[26 November 2008]
Dedicated readers of the New York Times Magazine are familiar with “Eat, Memory”, a series of columns, edited by Amanda Hesser, in which she gives famous playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets, journalists, and food writers the beguilingly prosaic task of sharing “an important moment in their lives that involved food”. Hesser has selected her favorite “Eat, Memory” essays for this eponymous book. They are, like any good meal, a scintillating mix of flavors, in which the melancholy, the humorous, the revelatory, and the downright embarrassing sit side-by-side, complimented by each other’s presence. It is a book you can snack on or read in one sitting, returning later to savor the essays that appeal to you most.
The essay I return to is “The Great Carrot Caper” by multitalented chef-restaurateur-farmer-writer Dan Barber. In charmingly self-effacing style, Barber writes of co-opting an idea from a French farmer and then raising the expectations of his staff, diners, and himself about the miraculous, boundary-breaking dish he is about to create. Instead, the dish turns out to be a “wish wrapped in a conceit” and only Barber’s quick-thinking saves him from culinary disaster.
Travel writer Pico Iyer is also in fine form, capturing a slice of modern-day Japan in an obituary of his neighborhood convenience store. Here, “even the smallest chocolate bar comes with an English-language inscription that, in the Japanese way, makes no sense whatsoever, yet confers on everything the perfume of an enigmatic fairy tale: ‘A lovely and tiny twig’, says my box of Koeda chocolates, ‘is a heroine’s treasured chocolate born in the forest’”.
Hesser, a Times food editor and columnist for more than a decade, has a knack for concocting memorable riffs on the standard story-and-related-recipe theme. She currently writes the Magazine‘s “Recipe Redux” column, unearthing retro Times’ recipes (many of which vividly epitomize their moment in history, like Stuffed Pork Chops from 1959) and asking celebrated chefs to update the dishes for today’s palates. She was well-known for her “Food Diary” column, which traced, through food, the budding relationship with her soon-to-be-husband, New Yorker writer Tad Friend (and later became her second book, Cooking for Mr. Latte). Eat, Memory also works by plumbing the relationship between food and personal experience.
When Heidi Julavits shares her longing for “a trashy American sweet” while teaching English in Japan, I recall how my teeth literally ached for crusty bread during six rice-ridden months in China. Author and mathematics professor Manil Suri writes of proudly displaying his worldliness by cooking a full-fledged French meal for his family in India. Dipping bread into the gravy of his coq au vin, Suri’‘s mother quips, “So this is the French curry you think is better than ours?” I instantly remember preparing an elaborate Indian feast for my Yankee family after a year abroad in which I cooked my way through Madhur Jaffrey’s books. Suri’s family copes by adding sambal olek (a chili paste) to his delicate bouillabaisse; my brother microwaved a plate of leftover pasta. Photographer and writer Anna Winger tells of improvising a Seder dinner in Berlin by doggedly tracking down ingredients in ethnic food markets. I reflect on my enthusiastic, if only modestly successful, attempts to re-create Mexican food in Zimbabwe. Slight-of-hand numero uno: substituting roti from the Indian shop for tortillas.
I share these personal experiences only to prove that you, too, will feel memories popping like popcorn kernels as you read this book. In fact, the book’s great appeal is that it inspires your very own “eat, memories”. Hesser, too, shares her food memories in the introduction and says that “[e]ach of these ordinary tastes, when amplified by powerful feelings, becomes a sensual beacon that illuminates a whole swath of my life. The food doesn’t matter, really. What evokes it does.”
Maybe that’s why the one part of this collection that tends to fall flat is the 30 recipes that accompany the essays. The addition of recipes can feel forced, particularly when they come from sources other than the person or restaurant mentioned in the essay. And, remember, not all the authors’ memories—and their associated foods—emerge from happy times. Thus, it is a rare occasion when you finish an essay and head straight for the kitchen. Okay, maybe I do want to make the figs in whiskey from page 79, but otherwise ...
In contrast, the recipes work in the similarly-themed Eating with My Mouth Full by Bonny Wolf, a National Public Radio commentator who also edits the station’s web-only “Kitchen Window” food column. As in Eat, Memory, each essay mines the emotional link between food and remembrance, but the recipes themselves are much more central to the stories and you quickly begin dog-earing pages.
Today, there is a proliferation of personal writing about food—just take a peek at one of the thousands of food blogs on the web. What makes Eat, Memory stand out is the quality of the writing, the tasteful ordering of the essays, and the fact that the evocative theme masterfully brings to light the connection between food and memory in all of us.