The Food Memoir: Harking Back to Childhood

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One of the most profound depictions of memory in literature is immortalized in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The Madeleine Moment, as it is often called, exists in Proust’s seven-volume novel, where the narrator is swamped by memories when he dunks a madeleine, a sort of cake, into tea.

Proust’s magnum opus is fiction, but if there is an equivalent in nonfiction, it is perhaps the food memoir. If memoir relates to memory, the memory of food is one of the deepest in our lives, and as such, constitutes the staple of food memoirs.

Some of the finest food memoirs trace the authors’ gastronomic experiences and memories to childhood. Indeed, some of the greatest memoirs, not just the food autobiography, at least touch upon the authors’ earliest years.

The food writer’s seed is often sown in childhood. In her classic The Gastronomical Me, M.F.K. Fisher starts by describing her earliest memory of taste.

“The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four.” In Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India, the stamp of taste was put on the author, Madhur Jaffrey’s tongue even earlier in life – when she was born. An elder in the family drew a shape on the new-born Jaffrey’s tongue with a finger dipped in honey to signify sweet.Continue Reading

The High Art of Food Literature. Seriously?

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“The writer who never talks about eating, about appetite, hunger, food, about cooks and meals, arouses my suspicion as though some vital element were missing in him,” wrote the Italian writer Aldo Buzzi, in his book, The Perfect Egg: And Other Secrets.

Yet, writers who write primarily about food are called food writers, not just writers, as though writing in general or about the more serious subjects—whether fiction or nonfiction—ranks higher in the literary canon. Food writing brings to mind gastronomy, a luxury or a pursuit of the leisurely and well-heeled. Recipes? Puttering around in the kitchen and writing about the food prepared? Food is the domain of the frivolous, perhaps? Chef and writer Michael Ruhlman ponders this perception in an article in The Huffington Post. He wonders why writing “about what is all-important” should need justification.

For a long time, when I described myself as a food writer, the word got stuck in my throat like a fish bone. I was raised in Bengal, India, a region where fish dominates the diet. Could I be a “food writer” and be, well, a writer or an author? I started a blog years ago to document the food of my childhood and the experiences of cooking with my mother, now 80 years old. I began writing personal essays and features for a popular website, In Mama’s Kitchen, which unfortunately folded last year. The food I wrote about rooted me in a small town in the heart of India and my first forays into the kitchen of my mother as a child and adolescent. But I also sought to transcend the label of a food writer and be a writer of fiction and essays that shed light on the human condition.

Ruhlman says, “Cooking dinner is not a chore or a hassle, not simply the fulfillment of a bodily need, or even an indulgence, but is in fact fundamental to our humanity.” I am unsure about the cooking part—even though I delight in it—but food certainly is more than indulgence or even biological sustenance. The other attribute that makes us human is the ability of telling stories, says Ruhlman. Yes, stories! Food sure does tell stories, and food writers—the greatest of them, in any case—can create abiding literature that reflects human character or the history and culture of a place.Continue Reading

Woolf at the Table: Good Dinner, Good Talk

woolf 001I have always been enchanted by Virginia Woolf and—being an avid cook and food writer myself—by gastronomic references in literature, both fiction and nonfiction. So when I learned about a book about the eating habits of the Bloomsbury set, of which Woolf was a member, I took notice. The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love, and Art is a compendium of recipes, food-related paintings, and biographical anecdotes that sheds new light on the members of that coterie of British artists, writers, and thinkers. The book sparked in me a new interest in Woolf’s novels. In this book and in Woolf’s work, she comes across as a food lover. Yet, like her novels, Woolf’s relationship to food is nuanced and complex.

Food, in Woolf’s hands, rises to a level above physical meaning—it becomes more than a delicious meal. In her early writings, it seems that meals were little more than an excuse for intellectual people to gather. Woolf was curious about food and understood its importance, yet she felt that in her time, too much attention to such seemingly mundane topics would be looked down upon.

Torn between what she knew to be significant and what she knew to be literary propriety, she deplored this restraint in her celebrated essay, A Room of One’s Own:

“It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance.”

In this essay, she famously says, “A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”Continue Reading

Snack Time with Sherrie Flick

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Sherrie and the beloved Bubs the dog

When writer Sherrie Flick coordinated events at the immensely popular Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh, one thing was certain, beyond the high caliber of the visiting writers and the fact the space would be packed: there would be fabulous food. Crusty bread, gooey cheese, in-season vegetables, jugs of wine and—Sherrie’s specialty—plenty of pie.

