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Vicarious Feasts

Stories about food offer a slice of other people’s lives

You’d think that, with a mother from Rome, I would have learned everything about cooking at her knee. But in truth, my education came from other sources. It started with my stepmother’s well-thumbed back issues of Cooks Illustrated and Gourmet. Going upstairs at bedtime with a food magazine tucked under my arm could lead to an entire day spent in the kitchen with my dad and Susan, game helpers in my mission to learn how to make homemade pasta, or lentil soup, or French apple tart.

Much as I loved eating the dishes we made, I found that I enjoyed them even more when I read about them first. Not just the recipes, but the stories behind them: the Italian grandmother who had been making pasta dough since the dawn of the twentieth century, the stay-at-home dad who worked on perfecting lentil soup until his family ate the best version with gusto, the French chef in Philadelphia who made the apple tart to remember his childhood home near Rennes. Food was a prism through which I could understand the world, and stories about food offered even more. They were windows that opened directly onto other people’s lives.

I was an editorial assistant at a New York publishing house, living in a shared apartment on the Upper West Side, when I came across the writer Laurie Colwin. She had been a columnist for Gourmet and had published recipes, rich and satisfying, such as her mother-in-law’s birthday cake—an old-fashioned yeasted bread ring from Latvia—and a strangely named dish, Chicken with Chicken Glaze, that involved poaching chicken breasts and then reducing the poaching liquid to a flavorful sauce. But her true talent lay in writing about how food fit into her life—how she cooked for her future husband as a young woman, then for her mother-in-law as a bride, and finally for her daughter as a new mother. A whole life (though, sadly, not a long one—she died of a heart ailment in 1992, at the age of 48) was encapsulated in those pages. And she never lost her sense of humor.

Home Cooking, Colwin’s book of collected essays, treats readers to a piece called “Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir,” which includes an account of a meal that the hostess described as an “old-fashioned fish bake.” It was a “terrifying production” that featured a number of small, unidentified fish caught by a family member. “These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and pelted with raw chopped onion. As the coup de grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices ran out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy.”

I laughed out loud as I lay on the couch reading that essay for the first time (there would be many subsequent times). Then I got up and made the eggplant dish she describes in another classic essay, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” I fried eggplant cubes in a pan until they were crisp around the edges, then dressed them with tamari and shredded red peppers (which I decided, in a fit of independence, to stew first—I think Laurie would have approved). The dish was exquisite, and as I forked the first silky pieces into my mouth, I felt deeply connected to a person I had never met and a life I had never known.

After that, I couldn’t stop looking for my next food-writing fix. In magazines, in the aisles of my local bookstores, in my dad’s musty basement, in the book corners of thrift stores—I searched everywhere. One find was Jeffrey Steingarten, whose essays are now collected in two volumes, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate. When I became aware of him, his writing appeared mainly in Vogue—the only reason I subscribed. From fixing up a Sino-Cuban plywood-steel-and-coal contraption for an outdoor pig roast, to making authentic Neapolitan pizza in his own home (in the manner decreed by the Italian government, no less), no cooking feat seems too difficult or cumbersome for him to attempt in the name of gastronomic journalism. Each of Steingarten’s rollicking tales, such as his account of fishing for big-eye tuna off Baja California, ends with some choice recipes.

Steingarten also knows how to write about the kind of food that the average home cook can aspire to. His article on the rustic French panade, with recipes from Paul Bertolli and Judy Rodgers, perfectly captures the virtues of peasant food. (And you barely need a recipe: Simply layer good stale bread, homemade chicken stock, a few wilting greens, and a handful of grated Gruyère in a soufflé dish before baking it in a hot oven. Adding a few strands of browned onions doesn’t hurt.) He has been the cause of more than a few cookbook purchases by yours truly, including the now out-of-print Book of Tarts, by Maury Rubin, the owner of Manhattan’s City Bakery. That volume holds the recipe for the best tart pastry in the universe, according to Steingarten (and having made my share of tart pastries, I concur). The secret is to add a spoonful of cream to the classic pâte sucrée dough.

