Michael Pollan writes in the foreword about the suppertimes he remembers from childhood and youth, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. “I have no research to back this claim,” he says, “but I’m convinced that when people eat from the same pot or platter, they share something more than the food.” I am reading The Pollan Family Table. Michael is not the author; he is the brother or son of the authors. His words resonate, though. This is the time of year when I want to spend the darkening hours in the kitchen, sautéing up a mire-poix, browning some tender, tasty meat, pouring in broth, simmering a big rich pot of something hearty and good.
And it’s the time of year when I prowl through my books. Should I read a mystery? Nah; I am tired of murder. So I pluck, and push through, a novel about two young sisters left alone, in remote Canada, to make their own ways. I love the narrator’s clear, strong voice, but the unsettled, unsafe life of the girls tickles an angry response. I want to rail against the fictional parents, take issue with a society that doesn’t know when two young teens are living in the woods alone. Only a book, I think to myself; you can’t call Family Services… I make myself read it through, but it fails to satisfy. When I put it on the ‘finished’ shelf, I trail through my unread fiction, with nothing calling to me.
I have my non-fiction book, Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman. It is a fascinating saga, the story of how autism came to be recognized and diagnosed by the psychological community, and it’s as full of intrigue as any medical thriller. And Silberman writes with the pacing and connection of a fine novelist. But the impact hits close to home; again, I get fired up at ‘experts’ who are more concerned with glory and renown than they are with the welfare of the young charges they exploit. I parcel out a chapter a day to myself, digest that chunk, and ready myself for the next day’s portion.
I need a warm and satisfying read, something that sates and satisfies. I sit at the dining room table, knitting, and I think about what to read next. My son, Jim, comes through and says, “You know what? I am going to get started on my cookbook project again!” He is transcribing all the family recipes–many clipped and culled and pasted or stuck into books with yellowed, aging pages. He is saving and organizing our treasury of food.
And then the puzzle piece slips into place, with that lovely, just-right ‘snick’. I will read food memoirs, of course. It is the season–and I have the frame of mind–to appreciate them fully.
Gladys Taber first taught me the joy of a food memoir. I found her books about her life in Stillmeadow and on Cape Cod on the shelves of the Dunkirk Free Library when I was in my late teens or early twenties. I read right through them. In the middle of the last century, Taber and her husband and kids, and a friend and her husband and kids, moved to the country from the Big Apple. They bought old houses and started a whole new kind of life, with emphasis on home and family, neighbors and nature. One husband died, if I remember right; the other one left, and the two women merged households. The books, written from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, detail their adventures.
Taber writes about the adventures and perils of life in mid-century rural Connecticut, about snapping fires and unreliable power, and about a cast of critters that visit their pond. She writes about kids growing up and friends coming to stay for a weekend or to share a meal of an evening. She writes about the meals they ate, and there, smack in the middle of a narrative discussion, she pops in a recipe for the casserole she writes about enjoying.
I was charmed from the first time I read her work, and, when I discovered a copy of Stillmeadow Cookbook at an Earth Day festival (at a used book stand), I snapped it up.
I pull it out now, and page through. It was originally written in 1947; it was updated in 1958 and 1965. Some of the recipes–Creamed Sweetbreads, a tuna-avocado concoction,–sound a little dated, a little Sixties, but I have marked several others that sound really good. Jim comes and looks over my shoulder. Intrigued, he offers to transcribe the recipes I’ve marked. Reluctantly, I end my visiting with Gladys Taber and hand the book over.
I grab I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, though. I have already read Giulia Melucci’s lovely, flippant, upbeat accounting of her young adult days and her young adult relationships–none of which ‘stuck.’ All of which she rationalizes with food well-cooked. The book reminded me, somehow, of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress; I read it, first, for the story. Now I go back, and I read for the recipes. I mark some down. We have a week or two of different tasty pastas. And I put I Loved, I Lost back on the shelf, and I search through my books and make a new to-be-read stack.
I have Molly O’Neill’s Mostly True. As the only girl-child in a baseball family–and one who loves to cook and to write, to boot,–I love this book; my path is very different from O’Neill’s, but her writing resonates. (She is originally from Columbus, too, which is not far away from my new hometown.) I read a library copy, and then discovered a hardcover edition on the sale table at my favorite used book store. I bought it to re-read someday, and someday, perhaps, is here. This book does not have recipes, though. I put it on the dining room table. It’s the first book in my food memoir stack.
–Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader. I am a sucker for the Father Tim books, and I found this one at an annual book sale–the kind where you grab a bag and fill it and get charged by bulk instead of by copies. Time, now, to give this book a good perusal. It goes on the stack.
—Gumbo Tales, by Sara Roahen, a professional cook who moved to New Orleans so her husband could attend medical school. Roahen was from Wisconsin, and she entered a new world of food when she moved to the Big Easy. After a stint churning out factory cakes, she landed a job writing about New Orleans food, and I think the book is a result of that work. It sounds really interesting (although I see no recipes. Sigh.)
–Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. Over the years, I’ve read all of Reichl’s memoirs–and her foray into fiction–and enjoyed every one. She tells a good story–and she does include recipes. Time for a revisiting!
The Pollan Family Cookbook lands on top, and I put the beef in the oven to roast and then sit down at the dining room table and open it to read Michael Pollan’s foreword. I agree with his impassioned plea for a family meal; I agree with his insistence on good, fresh food. There are family pictures scattered throughout his words; one of the husbands looks remarkably like Michael J. Fox.
I learn that IS Michael J. Fox; he is married to Tracy Pollan, an actor and the author’s sister. Tracy is a contributing author of this book as are her sisters, Lori and Dana, and her mother, Corky.
They are women passionate about the ‘Three F’s’–family, fitness, and food, and their book is filled with pictures of kids and wisdom about freshness and nutrition and photos of glorious, wonderful food. Recipes are preceded with anecdotes or advice. I read about salting a whole chicken and cooking it quickly at 450 degrees; there’s a picture of a beautifully browned bird, and I resolve to try this.
I read about deglazing pans, making the most of the rich, caramelized residue left after the meat roasts. We pull the beef out of the oven, and let it rest; then Mark slices it into thin, tender pieces. The boyos have sandwiches; I use up the last of the romaine to make a salad with greens and sharp cheddar and tender morsels of the hot beef. The cheese melts, partway; I put a handful of potato chips on the side, and I enjoy a wonderful dinner, despite the dog’s sad brown eyes that follow each forkful.
After finishing, though, I take the little pan, add a little water, and I deglaze it–frothing up a rich brown aromatic sauce. I tear up a chunk of old baguette and layer the pieces in the dog’s dish. When the sauce has boiled down, I stir it, scraping up all the meaty chunks, and I pour it over the bread. The dog looks at me from the kitchen doorway with glistening, hopeful eyes. The steams dies down as I wash up the pan, and I take the cooled dish and put it down in front of her.
She sighs, happy. Her snouts plunges and she doesn’t stop until the dish is licked clean.
Ah, see. The reading informed the meal, made the little dog, even, a happy family member.
I see recipes I want to try–stir fries and stews, roasts and casseroles. There is a recipe for ricotta dumplings–like the inside of a ravioli, without the pasta, the Pollan narrating the section suggests. These are shaped and chilled and boiled, then sprinkled with cheese and baked. This is something to try the next time the pasta group meets. I mark pages. I read sections. I plan menus and mealtimes in my head. I show Mark and Jim photos, and they swan in admiration.
I put the Pollans on the shelf where the cookbooks I’m using reside. Night has fallen. It’s time to throw some cookies in–I’m using up the potato chips crumbs in a recipe from a Kansas State Fair in 1902 or so…it’s a chocolate chip cookie, and those crushed chips add that nice little salty note to the sweet, chocolate-y treats. Then I’ll get my knitting out and sit with Mark to watch the final episode of Downton–I’m hoping that somehow Michael might re-appear to finally give Edith some happiness. I can’t wait to find out.
When Downton’s done, though, I’m grabbing Tender at the Bone and heading upstairs. I will pull the blankets up around my neck, I will plump the pillows behind my head, and I will lose myself in another food memoir. The wind will rustle outside; the temperature will plunge below freezing, and the heat will churgle on. I’ll fall asleep dreaming of soups and stews and family meals.
It’s a season, for me, for reading food memoirs.