Last night, I went to meet a friend for a drink at Laurel Hardware, a restaurant in West Hollywood that has a killer cocktail called The Vig that combines tequila, pineapple, vanilla bean, and green chartreuse. As is my wont, I arrived fifteen minutes early and found myself standing in the entryway where the staff was having a meeting and the chefs in the open kitchen were prepping for the dinner rush. These facts would normally be totally lost on me, but because I’d been reading Molly Wizenberg’s fantastic new memoir, Delancey, I suddenly felt a surge of recognition. “These people are girding themselves for an onslaught,” I told myself, studying the scene with fascination. “In one hour, they’re all going to be elbow deep in the muck.”
“Write what scares you.”
That’s the kind of directive you’ll get in college creative writing classes, interactive online workshops and, believe it or not, grad school. You’ll get it from the old pros and you’ll get it from frustrated young upstarts: “write what scares you.” David Lindsay Abaire is a prolific playwright with many hilarious plays under his belt, “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” among them. But it wasn’t until a mentor advised him to write what scared him most that he wrote what many consider his greatest play, “Rabbit Hole.” He was duly rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.
How does a Craig Claiborne become a Craig Claiborne?
The best part of Craig Claiborne’s autobiography, “A Feast Made for Laughter,” a long out-of-print book that I picked up at Bonnie Slotnick’s used cookbook store in the West Village, is that the man himself–a man whose impact on American gastronomy is undeniable, whose tenure at The New York Times set the bar for all food journalism and criticism that followed–is that he himself doesn’t know.
It’s a brave book, a searing self-study, and yet it never fulfills its promise: how does a boy from Sunflower Mississippi, who notoriously shared a bed with his father when his family lost all their money, whose teacher called him a sissy in front of the whole class for not playing sports, whose relationship with his mother was so fraught that he eventually cut all ties with her completely become the preeminent food authority in the United States? How does a boy who’s so poor he walks to school every day, mortified that someone he knows will offer him a ride, go on to eat a $4000 dinner that makes the front page of The New York Times and is ultimately denounced by the Pope?
The soup dumpling was balanced cautiously on my spoon, the twisted top bitten off and, as I stared into the murky, steamy depths of broth, I was struck by the gray lumpy brain-like matter in the middle. Struck, not because it was unfamiliar—soup dumplings at Grand Sichuan are almost monthly staples of our diet—but because, suddenly, after reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” that lump of pork conjured forth images of tortured pigs, in crowded pens, their tails cut off to a stump so that other pigs won’t chew on them. Was this the meat of a factory pig? Would I, by biting in, be complicit in its tortured death? I drowned the dumpling, and my quandary, in gingered soy sauce and bit in quickly.
Eat fast and don’t think. I gobbled it up, like a good American.
It takes a great deal to make me burst out laughing in the middle of a coffee shop. First of all, I suffer from some social anxiety: I don’t like to make a spectacle of myself (unless I’m making horror movies on the internet) and I often give dirty looks to those who carry on obnoxious cell phone conversations or cackle loudly as I try to write my memoirs while sipping frothy cappuccinos. But yesterday, as I finished Phoebe Damrosch’s fantastic new book “Service Included,” I broke out of character and burst out laughing. It happened on page 179 and it may be the most shocking sentence I’ve yet encountered in a food book. I can’t repeat it here nor, for that matter, can I repeat it anywhere: it’s filthy. It’s something a customer says to Phoebe when she’s a captain at Per Se, one of New York’s (if not the country’s) most illustrious and renowned restaurants. The context alone would make any irreverent comment hilarious, but this particular one–well, I’ll let you get there yourself. It still makes me laugh just thinking about it.
I am guilty of a great crime. No, I’m not talking about murder or wearing brown pants with black shoes, I’m talking about a crime of the heart. A crime of insensitivity, of incredulity. When I first heard of celiac disease, I sort of rolled my eyes and thought, “What’ll they think of next?” You see I had a teacher in grad school who was allergic to gluten, so I had to make a big effort, when baking for class, to make things without flour. It was annoying. And really, wasn’t this teacher a bit of a hypochondriac? And how bad would it be if she had gluten, anyway?
Well, I just received a copy of Shauna James Ahern’s beautiful new book “Gluten-Free Girl” and I feel like a punk. In the book’s opening chapters, Shauna–who I had the pleasure of meeting in Seattle–describes a childhood of illness and pain that sent my empathy bone atwitter. “Sometimes, I felt horribly unwell,” she writes of her childhood in the book’s first chapter. “Wheezing chest, headaches, and fevers; desperate fatigue. I developed pneumonia six times in my life, nearly dying once. If it wasn’t pneumonia, it was bronchitis, my throat constricted, my chest squeezed tight. Breathing in too deeply–more than half-hearted pants–brought prickles of pain deep in my lungs.”
It’s a credit to Shauna’s writing that by the time the diagnosis finally comes (on pg. 16) you want to get up and cheer. I finally understood, with absolute clarity, how frustrating it must be to be allergic to something so commonplace, to suffer for so long without an answer and how revelatory it must be to finally have an answer and a new way to live your life.
This book is a lovely, inspiring memoir that isn’t just for those with celiac or other food allergies. It’s a book about turning lemons into lemonade, of taking the cards that life hands you and playing a great game. Having met Shauna, I can attest to her spirit, her energy, and–most wonderful of all–her heart. She’s such a generous person and writer, that having this book on my shelf makes my apartment noticeably brighter. I highly recommend it.
