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February 27, 2011

A few weeks ago, Julia loaned me her copy of A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg, also known as the proprietress of the blog Orangette. I launched into it the night she gave it to me and devoured a third of the book on the spot. I forced myself to slow down and savor the remaining chapters. I finished it some time ago, having drooled over many pages, and shed a few tears over the story of the author’s wedding, minus her father who’s life and death frame the book. But mostly, my sense of the book is that it is a warm and friendly, comforting read, much like the kitchens where much of it takes place.

A Homemade Life falls into the category of memoir with recipes. I’m an easy sell for this genre. I love to read and I love to cook. Also, I enjoy the small vignettes that such books seem to thrive on. I’ve read many, including Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia (which I loved as a blog and enjoyed as a movie but didn’t like as a book so much), New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte (which is where my much beloved recipe for lemon risotto originated), and Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (which is the source of several of my kitchen staples, including my favorite poached chicken salad). Of all of these, Wizenberg’s prose is by far the most appealing. Most memoirs with recipes seem to get one or the other right. And mostly I seem to remember the memoirs for the recipes. But Wizenberg’s book is the whole package. She writes many things that I wish I had written myself. It’s not fussy or overly sentimental. Just sentimental enough. It was a perfect book for February when we are all in need of a little comfort food, both literal and metaphorical. I have yet to try making any of the recipes, but I plan to. The book is particularly rich in desserts. I’ve been trying to make her banana bread recipe, which includes chocolate chips and crystalized ginger. But I can’t seem to keep bananas in my house long enough for them to get ripe. I think roving bands of monkeys are patrolling the kitchen.

Since I have yet to see Julia to return the book, it remains on my nightstand, where I continue to pick it up and reread things and plan future menus. But despite my obsession with recreating some of the recipes she describes, it’s not really a book about food per se, but about the life that food holds together. “When I walk into my kitchen today,” says Wizenberg in the introduction, “I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables and every meal we have ever eaten.” This struck me in part because I’ve written very similarly abou my experience of teaching, how every time I stand up in front of a classroom, I’m keenly aware of how I take all past teachers and lessons with me. But it also struck me as very true about kitchens in general. I like the place Wizenberg gives food in this book. It is both a way of reflecting individuality but also a catalyst for conversation or socialization. It’s the medium through which the important stuff happens. According to Wizenberg’s website, she and her husband now own a pizzeria in Seattle. I will probably seek it out next time I’m in the neighborhood. Based on this book and Wizenberg’s blog, I have a feeling it’s my kind of restaurant, and I’m not just talking about the food.

Do you like reading about food? Do you have any books to recommend?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2011 11:43 pm

    I’m glad you liked the book. Delancey has been getting good reviews, from what I’ve read so far.

  2. February 28, 2011 8:13 am

    Interesting… I didn’t really like it. I didn’t connect and I felt like she was shallow and wrote fluff. I earmarked one recipe but have since tossed the book aside for resale/swap without writing the recipe down first. Many others in this genre have resonated with me but I had higher hopes for Molly’s. David Lebovitz however- laughed aloud and enjoyed.

  3. freshhell permalink
    February 28, 2011 9:09 am

    Actually, I don’t really enjoy reading food-related books. I guess they’re either making something I’d hate (particularly don’t want to read about meat preparating) and something I’d really like but can’t have. I want just a cookbook or just a book.

  4. February 28, 2011 9:27 am

    I love books about food and eating; when I discovered M.F.K. Fisher I was ecstatic. I reread Peter Mayle just for the meals. Today’s review over at my place is, coincidentally, a novel I liked for the food descriptions.

    While I don’t mind recipes, they hardly ever move me (the Sweet Potato Queens books are an exception). I just like the descriptions of good food. Oh, I forgot to mention the Garlic and Sapphires author, what’s her name, Ruth Reichle.

  5. Angela permalink
    February 28, 2011 9:32 am

    “The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection” by Robert Farrar Capon.

    It’s somewhat dated with gender role assumptions, and if you can get past that, you’ll hit all the religion.

    I very much enjoyed the recipes and the theology. I read it (first) when I was in college and just starting to cook. And just starting to figure out my religious beliefs.

    And I still follow his suggestions regarding cutting boards and desserts.

  6. February 28, 2011 10:00 am

    I do think M.F.K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl are in a different class — beyond memoir with recipes. I can’t even remember actual recipes in Fisher, although it’s been a while since I’ve read her. Does she print recipes? Or just describe the food so vividly that I feel like I’ve eaten it? I love Fisher, but she’s on my shelf with literature, not with memoir or food. I agree about Mayle too, Jeanne. I loved A Year in Provence especially. I haven’t read any of his later stuff quite as much. That, too, is different from the genre I’m trying to articulate.

    The genre I describe as memoir with recipes is, I think, by definition fairly lightweight. It’s a genre built of vignettes. The good ones are the ones that get beyond mere food p0rn and have something to say about food’s role in some other aspects of life. The really good ones get the vignettes to amount to something like full-length narrative that goes somewhere. I would say that Wizenberg’s is one of those books. I felt like it had more to say than, say, Hesser’s book (which I also enjoyed at the time). This is not to say that it’s deep thinking philosophy, nor is it trying to be. But it is a charming place to spend an afternoon and the narrative kept me turning pages. Jill, I’m curious to know what are the memoir-with-recipe books you have read that you felt had more to say.

  7. February 28, 2011 12:16 pm

    Oh, I think I could write a blog post on food books. Maybe I will.

    In this post ( – the third picture is all the food books. And in the two & a half years since it was taken? The shelves are FULL.

    That book sounds great – will put it on my list.

  8. February 28, 2011 12:28 pm

    “The Sweet Life in Paris” is the David Lebovitz one I had in mind. Also, Michael Pollan really opened my mind and I’ve read all his books- “The Omnivore’s Dilema” specifically. And, “Animal Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.

  9. February 28, 2011 12:44 pm

    I’ve read very few food-centered books – “Like Water For Chocolate” was probably the last one and that was, er, quite a while back.

    I do like reading my Gran’s cookbooks from the 1960s. So many of the items that were easy to find (frozen creamed peas) just don’t exist any more.

  10. February 28, 2011 12:44 pm

    I agree about The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it is not a book that belongs in the “memoir with recipes” category. He had a much bigger project in mind from the beginning. Although I have not yet read the Kingsolver, I got the impression that she did as well, although I may be wrong about that. The description of the book I found on line suggests that it may be more in line with this category than I had thought. I’ve been meaning to read it, but haven’t gotten around to it. I’m unfamiliar with Lebovitz, although you’ve mentioned him to me before. I’ll have to check him out.

  11. February 28, 2011 12:46 pm

    Lemming, historical cookbooks are another category altogether, and one I love as well. Fascinating stuff.

  12. March 1, 2011 11:20 pm

    Angela, I posted a comment on your comment before, but it seems to have disappeared. But thanks for the recommendation. I’ve never heard of that one — I look forward to checking it out! I’m intrigued by the theology angle.

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