Sherrie’s flash fiction often incorporates food as a driving metaphor too, and her novel, Reconsidering Happiness, primarily takes place in a bakery. But in recent years, Sherrie’s culinary ventures have moved out of the kitchen and off the page—she teaches food writing at Chatham University, and she is a food columnist, an urban gardener, and the series editor for At Table, an evolving book list at University of Nebraska Press that seeks to “expand and enrich the ever-changing discussion of food politics, nutrition, the cultural and sociological significance of eating, sustainability, agriculture, and the business of food.”

As Sherrie Flick’s blend of food and writing continues to expand, I wanted to discover how this focus on food has evolved in her writing and her life.

KF: You just published a wonderful essay on bread baking and the creative process in Necessary Fiction, where you explain that for you the two skills evolved almost hand-in-hand. Have you also discovered a creative connection with urban gardening?

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Sherrie’s garden in the heart of Pittsburgh

SF: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m writing another essay for the Necessary Fiction series that links my gardening to learning how to play the ukulele. That’s a more complicated connection than my garden’s connection to my creative process though.

For me, some days—most days, really—the garden is a physical manifestation of my creative process. I look at it all crazed and wandering and beautiful and weird in my yard and I think: yes, my friend, that is what the inside of your head looks like.
As fiction writers we rarely get to SEE a physical manifestation of our work. Words on the page become images in a reader’s mind. Gardening helps me see the way I organize—or more correctly—disorganize structure.

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Reading Cookbooks Like Novels: Bookseller Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick (Image: Nora Maynard)

Looking for an international cookbook by horror-film actor Vincent Price? A 1920s etiquette manual suitable for Jay Gatsby? Or Alice B. Toklas’ infamous tome with its recipe for fudge spiked with hashish? Bonnie Slotnick‘s got you covered.

With a collection of some 4,000 out-of-print and antiquarian culinary titles stocked in her cozy shop in New York’s West Village, Bonnie takes a refreshingly hands-on approach to selling. Whether she’s locating a replacement copy of an out-of-state customer’s well-loved, well-worn family cookbook, giving a local chef expert historical advice, or offering a visiting dog a biscuit, she always provides a personal touch.

I sat down with Bonnie to chat about her love of culinary writing as she cleaned and prepped some new arrivals for sale.

You once said you read cookbooks like novels. I’m intrigued.

I suppose you could say I first read cookbooks like children’s books, because I started when I was little. My mother had a 1940s copy of The Settlement Cook Book. This was put together by Jewish women who ran a settlement house in Milwaukee; it was originally published in 1901 and sold as a fundraiser.

The cover design especially appealed to me: a row of little girl cooks parading toward a heart, with the motto “The way to a man’s heart” above the title. There were also illustrations of children cooking at the start of some chapters. I used to just sit and read that book over and over again. Some of the recipes used words that were German or transliterated Yiddish or otherwise exotic—syllabub, timbale, kumquat, ramekin. I didn’t look them up, I just savored the sound of them in my head.Continue Reading

Cookbooks, Compost Heaps, and Poetry Booby Traps: A Conversation with Poet and Pie-maker Kate Lebo

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(photo credit: steven miller)

The first poetry anthology I owned was How to Eat A Poem: A Smorgasbord of Tasty and Delicious Poems for Young Readers. The title still gives me the giggles, though my amusement is perhaps more nuanced—as a kid, I delighted in the simple silliness of the concept; now, the idea of “eating” a poem seems to me a potent subversion of the establishment, a reminder that the experience of reading poetry can be at once tangible and abstract, silly and serious, nourishing of both body and mind.

For a similarly potent, subversive, and delightful reminder of the inherent deliciousness of verse, look no further than Kate Lebo, a Seattle-based poet and proprietress (or rather, proPIEtress) of Pie School, which teaches pastry-phobics the art of the perfect pie. Other manifestations of her awesomeness include A Commonplace Book of Pie; a “semi-regular semi-secret social” called Pie Stand; an in-progress “lyric grocery” of Wikipedia erasures about fruit; and these kick-ass poems in AGNI, River and Sound Review, and Best New Poets.

After the break, Lebo and I talk pies, poems, poems about pies and much, much more.

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