of us are kind of a pain in the ass. There has even been a feud. But we have gone from pals who like beer and got a kick out of kitschy weekly dinners, to friends who feed pets or mind one another’s children. People move away and many of them come back; my husband and I moved out of state for three years and returned, partially, I think, because Family Dinner had become the defining feature of our collective social lives, the anchor of our weeks.
Rachel Laudan told Harris, “Every time you go into the kitchen, you take your culture with you. As you plan a meal for guests, say, you bring to it assumptions about how to mesh their preferences with yours, about how much it is appropriate to spend on the meal, about how to accommodate their religious or ethical food rules, and about what they believe to be healthy and delicious.” The Boehners are all American. We are all members of what Laudan would call the “salaried middle class,” although technically some of us earn an hourly wage. We have all wandered away from some kind of faith tradition (Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, a variety of Protestantisms). Every one of us has been to college or beyond. We are all white.
As an eater, I embody my father — a self-described human garbage disposal, who wrote a letter to his parents from college telling them, “my whole life changed when I learned to eat raw onion.” But my mother is the source of my feelings about cooking. From her, I inherited the desire to be hospitable, without the finesse of her results. Her kitchen is always equipped with the makings for a nice salad. She sets the table beautifully. Entertaining figured large in her life because she was married to a diplomat; she tells a story about hosting a group of Moroccans and serving a gazpacho that not a single person touched for reasons that remain obscure. She is an elegant hostess, but she is hard on herself. And when it’s my turn for Family Dinner and I have a roomful of friends to feed, even these Boehners whom I love, who have seen me cry and fish turkey necks out of the trash, some panicked female spirit inhabits my body, makes break out in sweat over the stove, and snap at my husband.
My friends have Smitten Kitchen; my mother had The Silver Palate, The Joy of Cooking, and then those cookbooks that Rachel Laudan describes as being written “by highly educated middle- or upper-class women” to interpret foreign cuisines for American and British readers. Marcella Hazan’s “peasant hash” was a staple of our household. I continue the legacy with Claudia Roden’s seminal book The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, and despite the fact that only around four of the many, many recipes that I have followed to the letter have really turned out, I continue to select them for their wholesome “authenticity.” (Like an Anita Brookner heroine, I instinctively feel that nothing from my own food background can compare to “real” food cultures, where they put spoonfuls of mastic into ice water, or eat bergamot preserves.) I now believe that Roden’s recipes are actually terrible, or rather, the kind of recipes written for people who already know what they are doing and can thus interpret the shorthand of a veteran cook. But it’s not Claudia Roden’s fault that I make bizarre choices. Recently for one of my Family Dinners I found a dish of fried eggs and chicken livers in her book. Perfect, I thought. Wholesome, economical, and somehow chic. But my pan wasn’t hot enough, or something, and my eggs dispersed upon contact with my livers, and I ended up with a lumpy lukewarm mud that was unmistakably liver-based in an unpleasing way. We ran out of ketchup to mask the horror, and my accompanying “Tunisian soup” was just hot fish water. Only one Family Dinner has been worse (and really only its smell), when a gentleman Boehner made something called burgoo — a dish once enjoyed, says Laudan, by seamen in the British Navy — and filled his shared apartment with the odor of garbage.
Laudan writes that “national cuisines, like nations themselves, have been created in the last two hundred years,” “often in the last fifty or sixty,” and often in response to trends from elsewhere. And we’ve been through them. We’ve had “Italian” spag bol (“a popular Sunday dish in Britain”) and lasagna (“staple of the American table”). Moussaka, a Greek classic to which Laudan writes that béchamel was added in an effort to be Frenchy in the early 20th century. One of the Family Dinner superstars, who every year cooks a non-Kosher, utterly fantastic Passover Seder for 15 people, once made Japanese ramen, “the instant industrial version of which,” Laudan tells us was, invented after World War II. One of the best Family Dinners I can remember was put on by two of our artistic members, who did “Big Macs,” everything but the buns from scratch. The result was a beautiful, enormous, spectacularly tasty burger that looked the way the Big Mac does in the advertisements, the “grilled beef on fluffy white bread, accented by a creamy sauce and fresh lettuce and tomato” of Laudan’s description, the pinnacle of food access and middling cuisines. (None of us are vegetarians, and I don’t think it’s totally a coincidence that the one truly abstemious eater among us, who is gluten-avoidant and favors an ayurvedic view of nutrition, often doesn’t come.)
