Published: Mar 10, 2009
Category: Food and Wine
A book that begins with a father, surveying the dinner table, remarking, “You know, we eat better at home than most people do in restaurants” --- how can you not be instantly hooked? Especially when you learn he's not praising a wife who's studied at Cordon Bleu and whips out four-star masterpieces night after night. As his daughter tells us:
There were hot dogs sometimes, and cans of baked beans. Our garlic came in a jar, minced and ready, and our butter was known to go rancid.
So what was so great about meals at the Oklahoma City home of Morris Wizenberg?
It was the steady rhythm of meeting in the kitchen every night, sitting down at the table, and sharing a meal. Dinner didn't come through a swinging door, balanced on the arm of an anonymous waiter; it was something that we made together. We built our family that way --- in the kitchen, seven nights a week. We built a life for ourselves, together around that table. And although I couldn't admit it then, my father was showing me, in his pleasure and in his pride, how to live wholly, hungrily, loudly.
And so it came to pass, right there on page two of A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, that I fell in love with Molly Wizenberg. Because she had what so many of us want --- a childhood with a steady rhythm and loving parents. And because she had incorporated what she learned during those meals so she can, without embarrassment, write directly and emotionally about her family.
This book has 50 recipes, and many of them are fine and useful, if a bit tilted in favor of cakes and breads, pancakes and cookies. But they're not the reason that Orangette.com --- the blog that got Molly Wizenberg started, the blog that got her a gig at Bon Appetit magazine and a book contract --- was named “the world's top food blog” by The Times of London. I mean, her father's recipe for potato salad called for ranch dressing and three-quarters of a cup of mayonnaise. That ain't gourmet.
The reason to read this book --- the reason to put down whatever you're currently reading and devour these 300 pages right now --- is that it connects the food to the people who cooked it and ate it. It's a memoir about a family, a real family. About a father who loved crossword puzzles, Dylan Thomas, his kids, his wife in high heels, a cold beer on Saturdays. And his daughter.
A kid who is loved by her father and knows it --- life will have a hard time crushing her. Molly Wizenberg left Oklahoma for graduate study in France before deciding she really wanted to do something with food. To support herself, she sold olive oils and taught English in Paris, then moved to Seattle and worked at a Pilates studio and as a publicist for an academic publisher. She didn't have many dates. Her first major kiss came rather late, in my view; her first big love (in Paris, of course) was unconsummated, unless you give him extra points for introducing her to Tarte Tatin. Not exactly a “career path”. But the most important people in her life believed in her and told her so. And when her dad got sick.....
Yes, this is that book. We meet “Burg”, learn his eccentricities, get his recipes for French toast (he used oil, not butter) and stewed prunes with citrus and cinnamon (which is, as Molly says, excellent when slightly warmed and served atop Greek yogurt). But exactly halfway into the book, when we are attuned to its music and want this quirky family story to go on and on, Molly's father got cancer and died. At 73. Very quickly. He went in for tests and surgery, fully expecting to leave the hospital and start chemo, but when the surgeons opened him up, they found no future inside him.
A book about meals is elemental, and that gives a food writer an edge when it comes time for her to write an account of death. Molly Wizenberg's chapters about her father --- his compressed dying and the long, long aftermath --- are as good as it gets. Believe me, you will weep. And cheer. Because she nails every moment. Like, after he died:
I won't tell you that it was hard. You already know that. I was so numb sometimes that my hands stopped working, just locked themselves into funny, pinched fists. But then there was the gratitude, a sort of low-grade, queasy gratitude, that he was free.
There is the grieving, and the recipes from new friends, and the memories of her father that remind her of more recipes, and then, because she wants to write, she starts her blog. Soon she gets an e-mail from a young New York composer who, like her, had lived in France. Brandon Pettit writes: “My friend Meredith and I relate to you because your writing is exactly how we feel and talk about food and life.” Molly writes back. And....
It's going to sound silly, I know, but I think that what it all comes down to is winning hearts and minds. Underneath everything else, all the plans and goals and hopes, that's why we get up in the morning, why we believe, why we try, why we bake chocolate cakes. That's the best we can ever hope to do: to win hearts and minds, to love and be loved.
Foodies will come for the recipes, stay for the stories. Others will cherish “A Homemade Life” for the writing. Women's book clubs --- they'll show up by the thousands, making this book huge.
Her father would be so proud.
Ah, recipes. Try these....
Apple and Butternut Squash Soup
If possible, make this soup a day or two ahead; its flavors meld and deepen after a day or so of sitting the fridge.
one-quarter cup olive oil
1 2-lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
2 flavorful apples, preferably Gala, peeled, cored, and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
1 large onion, peeled and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
three-quarter tsp curry powder
three-quarter tsp ground mace
one half tsp ground cardamom
1 cup good-quality apple cider
1 quart chicken stock (vegetable works fine as well)
one half tsp salt
one-quarter tsp freshly ground pepper, preferably white
Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add the squash, apples, and onion, and stir to coat with oil. Sauté uncovered, stirring occasionally, for ten to fifteen minutes, or until onion is transparent.
Stir in the mace, curry, and cardamom, and continue cooking until the onion begins to brown. Add the cider. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook for three minutes. Add the stock, lower the heat to medium-low, and simmer the mixture, partially covered, for another 35 minutes, or until squash is tender.
Working in batches, blend mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth (be careful to not overfill, as hot liquid could expand when machine is switched on, making a huge, burning-hot mess). Return soup to the stockpot. Reduce the soup, uncovered, over medium-low heat, to about one-fourth. Stir occasionally. Stir in salt and pepper, and serve hot.
Stewed Prunes with Citrus and Cinnamon
1 orange, OR 2 small tangerines, OR 1 small orange and half a lemon
1 pound pitted prunes, preferably organic
1 cinnamon stick
Cut the citrus fruit in half vertically, and then slice it thinly, peel and all. Place the slices in a medium saucepan with the prunes and the cinnamon stick, and add water to cover. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, and cook over medium-low heat for about 30-45 minutes, until the prunes are quite tender, the citrus slices are soft and glassy, and the liquid in the pan is caramelly. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve, or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week. I find that they're actually better after a little rest, so I try to make mine a day or so before I want to eat them.
To buy “A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy the Kindle edition of “A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table” from Amazon.com, click here.
To visit Molly Wizenberg's blog, click here.
To read an interview with Molly Wizenberg, click here.