I only finished two of these, but I’m going to tell you about all three anyway.
First up is a new release that’s a read-in-one-sitting deal, in case you want a quick but fairly intense and even gritty read: Phyllis Grant’s Everything is Under Control.
Grant was a dancer training at Julliard, living in New York City as a teenager, who developed an eating disorder as she tried to navigate life at this impressionable time in a trying place. She eventually started working in fancy restaurant kitchens before packing up and moving to California post-9/11, marrying her long-time partner, having kids, and finding an abundance of joy in cooking.
It’s written in a vignette-y, diary-like style, which I love. I especially enjoyed the early parts that were set in New York, where her musings on strange city life and being young and feeling out one’s place and her specific problems (anorexia, sexual harassment in the restaurant industry) were so aching and stark and powerful.
But once it turned into a motherhood story, it lost me. If you like this kind of theme and trajectory, you’ll love it. If you don’t, it’s worth knowing that it gets pretty graphic, placenta-eating and pre-birth perineum massages and all. I was annoyed at how much of it ended up being about birth and motherhood and not about food. Although of course some connection to food and her favored recipes is loosely tied in, I didn’t find the connection strong enough to warrant so much time spent on these topics.
The included recipes sound good but nothing that I bookmarked. It’s more that I like her style and tastes even if I wasn’t rushing to make these. She has a haunting, often poetic writing voice, and although it shifted focus often from scenes or periods of her life I would’ve liked to have seen explored in more depth, the form was interesting and she has an appealingly wry, clear-eyed storytelling style.
Everything is Under Control: A Memoir with Recipes, by Phyllis Grant, published April 21, 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. (Amazon / Book Depository)
Speaking of wry, the one I didn’t finish but which will surely be one of the most popular pieces of food writing this year is Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, Bill Buford’s follow up to Heat, which apparently is about learning Italian cooking. In Dirt he moves with his wife and kids to France to learn the seemingly opaque, dirt-related ways of Lyonnaise cuisine. I felt a little out of my element since I haven’t read Heat, and as Buford has a big personality that features heavily in the story, it seemed like familiarity would be helpful here.
He’s also got a tone that reminded me of Bill Bryson’s in his memoirs: self-deprecating, goofy, and dad-jokey, which casually belies a wealth of experience and expertise. His style includes a lot of details about individual dishes, so basically recipes described out in full within the text. I wasn’t quite in the mood for that along with the Bryson-esque voice. It just wasn’t what I wanted to read right at the moment, but I would come back to it because it seems comprehensive and the topic of outsiders learning French cuisine is one that I and apparently a lot of others never tire of reading more about. Maybe after reading Heat first.
Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, by Bill Buford, published May 5, 2020 by Knopf. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review. (Amazon / Book Depository)
When I welcome my guests for the first time… I inevitably venture the same joke: “I know you’ll love it! I’m not sure I’m a good novelist, but I’m convinced I’m a great cook!” Nobody laughs. Not one. It’s because my guests are shocked. What sacrilege! they think. How can she be so bold as to compare cooking with literature?
Maryse Condé is a beloved novelist of the French Caribbean diaspora and the 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize Winner. Of Morsels and Marvels is a rare work of nonfiction from her, translated from French by her husband and translation collaborator, Richard Philcox.
In these essays, she ostensibly explores her love of cooking and how she’s had to defend her interest from those who deem it a lesser occupation, not as respectable a pursuit as, say, writing novels. Condé makes a powerful and persuasive argument for why cooking is just as worthy a creative and intellectual art form, and I loved reading her thoughts on this, although the glimpses into scenes from her truly impressive globetrotting life were really the highlight here.
I think this book suffered from a bit of false marketing. Condé’s strong thoughts around cooking and why making food is as meaningful and important as making literature are wonderful to read. Every essay does include some reference to a meal or dish or some food tied to the memory, but this is far from a memoir about food. It’s much more centered around travel, and the experience of places where she lived and visited, and what stands out in memory after long passages of time. The settings of her stories span from her childhood and visits with her (fractured) relations in Guadeloupe to her longtime home in Paris, time spent in Africa and teaching in America.
And there’s nothing wrong with that — it is marvelous to see all this through her eyes. But it’s not what’s promised, as being food-centric, or else only very loosely, which I think could be disappointing for some.
The other disappointment is that Condé often holds back, quickly retreating into herself before revealing too much when she reaches an emotional peak instead of showing what it really felt like to be there and experience it. Which is such a shame, because when she does reveal something deeper, it is extraordinarily, breathtakingly powerful, often in its simplicity. Her ability to say so much in a few well-chosen words is remarkable.
I also love her because she’s a bit of a complainer, and we complainers kind of love cranky company. She’s nothing if not blunt about her life experiences, and what was wonderful and what was absolutely awful. She has another memoir in translation that I’ve had trouble finding a copy of but which I’m now all the more dedicated to tracking down, because her life stories are treasures.
The translation felt seamless, the language beautifully, meaningfully rendered. It had so many lines I marked up or was affected by. I loved the connections and associations she drew, and the scenes from her history that she recalled so strongly. This is one of those that shows how much time it really takes to make sense of your experiences and relate them in an honest but artful way. It’s easy to see why she’s revered.
From that moment on, every time I stepped into the kitchen I felt I was defying a taboo or breaking a law, a sensation I felt again years later when I started to kiss boys on the mouth like in the movies.
Any good food books on your radar lately? Any coming this year you’re looking forward to?