When one of our Boehner number was laid off and unemployed for a year, he kept up his rotation but, feeling we needed a reset from increasingly elaborate multi-course meals, heated up packaged tater tots and chicken nuggets and called it “Dad’s family dinner.” Early in the life of Family Dinner, if no one was equipped to cook, we got a bucket of Popeye’s, a practice which is still known as “Dysfunctional Family Dinner,” although now that we have grown in disposable income and fast food squeamishness, we usually get something else. It amazes me how easily that cruel moniker of “dysfunctional” came to us. Even without Laudan to tell us, we obviously share a core belief, presumably imparted by our parents and imbued with a fantastic amount of class privilege, that dinner, cooked by someone and eaten around the table together, is civilized practice, and that a deviation from this practice represents a personal or societal failure. My mother, most of our group’s respective mothers, had a hot a meal on the table many nights of my life. On the very few occasions when she sent my father and me to Burger King, we were encouraged to smuggle the Whoppers back inside of the house so that the neighbors wouldn’t see.
In Laudan’s conception, our middle class, middling cuisines come from a sea change in human history, and demonstrate her assertion that “nothing shows your independence more than being able to choose what you eat.” And in the Boehners, all of whom have had plenty to eat our whole lives, I see those qualities that Laudan ascribes to the early-modern Protestant cuisine that has most colored the American food experience: a rejection of asceticism, a belief in the family at table, a taste for “middling” foods. As Laudan puts it, “for the richer part of the world today, dining on high or humble cuisines is not a matter of class determined by one’s birth, but a matter of choice.” She is thinking of long-vanished imperial hierarchies, but, obviously, class still affects our food choices in significant ways. The foods that it is our privilege to scorn, enjoy, or mimic according to our mood, are often the foods most available to poor Americans, who are then shamed for eating them rather than the Rousseauian vegetables and milk. There is a mind-boggling grocery store across from my local McDonald’s; this is not the case in many neighborhoods.
On a personal level, Laudan herself can afford her long view of food history: as she told Harris, “I’ve never acquired a taste for fast-food hamburgers or soft drinks, have never eaten Wonder Bread or its siblings, and cook at home six nights out of seven.” Just as it is easy to call food poison when you don’t have to eat it, it’s arguably easy to call poison food in the same circumstances. But what I appreciate about Laudan is her sense of perspective. She urges us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and asks us to remember the centuries in which everyone but the highest elite ate “minor variations on pottage” achieved by backbreaking work (typically performed by women) that is still the norm in many parts of the world. In this context, a caloric and inexpensive meal of soft bread and meat is a revelation. At the rousing finish to her book, she tells us:
The challenge is to acknowledge that not all is right with modern cuisines without romanticizing earlier ones; to recognize that contemporary cuisines have problems with health and equity without jumping to the conclusion that this is new; to face up to new nutritional challenges of abundance without being paternalist or authoritarian; to extend the benefits of industrialized food processing to all those who still labor with pestles and mortars; and to realize that the problem of feeding the world is a matter not simply of providing enough calories but of extending to everyone the choice, the responsibility, the dignity, and the pleasure of a middling cuisine.
After reading Cuisine and Empire, I read The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood, a novel about an Enlightenment-era French nobleman who concocts outlandish recipes in the years before the Revolution. Closing out his journal and recipe book before the mob arrives to slaughter him, the narrator writes: “the rest is history or will be for those who come to write it after us. I doubt they will be kind, and why would they? They will see our sins and forget our graces.” The longer Family Dinner goes on, the more real its 1950s nostalgia becomes (recently one of its members suggested that we all learn how to play bridge). It has become the churchgoing or the Shabbat dinner that gave order to our grandparents’ weeks. In Laudan’s probing but gentle gaze, we are just modern people, enjoying our middling cuisines on our own terms. Narrow your scope, and, like a family in a Formica add, we are the exemplars and beneficiaries of myriad injustices in American life: malign food politics, systemic racism, unequal distribution of wealth. Even with our small apartments and dingy towels, we are the lucky ones.
But there are graces to record. The way new parents relax into themselves while their babies sleep in the next room. The way a kitchen grows warm with laughter and the heat of the stove. The way food has made a fake family real. Like the Sufi poet said: “On the surface of the stew we are dollops of rich grease / And we befriend the yogurt-meatball soup.”
If you can read, you can cook — and if you can’t cook, you can always read cookbooks. At least that’s my philosophy. Although I’ve never been much of a cook, I have been fortunate to live with people who enjoy cooking — first my mother and now my husband. As a result, I’ve spent many pleasant evenings perusing cookbooks while someone else prepares a meal nearby. Growing up, I paged through The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, with its handwritten vegetarian recipes, and The Joy of Cooking — a somewhat joyless read and yet lively for the sheer number and variety of recipes. Now I am just as likely to scroll through cooking blogs in anticipation of a delicious meal, but I still love my cookbooks for their ability to take me back to a specific time and place. I also appreciate the stories and anecdotes that cookbook authors include with their recipes — although I sometimes wonder if only non-cooks like myself bother to read them.
