On Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life”

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“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.

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On Craig Claiborne’s “A Feast Made For Laughter”

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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?

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Spiced Eggplant Salad

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Every relationship has rules. For example, in some relationships the person who makes dinner doesn’t have to do the dishes. In others, the person who cleans the bathroom doesn’t have to take out the garbage. In my relationship with Craig, there’s one overriding rule that must be obeyed or everything will crumble to pieces. That rule is: “Adam, don’t buy any more cookbooks.”

My cookbook shelf is positively bursting with cookbooks. 60% are cookbooks I purchased before meeting Craig, but the other 40% are books that are sent to me by eager publicists who, much like my publicist when my book came out, want maximum exposure for their books. I can’t say no: my policy is, I’ll accept the book (assuming it’s a book I think I’ll be interested in) and if I like it I’ll write about it. But the truth is, if it’s a text-based book there’s no way I’m reading it before the year 2020–I’m a slow reader and for me to spend time reading a book, I have to really, really, really want to read it. If it’s a cookbook, I’ll flip through it when it arrives and if I like something in it I’ll cook it and if it comes out well, I’ll blog about it. Obviously, that doesn’t happen too often because how many posts can you recall from recent memory that I cooked from a new cookbook? I can only recall one, and that wasn’t even a cookbook: it was a promotion for an upcoming cookbook.

All of that’s to say, I’m not allowed to buy cookbooks. “You don’t need any more cookbooks,” Craig will say when I’m tempted. “Where will you put it anyway? There’s no room.”

He makes very good points. And I’ve been good, I’ve followed the rule pretty dutifully for the past year. Only, over the past few months, I slowly fell for a book I flipped through again and again in the bookstore. Finally, after months of flipping, I decided to break the sacred rule. I bought it. I took it home. I hid it under the mattress. Craig didn’t know, he still doesn’t know. Thank God he doesn’t read my blog (well he does occasionally.) What book was it that made me break my pact? You must click to find out….(unless you’re reading this in some kind of reader, in which case the answer is right below this sentence….)

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How To Write A Book About Food

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It recently occurred to me that I wrote a book.

Yes, almost a year ago my book, “The Amateur Gourmet: How To Shop, Chop and Tablehop Like A Pro (Almost)” was released by Bantam/Dell. The book, which will come out in paperback in the fall, has served me very well in its brief life. It led to readings at the Park Slope and Boca Raton Barnes & Nobles featuring giant posters that said “Meet Adam Roberts” which my mom has preserved like the Dead Sea Scrolls in my old bedroom; it led to meetings at the Food Network which, in turn, led to my job hosting “The FN Dish”; it garnered praise from Frank Bruni on his blog as well as positive reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and The Boston Globe; and, most importantly, it led to loving, thankful e-mails from readers just like yourselves who discovered my book buried beneath William Wegman calendars in the discount bin of your local bookstores and instead of tossing it aside, brought it home, read it, and were inspired to become passionate cooks and eaters. It’s this last bit that makes writing a food book such a rewarding and noble endeavor: with a few flicks of your fingers, you can change lives. So how do you do it?

I’m not here to tell you how to get a book published. You all know everything there is to know about my launch into the publishing world: you’re looking at it. I started a blog, the blog got attention, an agent e-mailed me, a book proposal was drafted, sold and then I got into the nitty gritty of writing a book. And that’s what this essay is about: how to write a book about food.

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Belated Book Review: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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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.

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On Phoebe Damrosch’s “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter”

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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.

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Gluten-Free Girl

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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.

Sex Chickens & “The United States of Arugula”

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.