Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Literary Smörgåsbord: Five New Books on Food and Family

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All our writers are saying one important thing: This is what food means in our families. What does it mean in yours?  The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage

The role of food in family life varies from house to house and day to day. We might whip up a grilled cheese to get the kids from soccer to violin lessons. We might spend Sunday morning baking German pancakes. Or we might, once a year, spend three days layering traditional cassoulet. Food nourishes our bodies, links us to each other, and binds us inextricably to the planet. But food also serves a more figurative role—sustenance through hard times, a key to our past, an expression of all that is vital.

The five books reviewed here explore food and family life through a cornucopia of writing styles, from practical recipes to fanciful fiction, from autobiography to evocative essay. Despite variations in preparation and delivery, these books share two ingredients: compassion and connection. We are more than what we eat, these writers say. We are what we choose not to eat, how our food is grown and how it is cooked, with whom we sit to eat, and the stories we tell around the table.

 

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Deb Perelman
Knopf, 2012; $35.00

Back in 2006, Deb Perelman began the Smitten Kitchen blog from her tiny New York City apartment. She cooked, snapped photos of her creations, and wrote of life in the big city and her pint-sized kitchen. Perelman has a knack for turning comfort food into something unexpected, a knack that has garnered her millions of fans. The much-anticipated , released last year, continues in this familiar-turned-irresistible style: not just ratatouille but ratatouille subs; not just s'mores but s'mores cake. Perelman is self-taught, and a self-described picky and obsessive cook. She chooses non-fussy ingredients, creates as few dirty dishes as possible, and mothers a roaming toddler while tending her wildly successful blog. You have to like her.

But Perelman's appeal stems only in part from her recipes and stunning food photography. Her writing is just as captivating, and perhaps most charming when portraying motherhood. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is dedicated to her son, “the best thing I ever baked.” Like the most insightful mother-writers, however, Perelman serves the tender—the “sweet little squeaks and 'beh's”—with the tough. Her inspiration for Linguine with Cauliflower Pesto, for instance, arrived when her son hit five weeks old and she “hadn't had a real meal in, well, five weeks.” With her son in the Bjorn, Perelman chopped, toasted, and mixed, and then ate half the resulting dish standing up, “only dropping a couple of raisins on his fuzzy newborn head.”

In her section on party snacks and drinks, Perelman tells how parental reading of Dr. Seuss' Fox in Sox got competitive and later, with friends, evolved into a “full-on drinking game, where stuttering over a word meant you had to drink.” She even invented a cocktail for the occasion: Muddle Puddle Battle with strawberries and white tequila—bedtime bottles and stories for grown-ups.

Though a parent, an American, an omnivore, and a city-dweller, Perelman recognizes that her readers may be none of these. Refreshingly, she offers a whole chapter on vegetarian main dishes, advises on ingredient-substitutions and non-US terminology, and restrains herself from babbling about her kid on every page. As her introduction suggests, Perelman has created a book of recipes, photos, and writing “so tempting that not cooking is no longer an option.”

 

The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat
Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper, eds.
Roost Books, 2013; $16.95

Like Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage offers a tantalizing buffet of recipes and personal essays. With this collection, however, the focus shifts firmly toward the writing, 28 perfectly blended stories of food and family, each with a corresponding recipe.

Editors Caroline M. Grant (Literary Mama's editor-in-chief) and Lisa Catherine Harper (Literary Mama contributor) believe that "eating is not a singular experience, nor has there ever been one right way to eat,” a philosophy espoused since 2008 on their blog, Learning to Eat. In Cassoulet, Grant and Harper host an impressive collection of seasoned writers, including Catherine Newman and Deborah Copaken Kogan, each with different food-related memories, struggles, and triumphs.

In “A Case for Soul Food,” former Literary Mama columnist Deesha Philyaw recalls growing up with spinach like “dark green slop” and collards cooked in fatback. Philyaw saw her beloved grandmother, her mother, and her father succumb to illnesses possibly related to diet, and resolved to feed herself and her children better. She now buys fresh spinach at the organic grocery but her daughter asks, “What's soul food?” Like so many parents, Philyaw aims for balance: “I find myself at a crossroads about my food heritage: What to keep, and what to leave behind?”