What follows is a list of some of my favorite cookbooks to read while someone else does the cooking, a list that is, like most cookbook collections, highly personal and idiosyncratic. Please help me to round it out by leaving your own favorites in the comments.
The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen
This cookbook brings me right back to my childhood, when my mother — and a lot of my friends’ mothers — was discovering vegetarian cooking. It was first published in 1982 and the recipes are very eighties: lots of quiches, soufflés, and casseroles involving tofu. It’s written in a casual, conversational way with a lot of underlining and phrases in all-caps — can we call this “pre-blog” style? The recipes are imaginative and sometimes whimsical, including the title recipe, a casserole in which broccoli stalks are made to stand upright so that they resemble trees. You have to love the author’s passion for vegetarian cooking; at one point she lists “innocence” as one of tofu’s attributes.
The French Chef Cookbook, by Julia Child
This may be the only cookbook out there that is dedicated to a television station. It contains recipes from Julia Child’s television series, “The French Chef,” and the recipes are presented by show and arranged chronologically, so theoretically, you could watch YouTube videos of Child’s original program and cook along with her. The recipes are written in Child’s fastidious and charming prose, and many are accompanied by pen-and-ink illustrations by her husband, Paul Child. My favorite part of this book is the introduction, which describes the quaint early days of “French Chef,” when Child filmed her pilot episodes in a display kitchen at the Boston Gas Company, while her husband lurked just outside the frame ready to hand her a fresh saucepan.
Maida Heatter’s Brand-New Book of Great Cookies, by Maida Heatter
Of all the books on the list, this is the one I have used the most. It was published when I was in high school, and I learned to bake from it. Baking recipes must be precise and no one writes as precisely as Maida Heatter, who goes so far as to suggest how each of her desserts should be sliced and stored. (“I’m a Virgo. This might have something to do with the fact that when I make cookies, I want them all to be exactly alike.”) I love the sensible, grandmotherly instructions, as well as the serving recommendations — some cookies are for children, some are for ladies who lunch, some are for health nuts, some are for company, and some are best for mailing to college students. In Maida’s book, there’s a cookie for every situation.
Venus in the Kitchen, or Love’s Cookery Book, by Pilaff Bey, edited by Norman Douglas with an introduction by Graham Greene
This is a cookbook of aphrodisiac recipes. I would be surprised if anyone has ever cooked from it, and even more surprised if they derived aphrodisiac benefits from the entrees, which includes a large number of recipes for brains and kidneys. It is the most literary of cookbooks and the most bizarre. Many recipes begin with declarative, faintly poetic instructions such as: “Feed your snails for a fortnight on milk”; “Boil the meat until it is practically cooked into rags”; or, my favorite, “Take some pig guts.” Many recipes end abruptly with a vague opinion: “Rather banal, I venture to think” or “Not everybody cares to treat oysters in this fashion.” If Evelyn Waugh and Edward Gorey collaborated on a cookbook, it might look something like this one.
A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany, Exploring & Eating off the Beaten Track by Beth Elon
This is more of a travel guide than a cookbook, but from it I learned the basics of Tuscan cooking, as well as the Mediterranean diet, which most dieticians agree is among healthiest in the world. This book goes into great detail about the landscape of Tuscany and what grows in each area, an approach that makes a lot of sense once you realize that Italian cooking is about making the most of local produce — even if that’s just potatoes, onions, and beans. I’ve always loved Italian cuisine, but after reading this book I had even more respect for the beautiful flavors Italians coax out of humble ingredients.
Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini with Gwen Hyman
In the past few years, Chef Andrew Carmellini has become one of the most popular restaurateurs in New York, but this cookbook is meant for the home cook. At first glance, some of the recipes seem elaborate and intimidating, but each step is so vividly described that they are actually quite easy to carry out. The clarity of the prose is probably due to Carmellini’s co-writer, Gwen Hyman, who also happens to be his wife, as well as an English professor who wrote her dissertation on food in Victorian novels. This may be the only cookbook whose introduction I’ve read multiple times; it tells the story of how Andrew Carmellini became a chef, as well as an account of “the granddaddy of all Italian food trips.”