It was Steingarten’s article on authentic Sichuan cooking, which tells you exactly what to order at Grand Sichuan on Second Avenue in New York City, that introduced me to Fuchsia Dunlop, a young Englishwoman and the first non-Chinese person ever to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, in Chengdu, China. Dunlop writes captivatingly about China and Chinese food, one of the world’s oldest and most complex cuisines.

Her first two cookbooks, Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, on Sichuan and Hunan cuisine, respectively, have been followed by a memoir about living in China, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. All three volumes are as inspirational in the kitchen as they are wonderful as bedtime reading. Sichuan, Dunlop writes in a magical passage from Land of Plenty, is “famous for its mistiness, for the gray moistness that for much of the year shrouds trees and rivers, blotting out the sunlight.” She goes on:

Clear skies are famously rare, so much so that they say Sichuanese dogs bark at the sight of the sun. But against all this dismal weather, picture the colors of a typical Sichuanese meal: the chili-oil dressing on a bowlful of fresh fava beans, the scarlet pickled chilies resplendent on a braised fish, the cool pinks of aromatic boiled meats, the dusky red of Sichuan pepper. The local cooking not only restores the body, its rich autumn colors also soothe the heart and offer a fitting rebuke to the perennial grayness of the sky.”

Bill Buford, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is another favorite. He spent six months working as a line cook in Mario Batali’s kitchen at Babbo in Greenwich Village, then went to Italy to apprentice with a famed Tuscan butcher named Dario Cecchini. He wrote about it all in the best-seller Heat, which some could call a gentler version of Anthony Bourdain’s caustic Kitchen Confidential. In the first half of the book, Buford is a kitchen slave (terminology his) at Babbo. The other cooks act as if he doesn’t exist. Eventually he becomes a line cook, tolerated by his colleagues. By the end of his time at Babbo, he’s so far up the ladder that he’s allowed to berate other, less-experienced cooks with the vigor of a seasoned pro. Heat is filled with scenes like this one:

“Mario,” I said. “I want to work the pasta station.” “You can’t,” he said. “Look at you. You physically can’t do it. You’re in your late forties. You’re too old. You have to be in your twenties. It’s too fast—you no longer have the mind for it.” And this same mind, thus warned, sank momentarily into a Shakespearean despair, recognizing the limits of mortality and despondently surveying the many things in life that were now, owing to its age, definitively beyond its capacities, like higher mathematics or the infinitesimal subtleties of molecular biology, until I stopped myself. The issue was boiling food in hot water. How difficult was that going to be? And Mario relented.

I almost cheered out loud for Buford when I read that. Inspiring and hilarious, Heat was my pick for the best book of 2006.

A whole new crop of food writers is now emerging online. Among the standouts is Molly Wizenberg, who blogs at Orangette (www.orangette.net). A post written a few months after her fiancé moved in with her in Seattle described the melancholy of no longer finding herself the only cook in the kitchen. She felt anxious and jumpy until one night she armed herself with a can of tomatoes, a box of pastina, and a wooden spoon, triumphing when a homey, comforting soup came together at the stove and her fiancé mutely went back for seconds, grateful and happy. I wanted to try the soup, too, but even more I simply wanted to join her at the table. Wizenberg’s writing caught the attention of an editor at Simon & Schuster, and her first book, a collection of essays on food, love, and family, to be titled A Homemade Life, will be published next year.

We all have to eat. And we all have memories that are inextricably wrapped up with food. Grandma’s pot roast, Daddy’s salad dressing, the meal you ate when you first fell in love, the ice cream that melted in your hand the first time your heart was broken: we each have our own version of these stories. It turns out that the stories get more interesting when there are recipes involved. That’s really all that good food writing is about, in the end. Food writing is almost like voyeurism, but it’s a gentler, lovelier kind. It’s part of our humanity to break bread together. We want to know about other families, other love stories—and how better than through the meals people share?

LUISA WEISS, J99, is a cookbook editor at Stewart, Tabori & Chang. She lives in New York City, where she blogs about food, life, and newspaper recipes at www.thewednesdaychef.com.

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