Occasional reviews of books and such
What's a blog supposed to be? It's a question I've been thinking about about now and again, particularly during the Fall of 2014 when I found neither time nor inspiration enough to write regularly in this space. I will not promise to do more or better in the future - such resolutions are meant to be broken. But I also think that this blog - initially designed to showcase a particular place and its bounty through changing seasons - can also accommodate more than photos of places and things and descriptions of daily life. Perhaps things such as books and essays, and other items of interest. So this post will inaugurate an occasional series on things I've read, and thought about. I hope that you might be moved to write and comment.
So - here goes.
Since Off Mill features recipes along with photos, it shouldn't surprise anyone that I like to read about cooking and about food. Heck, cookbooks, particularly old ones, are like novels to me: settings of particular places and times. The cookbook writer's characters are the choices of the recipes themselves, and descriptions of the methods and (sometimes) the photos of the finished products provide the plot and drama and resolution.
I am sure I am not the only reader who views cookbooks this way. The proof? The increasing number of memoirs-with-recipes that populate the cookbook shelves at the bookstore and library. The best, of course, are the two collections of essays written by the late Laurie Colwin. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are not - strictly speaking - memoirs, but the essays are miniature windows that permit us detailed views of Colwin the writer, the cook, and the sensitive observer of everyday domestic life. These books occupy the pride of place in my cookbook collection; they are (justly) celebrated enough to ensure their reprinting for years to come. If you have not already made their acquaintance, I beg you to do so.
Besides, the writing in these books is the model, in many ways, for the newer entries in the memoir-with-recipes genre. It has been the model for my own food writing, to be sure. I used to write a monthly column for my hometown newspaper (north of Boston) and Laurie's work was always on my desk as I wrote.
I'm sure Molly Wizenberg has done something like this. Ms. Wizenberg's blog Orangette (http://orangette.blogspot.com/) is one of those miraculous sites that consistently deliver on their promises, whether tacit or overt. I've been a fan for years, although I've known about the blog more than visited it, courtesy of Ms. Wizenberg's (can I just call her Molly? Privilege of age, and all that ...) now-defunct column in Bon Appetit. The fact that Bon Appetit no longer carries Molly's column, and instead seems to have become an aggressively testosterone-fueled cooking smashdown (as bizarre as that sounds, the reality is worse. More on that later.) is one reason I began to sample the blog. And then search for - and read - her memoirs. There are two of them. The first, A Homemade Life, sounds like a Home Cooking re-run by a twenty-something who has just discovered Laurie Colwin, until you begin to understand that this is a deeply-felt and beautifully-constructed paean to Molly's late father, and to the family life she shared with him and with her quite remarkable mother.
Molly is definitely a good cook. She's adventurous and experimental (qualities that are not the same, although they are frequently used as synonyms. One can be adventurous and just plain sloppy. One can also be experimental and precise, but never venture out of one's comfort zone of favorite tastes.) She works at the craft of writing as avidly as she pursues as the art of cookery. And she's really got a way with the first line that nails the reader's interest to the page. Consider this, from the chapter in A Homemade Life titled "Quite That Magnificent":
To most people, I guess, turning twenty-one is all about booze. To me, turning twenty-one was all about coconut. Booze is nice, but coconut is chewable, and when push comes to shove, I will always like eating better than drinking. Everyone has their priorities.
Try putting the book down after THAT elegant reversal of Ogden Nash's storied maxim.
Molly's memoir is written in a style that could be called casual, if it were not so evident that she's labored and rewritten and probably cried over her work. No one can possibly write with such seeming ease on such devastating subjects as the lingering death of a beloved parent - and follow such telling with the precise and bloodless language of a favored recipe - without some serious writing chops. She's not as open about the fact that she knows and delivers good writing as is Gabrielle Hamilton, but that bit of modesty is another of Molly's charms. She's as artless in her self-revelation as she is careful about her sentence construction.
The tale she tells is a very good one, although it's evident about halfway through the book that this will be only the first installment of a series. And the recipes? I'll make all of them. In time.
If Molly's first memoir is tinged with melancholy and terror (leaving a doctoral program! Focusing on a blog for a career, for Pete's sake! Meeting her future husband online! Who does THAT? [snicker]) and grace, her second is a virtual how-to manual for making a restaurant work, from the ground up.
After all, we have all heard the statistic: over half of all new restaurants fail in their first year. There are problems with location, financing, cash flow and budgeting, and of course the vision that makes the great new place in town into the favorite neighborhood haunt. Well, in Delancey, Molly and her new husband Brandon take on the nay-sayers and create a pizza place that is a smash hit from the first night.
Oh, right, like that happens, you snort. Well, it does. I'd be more skeptical if it were not for the remarkable neighborhood place a mile down the road from me (The Village Tavern, if you want to look it up) that was a sellout on its first night, and has only been building its delicious business ever since. It happens. But it takes a lot of research, work, experimentation, and planning. And every bit of that work - along with all the pitfalls, and (yes) the obsessive focus on getting things right is distilled into the prose of this fast-paced second memoir.
That pacing is only one of the things that sets this book apart from the first. There are also photos in this book, welcome glimpses of the place that becomes the focus as well as the title of the book. And the photos become necessary - since I live across the country from Delancey, it's doubtful I'll ever get to actually see that immense pizza oven.
There are also many fewer recipes in this book. That's a shame, but it also (I think) is a reflection of the fact that Molly's life became much faster-paced as she got married to Brandon, opened a new restaurant, and had their daughter (in that order). We must permit that. But I really longed for the seemingly-casual but careful style of A Homemade Life. I'll return to that book over and over. Yes, much like my treasured books by Laurie Colwin.
Laurie Colwin's and Molly Wizenberg's books are available on Amazon.com as well as in your favorite bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Try the latter first.
P.S.: Extra credit to those who correctly identify the source for the title of this post.