Libby Gruner, Literary Mama's former children's lit columnist, reminisces about family meals: “Once upon a time, we ate dinner—the same dinner—together every night.” Now her daughter is vegan, her son a die-hard carnivore, and too often the whole family winds up at the burrito place. “I struggle... with how to make a meal we can all enjoy,” Gruner writes, “while still honoring the individual choices we've made about or eating.”

If Philyaw and Gruner struggle with what to eat, other contributors to Cassoulet struggle with how much. In “One Bite at a Time,” short story writer and Literary Mama contributor Elrena Evans describes her toddler's refusal to consume anything but bananas and breast milk. Evans becomes so overwhelmed with worry, self-doubt, and love that she shrieks and swears at her daughter then runs from the house. Meanwhile, author Jen Larsen blames her own mother for a lifelong “acrimonious relationship with food” and her darkest hours at three hundred pounds. Larsen, like many of the writers in this collection, craves to understand “the real meaning of nourish.”

In his essay, “Vegging Out,” Gregory Dicum explores various meanings of nourishment, “the wheel of life, sustenance, and death.” A dedicated vegan and now a father, Dicum, like Philyaw, deliberates about what to feed his child. Making an omelet incites “karmic equivocation”; sneaking a bite of his wife’s pickled herring induces moral crisis. Dicum wants to nourish his son with all the fat growing brains need. At the same time, he strives to nourish the planet, its living beings, and his own sense of morality.

Although not all contributors to The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage are parents or write about parenting, Dicum summarizes a common theme: “Having a kid forces you to examine what you mean by how you live—at least it ought to.” How you live, that is, and how you eat.

 

Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen
Judith Newton
She Writes Press, 2013; $16.95

Tasting Home expands the tried-and-true blend of personal narrative and recipes into a full-fledged autobiography. In 1945, at age four, Newton played doctor with the boy down the street “thinking it mildly exciting but not too bad.” Her mother disagreed. While baking Cry Baby cookies, her mother dissolved into sobs and then destroyed Newton's self-worth with one sentence: “I thought you were a good little girl.” Newton admits that the life-long trauma born of this moment may be hard for readers to understand. She fails to comprehend it herself: “All I really know is that I died that day in the kitchen, and had to be reborn.”

Now an author and professor emerita of Women and Gender Studies at UC Davis, Newton spent six decades pursuing rebirth. She joined the Christian church and then left. She met the love of her life and left him too. Crisscrossing the country for various academic jobs and lovers, Newton concludes that cooking remains “the surest path to stabilizing a relationship and creating a sense of home.” She “died” in her mother's kitchen, but, further, Newton resents that her mother never taught her to cook, never cared for mother-daughter bonding over cake batter and cookie dough. As if in retaliation, Newton gravitates toward all things food: cookbooks, elaborate dinner parties, and finicky recipes. Each section of her autobiography encapsulates a decade and a corresponding cooking trend: Sixties, Mastering the Art; Seventies, Time-Life Books; Eighties, Moosewood. Chapters within each section include a recipe Newton made or ate at the time, from whole-wheat croissant to bibimbap. Through cooking for others and teaching her own daughter to cook, Newton finds redemption and the home she so craves.

 

From the Kitchen of Half Truth
Maria Goodin
Soucebooks, 2012; $14.99

With Maria Goodin's debut, From the Kitchen of Half Truth, we move from reality into the realm of fiction—and almost into fantasy. Goodin's Nutmeg May remembers nothing of her early childhood, yet knows she was born five minutes underdone and caught in a frying pan—or so her mother says. Meg is now 21 and a student of genetics, a subject she loves for its grounding in fact. Meg is weary of her mother's earnest but “ridiculous fantasies” and annoyed with her mother's obsessive cooking for no one in particular. Meg wants the truth about her past.

