Foodie Books and Food for Thought

It happened in a kind of rush and tumble: I took my son to the library so he could pick out some movies. And, as long as I was there, I thought I’d just look at the New Books–just look, you know.  Because I have stacks of wonderful books at home waiting to be read–they are patient, kind, and understanding, those books, but when they wait too long, they do set up a little clamor.

I try not to test them unduly.

So I eased between the New Large Print racks, to where the double rows of New Books faced each other.

Just, you know, to look.

There was a point where I had five books in my arms, but I sternly spoke to self.  And when we left, Jim crowing about the wonderful films he’d watch that week, I had whittled my borrows down to two: Susan Wittig Albert’s Blood Orange, and Dr. Paul Kalnithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. “New books,” the checker outer said to me, nodding to ensure my agreement.  “Two week loan for new books.”

So I knew I’d better start on ’em right away.

I enjoyed Blood Orange, a nice peppy mystery, and then I started to think about it and thought, I bet it’s hard to write about the same characters all the time, especially after you’d explored all their quirks and blessings and had nothing more to say.  I like the China Bayles mysteries, which were so full of rich and realized characters when I discovered the first one almost twenty years ago.  The more I thought now, though, the more I reckoned, this one wasn’t quite as realized, wasn’t nearly as rich. McQuaid lied to China, for instance; he ran off to do Mexican reconnaissance when he’d promised he would NOT. She should have been furious with him.  Instead she just thought, Oh, I should give him more space, and hugged him.  China didn’t see much of Ruby, either. And she had one little scary danger moment, but it didn’t last very long.

It was an okay book, but kind of a tired one. And I thought, I bet Wittig Albert is getting mightily sick of China Bayles.

So then I read When Breath Becomes Air. I had to gasp at the brilliance of Paul Kalanithi. I ached at the tragic irony of the young, ambitious, questing doctor going to get his backaches explained, and finding he was full of cancer–in stage four, and beyond a lot of treatment options.  Hope, now, was for life extension, not for a return to health. Well. Hope for a miracle, maybe.

Kalanithi chronicles the end of life; he’s so smart, so charged. The decision to have a baby, even if he wouldn’t be there to watch her grow. The decision to go back to work during a briefly healthy interval. The turning back, wholly and completely, to his wife, the rediscovery of their firm, true, bonding love: a love, she writes, that doesn’t end just because someone happens to die.

That was a sad book.  And since I have one friend whose treatment options have run out, and another whose treatment regime has just begun, THAT book pushed at my boundaries in a way I wasn’t crazy about.

I took those books back and I thought, “Well, there you have it.  That’s what you get sometimes.”

And I went home and wandered through my books and waited to see who’d holler loudest.

Turns out it was a cooking memoir.

Turns out that was just right.

*************
Bob Spitz wrote The Saucier’s Apprentice (come on: walk away from a book with a title like that???) after finishing an eight year project, his award winning biography of the Beatles, and after watching his marriage shudder, gasp, and die. What seemed to keep him going was cooking for a bunch of  genial friends who didn’t appear to care if his food was undercooked, overcooked, or dumped from a can. They liked him. They were hungry. It was all good.

Spitz wanted more, though. He wanted to COOK cook, to really cook, and so, plagued by a chilly girlfriend he worshiped but who blew frigid air back in his face, and a kind of pervasive emptiness, he kissed his daughter and took himself to France and Italy.  And there, he has wonderful culinary adventures, even while getting well and firmly dumped by Icy Maiden.

I love me a book with recipes, and Saucier’s Apprentice has ’em.  Some I might try, and some I might not, but since Spitz shared them, I have the choice. The person who read the book before me very kindly highlighted all the recipes titles with a vivid fluorescent yellow marker; I can tell when they’re coming by the neon bleed a few pages ahead. Recipe alert! It keeps me reading.

And the culinary reading comes at a time when my son is sorting through the family recipes, capturing them in a digital world, creating a binder for me of recipes that reach out and twine around different branches of my life. I am in a rare state to appreciate the sharing of a recipe.

Spitz shares his adventures along with his food.  He paints the people he meets with crisp, clear, unsparing strokes, but he does that with a healthy dose of compassion and understanding.  He does not wax poetic, Spitz doesn’t; but underneath the weird or cold or bombastic exteriors of the people he encounters, he searches and finds common ground.

And of course, in a book like this, the land itself is a player, and halfway through, I feel like I know the literary character of France a whole lot better than I did before than I did before I started reading Saucier’s Apprentice.

***************
Funny: a good food memoir is almost like a palate cleanser. I’ll finish Saucier’s Apprentice, and refreshed, I will tackle an ambitious book, a weighty book.  I’m in the mood, now that my taste buds are refreshed, for something that requires a big old stack of ambition. Time to find the end of Spitz’s story–I’m hoping he finds true love with a wonderful, warm, cooking woman–and to copy down a recipe or two, then to tackle a history of autism (In a Different Key, by John Donovan and Caren Zucker) that’s been pawing at my shelf.

****************
What are you reading, my friend?

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