There is a giant chicken in my brain. Every time I try to tell you about David Kamp’s wonderful book “The United States of Arugula” the chicken appears and squawks out “bok bok bok.” I want to tell you about Kamp’s masterful storytelling skills, the way he treats America’s food icons like beloved superheroes, revealing their creation myths with comic book flair; or how he renders even the most obscure food figures with such loving detail. Only there’s that damn chicken. The chicken entered my brain at page 73 in Chapter Three, “The Food Establishment.” The chicken, you see, belonged to Craig Claiborne, whose name you may recognize from your mother’s New York Times cookbook. He was part of what Kamp calls “The Big Three” (the other two were James Beard and Julia Child) and, as Kamp documents, he led a tortured, self-destructive life. When drunk, he talked compulsively about sex and, according to Arthur Gelb–chief cultural correspondent of The New York Times while Claiborne was there, “He told me once, when we were drinking, that he and this little black kid, when they were small boys, would fool around with the farm animals. They would have sex with chickens.”
Craig Claiborne had sex with chickens.
There, I said it, now giant chicken be gone. (Giant chicken flies away.) That was hard to shake off. No matter how far away I got away from that tidbit on pg. 73, it’s the sort of thing that you don’t easily forget. In fact, I must confess, that forevermore when I see The New York Times Cookbook or Craig Claiborne’s name that chicken will return and I’ll have to cast it away again. Such is the power of food literature.
But there’s much more to David Kamp’s book than Craig Claiborne’s sex chicken. I’d say it’s pretty much required reading for anyone who wants to understand how the constellations in the sky of foodiedom all fit together, how they came to be constellations and why many of them still burn so brightly. (How’s that for an extended metaphor?) For example, it’s one thing to know that Wolfgang Puck was sent away by his parents at the tender young age of 14 to work in an Austrian hotel kitchen; it’s another to understand how his decision to open Spago with an open kitchen and a wood-burning oven (a vision carried out by his aggressive wife, Barbara Lazaroff) absolutely transformed not only California cuisine, but restaurants all across America. You know that California Pizza Kitchen in your mall? You can thank Wolfgang Puck for that.
Remember that scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep chastises Anne Hathaway for thinking that the color on the belt she’s picking doesn’t matter: “I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back” and then proceeds to explain how “you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” That’s the thrust of “The United States of Arugula”: how visionary taste-makers–from Julia Child and James Beard to Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse–have their hands in what’ll be on your plate tonight. It’s a fascinating story and one that’s rife with drama, intrigue, betrayal, and–yes–sex. For anyone interested in the history of food in the United States, this is the book for you.
On my night table sat two new books, purchased–somewhat irresponsibly–in hardcover: “Heat” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” My rule about hardcover is this: only buy something in hardcover if you’re going to read it right away. Well I read the first few chapters of “Heat,” thoroughly enjoyed them but felt that because it was based on an article I’d read several times (a profile of Mario Batali which appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago and which immediately became one of my favorite pieces of food journalism) the book didn’t feel very fresh. It felt like yesterday’s leftovers whipped into something new and delicious but still–at its core–leftovers. And then “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which everyone is raving over, is crisply written and smart and brainy but, as I turned the pages, it felt too nutritious, too good for me, too “this will improve my understanding of food” as opposed to something sexy, seductive and naughty. What was I craving? What did I need? A soft female voice called from the other room, the room where I keep my food books on a wobbly bookshelf. I followed the sound, the deep resonant voice and when I found its source, I knew this was what I needed, precisely the kind of book I need to read right now in my life: MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me.”
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is an artist, a true artist, a craftsman with words who can tell a story so deftly that it sears itself into your brain permanently: her memories become your memories, her stories become your stories and suddenly you can’t remember if it was her grandmother or your grandmother who made jams in the kitchen, when you were young, while you watched and tasted the strawberry froth left over in the bowl. Was that you or Mary Frances on a cruise ship sailing back from Europe with Germans on board saluting Hitler as the waiter brings out dinner?
There’s a dream magic to this book–it’s so careful and smart and yet loose and funny in a way that only a real artist can make it. And the stories! These stories are unforgettable. Whether pulling her sister out of a convent to take her out for beer or riding a train into Austria with a political prisoner on board who makes a run for his life with deadly results, this is not a food book: it’s an action movie, it’s a poem, it’s a celebration and yet a deeply honest account of a human life. And, my God, what a life. To have lived a week in MFK’s shoes would fill many of our lifetimes.
There’s no snobbery to this book, there’s only honesty. It’s a very hard book to write about because it’s so personal. It submerges you into the mind of a profoundly intelligent, deeply passionate person and if you’re lucky enough to spend time there, you’ll come out changed, with your vision clearer and your lust for living (and eating) enhanced. And as it goes back on the shelf in the other room and I return to those books on my nightstand (which have been trumped by a book on 9/11, “The Looming Tower,” which feels like a responsible thing to read these days), I know that her voice might still call to me, beckoning me to return to the soft embrace of her prose, the cool snap of her humor, the clear tonic of her imagery. And though many books will grace my nightstand as I get older, one thing’s for sure: there will always be room on there for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.