When her mother falls terminally ill, however, Meg learns to reckon the allure of fact with the power of story and fantasy. Growing thin with illness, Meg's mother insists that she is fine, just a little tired. Meg urges her to accept the diagnosis and to renounce the lies that have shaped their lives.

“I haven't been very honest with you,” her mother agrees. No, there wasn't a cow beside the cot in their tiny Tottenham flat. “That was never an option,” her mother capitulates. It was, in fact, a goat; Meg was lactose intolerant.

Meg realizes how fervently her mother clings to these stories and decides to unearth the truth herself. Her boyfriend, a physicist and über-realist, incites Meg to follow every lead and ruthlessly strip her mother's stories of their fantasy. But Ewan, a newly hired gardener who brews herbal teas and spouts Greek mythology, prompts Meg (and readers) to think deeper: What purpose do these stories serve?

These characters might seem stock—the hard-nosed scientist, the wise gardener, and even, we later learn, the lumbering giant—but such familiar types well-suit Goodin's narrative style that stops just short of fairy tale. As in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, readers are tempted to believe the implausible. Consider that babies can be caught in a frying pan, that crab cakes pinch, and that giants terrorize, and Goodin's novel is sheer delight.

 

Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food
BK Loren
Counterpoint, 2013; $16.95

“Words are my nourishment,” BK Loren says in her exquisite collection of essays on food both literal and metaphorical. “Writing to me means food, means sustenance.”

In her essay, “The Evolution of Hunger,” Loren expands on this link between food and words. She describes how hominids evolved from carnivores to omnivores, developed molars to grind vegetables and specialized tongues and lips. A new diet produced new organs which in turn produced syllables and words, and we “celebrated our newly found gastrolinguistics as hominids tend to do: with food. Our souls hunger for communication. Our bodies hunger for food.”

From here, readers might expect a full essay of the evolution of language, but Loren cuts to present-day Albuquerque and her shared Smuckers-and-Jif sandwich with a homeless man, Carlos. “How long had it been since this man had dined with anyone?” she asks, and then “I did my best imitation of Julia Child. Here we have a sandwich au beurre d’arachide. Oooo, delicious! And it was.”

The tie may seem tenuous, but Loren weaves it beautifully. After molars, tongues, and lips, the next to evolve were our eyes and heart: “It was tough going there for a bit.” Back in Albuquerque, shortly after his shared meal with Loren, Carlos is found burned to death by some “young male hominids in town,” and the rest of the city pays homage to a man they'd once crossed the street to avoid.

Food, stories, connection, empathy. Throughout her book, Loren, a novelist, memoirist and writing teacher, returns to these themes. In several essays, she writes about her mother, father, and two brothers. She describes her mother's diagnosis with Parkinson's, a label her mother, who “was eating sprouts and yogurt when the rest of America was drowning in mayo and iceberg lettuce,” rails against. Loren looks for connection, to her mother and the disease, through the tea and toast they share after a workout, through the pesticide-laden farmland that surrounded their home, and through the avocets behind her mother's beloved mall.

In “This Little Piggy Stayed Home,” Loren finds connection to her father through organic tomatoes. Her father didn't believe in organic food or “the hippie shit they stand for.” But Loren had joined a community-shared agriculture program, in part for the fresh food, in part for the direct interaction with farmers. She'd leave a bowl of tomatoes on her kitchen table and her father would sample, grow misty-eyed, and tell stories of his youth. Loren writes:

My father was a military man; in his assessment, I was a hippie. I protested the same wars he believed in. We were often at odds, which is why I treasured those tomatoes; they were one of the few things that kept my father and me connected.

In her introduction to Animal, Mineral, Radical, Loren explains how she wrote each essay deliberately, with care and patience, “both of which breed compassion.” This attention, both to her craft and to the world, resonates throughout her book. Extending the link between writing and food, a recent reviewer noted that we have a Slow Food movement, and perhaps we now need a Slow Read movement -- if so, Loren's words are the perfect place to begin.

 


Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.


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These sound like a great set of books to feast on for summer reading fare. Thanks for the reviews!
Thank you for this perceptive review!
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