Food, Glorious Food!
As ever, the Red Wheelbarrow Writers brought a swath of experience and enthusiasm to our November topic: Food. In fact, Linda brought a big jar full of cookies to complement one of her titles, Diane Mott Davison’s TOUGH COOKIE. Linda’s cookies were not at all tough, and supplemented our other important food groups, wine and popcorn.
Our choices included fiction, and nonfiction seasoned with travel memoirs, nonsense verse (Shel Silverstein’s EVERYTHING ON IT) and a book of table Graces (both courtesy of Amory). Travel included Jes’s pick: a big beautiful Pacific Northwest Cookbook, way too big to take on a small boat, but that’s what Jes did. Now, years later, she can open the book and still smell the boat. Bob too had sailing memories, a book written by two Canadian sailing amigos from Mexico. HOW TO LIVE AT SEA by Lynn and Larry Pardy is about provisioning for a sailing journey. Bob shared some of the book’s wisdom: no nude cooking and cabbage keeps forever.
Authors are always in need of research, so unsurprisingly a number of historical books dealing with food were brought (literally) to the table. Marian touted DIGGING FOR VICTORY, Transcripts of a BBC Radio show during World War II in which potatoes played a major role, and another WWII British book, WE’LL EAT AGAIN, a collection of recipes by Marguerite Hatton.
Other historical offerings came from Janet who touted the work of Jackie Williams, a writer who specializes in the culinary histories of pioneer Washington and pioneer Oregon. Janet also brought along her own grandmother’s volume of Sarah Josepha Hale’s RECEIPT BOOK, originally published in 1857. These are not just recipes, but all sorts of 19th century household advice, so difficult, so demanding that you will regard your washer, dryer and dishwasher with renewed affection and respect.
Laura R. brought up a wealth of kids’ books in which food plays a major role, so much so that we might just tackle that as a topic one day. She mentioned GREEN EGGS AND HAM, of course THE LITTLE HOUSE series, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, THE LITTLE RED HEN, the strawberry scene in HEIDI. I, personally, can never forget the tender scene of the gaoler’s daughter bringing tea and toast to poor Mr. Toad in his lonely cell.
A variety of nonfiction titles came up. Lisa brought the work of the lively writer, Michael Pollan, IN DEFENSE OF FOOD and especially THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA, which she said were so inspiring, they changed the way she cooks. Frances brought a book that had been assigned to her high school age sons, A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN SIX GLASSES. The book follows beer, wine, spirits, tea, coffee and soft drinks. I wish they had assigned books like this when I was in school.
Pam chose books by authors she has met and worked with at writing retreats, Candace Walsh’s LICKING THE SPOON, a memoir with food, and a more somber title, Florencio Ramirez’s nonfiction, EATING LESS WATER about the inordinate (and possibly unsustainable) amount of water we use in farming and livestock.
Of all the novels where food plays a central role, Marian mentioned THE GUERNSEY LITERARY POTATO PEEL SOCIETY, a bestseller from a few years ago. Susan contributedthe Tom Robbins novel, B IS FOR BEER which can only be described as, well, a Tom Robbins novel. One of my faves: the Great Virginia (Woolf’s) masterpiece TO THE LIGHTHOUSE that features Mrs. Ramsay’s never-to-be-forgotten boeuf en daube. In A FAREWELL TO ARMS the protagonist Frederic Henry eats and drinks his way through Italy in the grim days of the Great War. The novel’s insistence on food in the last chapters when he retreats to a tavern and proceeds to gobble his way thru many sausages while he knows his wife lies dying—this has always puzzled me, though I think now that it is an insistence on living in the midst of all that dying, sheer bodily sustenance, eating. I included my own 2006 novel AMERICAN COOKERY which has recipes at the end of each chapter, recipes allied to the many characters and their varied experiences. The scope, intent and backstory of AMERICAN COOKERY are too complex to address here.
Susan and I both have vast cookbook libraries, and we read cookbooks like novels, so in bringing our choices to the RWB Book Club, we restrained ourselves. Susan brought two great big glossy, gorgeous picture cookbooks, FRIEDA’S FIESTA, recipes from Frieda Kahlo’s kitchen (edited by Diego Rivera’s daughter) and DINING WITH THE IMPRESSIONISTS. Of the big glossies in my collection, I vote for MONET’S COOKBOOK; though the text is not very well written, the photos are magnificent, and the recipes too. (I did not bring it because I cannot find it, and I wonder if I lent it to someone!) My all-time favorite non-glossy is THE ALICE B. TOKLAS COOKBOOK. It can be opened anywhere and enjoyed as much for the vignettes braised in tart prose as for the recipes themselves.
Then there are the many tomes of those doughty Food Writers, the late M. F. K. Fisher, the late Elizabeth David. More contemporaneously, I find that Laura Shapiro’s books about food and women’s lives never fail to both enlighten and entertain. I have loved her work since her first book, PERFECTION SALAD some thirty years ago. Her most recent WHAT SHE ATE reflects on the importance of food in the lives of six particular women, beginning with Dorothy Wordsworth in the 1790’s and coming to Helen Gurley Brown of 1960’s COSMOPOLITAN fame, who, it seems, lived entirely on sugar-free Jello so as not to gain weight. Shapiro’s witty prose is seasoned with lively insights; all her books can be read time and again just for pleasure.
These posts cannot do justice to the ways in which we, the RWB Writers, bounce ideas and ignite conversation, discussion. We talk about these books from what we call a writerly perspective. Anyone is welcome to join us, the second Sunday of each month at the Pickford at 4 pm. For December our topic is Darkness, whatever that might mean to you. We only know for certain it will be an interesting time.