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
I have a feeling that this cookbook is going to be my son’s Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Born from a blog, the lavish color photographs Smitten Kitchen would seem to have little in common with Mollie Katzen’s low-tech pen-and-ink pages, but it has the same friendliness and the same whimsy, and there are quite a few vegetarian recipes, as well. More to the point, everyone suddenly seems to own this cookbook in the same way that all my mother’s friends seemed to have The Enchanted Broccoli Forest on their shelves. I received The Smitten Kitchen as a Christmas present from my husband, which is funny because when I looked at the inscription on my copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, it appears that my mother gave it to my father as a Christmas present in 1983. This may be, in the end, the best indication of a readable cookbook — it’s the one the cook gives to the non-cook, hoping he or she will be inspired to do more than just read.
My daughter’s birthday comes in June. Every year since the first year, I’ve made her a birthday cake—strawberry shortcake, which seemed appropriate for the summery month, her love of berries. The cake became an instant tradition, as many things with children instantly do. It’s a Hot Milk Sponge Cake, berries macerated in sugar, whipped cream. It isn’t a shortcake, which is commoner. And it isn’t better than another sponge cake recipe I have, one that’s quicker, easier, requiring fewer ingredients and less time. But I keep going back to the Hot Milk Sponge, because of the recipe.
Not the ingredients. Not taste. The paper with the handwritten recipe itself. Because it reminds me of Betty, a long ago boyfriend’s mother, the woman who first made the cake, then wrote out the recipe for me. The writing’s faded, the green lined paper it’s written on going waxy with age. I’ve typed it out against the possibility that one day I’ll open my Joy of Cooking, where I store recipes I’ve cut out of magazines or printed or that have been given to me like this one, and like an ancient Polaroid photo, it will have disappeared. And along with it, my connection to her.
Because what I’m looking for when I hunt through my recipe collection isn’t really Hot Milk Sponge Cake. It’s a connection to my personal history, a road map of where I’ve been and who I’ve known. Recipes are connectors, the roads too small to show on maps.
And they aren’t all written down. Like The Odyssey or a Studs Terkel interview, they can be passed along in other ways.
When my mother-in-law died, we had a small service with food afterwards. It was mostly family, a few close friends. Her friend Anita was there. They’d known each other for more than 50 years, and Anita was very upset. I extended a hand, reached out to touch her shoulder, but she didn’t want consolation.
After the service, we ate the food we’d carried there. I’d brought egg-and-onion, a dish my grandmother made. She knew it was a dish I loved, and when I was coming, she made it for me. It is how some people show love, by giving you the things they know you like to eat: that repetition. I once told someone I liked her lemon meringue pie. She made it every time she saw me after that.
I’ve updated my grandmother’s dish — I make it with olive oil, though she likely used chicken fat. Mine is lighter, less deadly. Anita had some after the service.
“Who made this?” she said. “I haven’t tasted this taste since my mother died.”
I told her its history — the part about my grandmother, the part about the olive oil. I’ve told this story many times, I am fluent in it.
“It’s so good,” Anita said, and said again. Later, she asked me for the recipe. I sent it to her. It comforted her in a way she couldn’t otherwise be comforted. And it connected us — me to my grandmother, Anita to her mother, the two of us to each other.
In the front of my Joy of Cooking is a recipe, in her hand, for Elizabeth’s Raspberry Buns. I make them smaller than she did, and my daughter and I renamed them Thumbkins, because you push a floured thumb into the center of each ball of dough before filling it with jam, but what I remember when I make them is Elizabeth herself, the antique samplers she collected and hung on her walls, the lunches and dinners we had together.
There is Andy’s rice salad, written on a piece of stationery so familiar to me it trips longing to be in their house whenever I see it.
There is a recipe in my own handwriting on the back of a piece of paper with notes from a biography of Margaret Mead I wrote and published years ago. There I am.
Recipes are a way of bridging metaphorical distance too: another way they are like maps. On Thanksgiving, we go to Kate’s house, where a table is set for 20 or more—some who wander in because they are temporarily or otherwise without family, others who always come. Everybody brings food.
Last year I made a green bean casserole, the kind my aunt always made at Thanksgiving when I was a girl out of canned soup and crispy canned onions. I made a version that used fresh everything and I brought it to Kate’s and two of the other women there came over and said How did you do it?! We’ve been trying to make a good version of this for 25 years! I told them what I’d done.
There I am again.
We are cooks, my friends and I: cooking is something that binds us and grounds us. My sister takes cookbooks to bed, reads them the way other people read novels. My daughter and I like biographies, or volumes of letters about/by people who’ve made their lives in food—James Beard, Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser. Recipes, like maps, give you places to go, tell you how to get there.
