On Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life”

“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.

It’s abundantly clear, as you parse the pages of Molly Wizenberg’s beautiful new book “A Homemade Life,” that Molly is writing something that scares her. The book seems light at first, a fizzy frolic with recipes and anecdotes and cute little pictures of flowers and fruit. But contained in this book is something deeper, something darker, something that only a brave writer could write. It is, in essence, the story of her relationship with her father–a lovable man she called Burg (“a nickname my mother made up, a shortened version (and inexplicable misspelling) of our last name”), a story that starts with potato salad and ends, powerfully, with Burg’s death from cancer.

Molly sets up his death at the beginning, in the very first chapter:

“When your father dies, especially if he was older, people like to say things such as, “He was so lucky. He lived a long, full life.” It’s hard to know what to say to that. What often comes to mind is, ‘Yes, you’re right. He was seventy-three, so I guess it was his time. But did you know him? Did you see how he was? He bought wine futures seven months before he died. He saw patients the afternoon he was diagnosed. he wasn’t finished.'”

Molly’s passion here is quite evident and we get the sense, very early on, that this will be a hard story for Molly to tell, that she’s going to take us not only to a private place, but a painful place. It’s how she gets there, though, that renders the book a true achievement: this is not a plodding, weepy book; this book is delightful, peppy, smart, sassy, and very often funny. For example, this passage about how her mom made her drink a glass of milk every night with dinner:

“…every single night, that glass showed up next to my plate, filled almost to the brim. I’m not sure where parents get these sorts of ideas. Probably from the same school of thought that teaches them to tell their little girls that boys are mean to them because, deep down, they have a crush. If I had a nickel for every time an adult told me that, I would build a new school of thought and teach more accurate things, like that little kids are mean to other little kids because being a little kid is very hard and confusing. I am still trying to work through the fact that a boy named his dog after me in the third grade.”

And then, of course, there are the recipes. Molly’s recipes are among my favorite recipes to be found on any food blog anywhere. Her slow-roasted tomatoes? Her butternut squash and chickpea salad? These are classics, and the recipes you’ll find in her book–so far I’ve made the banana bread with chocolate and ginger and Brandon’s (her husband’s) chana masala–are bound to become permanent fixtures in your repertoire.

This book will take you to Paris where you’ll fall in love with a boy named Guillaume, it’ll move you to Seattle where you’ll eat Dutch babies in a “bordello chic” apartment, and it’ll inspire you to start a food blog just on the chance that you, like Molly, will receive a charming e-mail from an admirer who will later become your husband. The chapters are short, the recipes inextricably linked to the stories and the whole thing a pleasure to read.

But what gives the book its impact, what will keep it fresh in your memory way after it’s over, is the pulsing heart at its center: the love Molly has for her father and the pain she feels over his loss. Two chapters in particular–“Italian Grotto Eggs” and “The Mottling”–brought real tears to my eyes, really made me feel in a way few food books ever do. The very specific details Molly brings to these scenes (the duffel bag her father brings to the hospital, the cereal she eats the morning after he dies) are unforgettable, strangely beautiful in their specificity.

It’s no secret that I’m friends with Molly so you should, of course, take all this with a grain of salt. I can’t claim objectivity; she did, after all, shelter me in my moment of need. But I can’t help but feel that if I didn’t know Molly, that if someone handed me this book and said “read it,” I’d open its pages curious, maybe even a bit skeptical, and slowly but ever-so-surely fall in love with her. It’s hard not to: she’s so open, so generous, and so smart. Mostly, though, she’s brave. This is a brave book–the kind of book even the cleverest, savviest food writer would have trouble writing–and for that reason alone, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a model food book, the kind of book I hope myself one day to write. But to do so, I’d have to write what scares me and that’s easier said than done.

24 thoughts on “On Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life””

  1. Thanks for your tender review, Adam. I’m eagerly awaiting my copy in the mail and can’t wait to dive right in! Molly’s recipes are among my favorites on the web, too. I’ve made SO MANY of her recipes and they’ve all been winners.

  2. Well take my hat off and Kowtow, that was one great review. A great review that (though I haven’t received the book yet from Amazon) seems to sum the whole thing up in one perfect bow. Touching words, great insights from a fellow blogger and friend.

  3. Can I tell you how jealous of you I am that you are friends with Molly? I have loved her from the moment I read her first blog entry, and her book was stunning. I like, somehow, to imagine my two favorite bloggers as friends…it makes cyber space seem so much more intimate!( and how wierd is it that i found you both seperately?)

  4. as soon as I scrounge up enough money for the book, it’ll be mine, and I can hardly wait. I’ve read snippets on Amazon.com – you’re right – it seems truly brilliant. thanks for the glowing representation, because she certainly deserves it.



  5. Your review reaffirms me in the opinion that the best and deepest food writing (all over the world) is being done in internet, rather than in the stablished media. Now, I just hope the copy I’ve ordered arrives soon.

  6. I love books that are part biography, part recipe book, particularly the ones that show how entwined family, food and life are (the best recipe of all!)

    One of my favorites is Dear Francesca by Scottish-Italian Mary Contini. Molly’s book is definitely on my wish list now…

  7. I just made the Chana Masala last night after reading all the way to that recipe in ONE DAY! I love her musings on food and how food is a memory for her. She is so open, yet, that intrigues you to want to know her more. I am excited for book two.

  8. She does seem like an absolutely lovely woman, and I cannot agree more about her recipes being some of the best. That cabbage with soy sauce and hot sauce is genius. I’m anxiously waiting for my book in the mail…I can’t wait!

  9. It’s not partiality on your part, it is fact! I was a late discoverer of Orangette, have never met Molly, and just *devoured* this book and handed it over to my wife insisting that she read it, and immediately wrote a review on my own blog. Everything you say is spot on.

  10. Adam

    Bravo! What a wonderful, touching and realistic review. Molly is one of national treasures, and her book will touch you in many ways. Writing what scares me is something I’m not ready to do yet, but is great food for thought.


  11. I just picked up the book the other day, and I can easily see where the tears will start flowing. I love Molly’s honest and witty tone, which is both smart and vulnerable and the same time. There have been many days that I have read Orangette and have laughed out loud — and sad to say, I totally teared up when she told us how she met her husband. I am sure “A Homemade Life” will inspire the same way her beautiful blog has.

  12. Fantastic review and I am now heading straight to Amazon to order. Molly is such a brilliant writer but it has been hard to tell from her blog so far what the book is actually about (eg is it just a rehash of recipes which she has already posted). Sounds like the book takes a really different turn.

  13. What a gorgeous review! I’ve been looking forward to Molly’s book for quite some time, and I’m glad to see that it’s receiving such positive & glowing reception.

  14. I totally believe you about how great the book is – and how moving. i just read Molly’s article in BA regarding her father and rice pudding and, having lost my father as well, it made me choke up. I’ve been meaning to write her and tell her so, but figured she’s too popular to reach. I probably should try to tell her so anyway. Her writing about him is so lovely.

    Great review, Adam.

  15. Adam, you brought tears to my eyes (well, Molly did)… I think I shall give this book a spot in my virtual shopping cart. Who knew that Molly & I have far more in common based on this post alone than just being two food bloggers. Thanks.

    PS Saw her article in this month’s Bon Appetit too. Nice!

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