I’ve been friends with Tessa since childhood, we’ve had many many meals together. I ate the wonderful food her mother prepared when we were girls; now I cook some of it. We’ve cooked together and separately, with and for each other. The orange marmalade she and Andy make every year, a long, painstaking process. My pasta with tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Her cinnamon rolls.
A few Saturdays ago we were speaking on the phone. We hadn’t talked in a while, we had things to catch up on, some difficult. We are at an age where, often, things are difficult—work, aging parents, questions of health. Things that made me feel cracked with sadness. And then we talked about lentil soup.
How much better it is made with tiny green lentils than the musty brown kind. How I like to make it thick and put tomatoes and vegetables in it and serve it over rice.
We were reassuring each other. Patting our way back to the beginning of adult life, when we both first started to cook—to continue the traditions of food we’d grown up with or to transcend them, begin our own. My egg and onion isn’t my grandmother’s. My green bean casserole isn’t my aunts. But they also are. Food—recipes—are what we talk about when we are telling each other: I’m here. It’s okay. Life, despite sadness, has this in it too.
Recipes themselves appeal to me because they are small and finite: little works. You set yourself a goal, pursue and finish it, it doesn’t take very long. That’s the opposite of what I spend my time doing. The longest, most complicated recipe I ever made took me a day. A novel takes years.
But recipes connect me to people too, both people I don’t know (Beard, Reichel, Hesser) and people I do — all the people who took the time to write out a recipe for something I loved, something they’d first prepared for me—friends, my aunt, my once-upon-a-time boyfriend’s mother. I haven’t always made the recipes. But it’s the handwriting, the road that travels both forward and back, that’s important to me.
When we were talking about lentil soup, Tessa told me Zina, her daughter, had made one with coconut and lemon grass.
“That sounds delicious,” I said. “Will she send me the recipe?
And when my daughter calls and says she wants me to teach her to make a certain dish my heart expands.
She once asked me what the most valuable thing I had was. I wanted to say “you,” but she was too old for that answer to satisfy. She meant something tangible—silver, paintings, pearls.
I don’t have things like that, or miss them or crave them, nothing spectacular to leave her. But if I had said to her then “It’s my old Joy of Cooking, stuffed with recipes,” I don’t think she would have understood it. Now I think she will. Because inside the front cover of that book is her past and mine and my grandmother’s. Tastes she’s grown up with, things she can give her children when they come. A true inheritance.
Oh, look, she’ll say one day, thumbing through the recipes. Hot Milk Sponge Cake. I remember that.
Image credit: Flickr/billhr.
I was reading about the recent second-quarter earnings report for Barnes & Noble as part of my day job and I realized how much insight the company’s quarterly conference call provides in terms of current trends in the book industry, as well as which books will be are most likely to be the headline-grabbing titles over the next few months. I may do this each quarter from now on, as I think it’s an interesting proxy for what’s going on in the book industry at a given point in time.The big trend so far this year is a lack of blockbuster titles as compared to years past. From Steve Riggio, Barnes & Noble CEO, on the Q2 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):We look back at the first half of this year as one of the softest periods in recent memory for the book industry in terms of hardcover new releases. There were simply very few new hardcover books that generated media buzz or sustained sales by word-of-mouth recommendations.The lack of blockbusters is thrown into particularly stark light when compared to a year ago, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out. Overall, sales were actually down from last year.Riggio called The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards “one of the fastest-selling trade paperbacks in our history.”Barnes & Noble also looked ahead to the books that they anticipate will be big in the third quarter of this year. In fiction, Frederick Forsyth, Anna Quinlan, Robert Harris, David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich, and Robert Parker have new books on the way. The company also singled out Mitch Albom’s For One More Day (Riggio said that Albom’s previous book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, “was the second-largest selling fiction book in our history”) and Charles Frazier’s 13 Moons, while The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld “are getting a lot of buzz.”In non-fiction, Barnes & Noble is anticipating big sales from Faith and Politics by Senator John Danforth, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich, Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice by John Ashcroft, The Confession by James McGreevey and Inside Bush’s White House, the Second Term by Bob Woodward “continuing his take on the Bush administration and the war.” Riggio also called John Grisham’s first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, “one of the most eagerly-awaited books we have seen in a very long time.”The company also highlighted several upcoming biographies and memoirs: Bob Newhart, Sandy Weil, Carly Fiorina, Ellen Burstyn and David Crosby. There’s also a “major new biography” on Andrew Carnegie and “the definitive book” on U2.Riggio said it “looks like a very strong season for cookbooks,” with the 75th edition of the Joy of Cooking, a new edition of The Bon Apetit Cookbook and new titles from Paula Dean, Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse and the Barefoot Contessa.