With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food. That's great because I love to eat; but awful because I'm a lousy cook. I mean world-class lousy. I'm the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out. I'm slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it's hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, "When it comes to cooking, I'd rather read." Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap. When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.
I've written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida. One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie's own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II and her rhapsodies on the Joys of Southern Food made an awful lot of American soldiers homesick. One fellow, who loved food, wrote to her saying, "Lady, [after reading your book] I have never been through such agonies of frustration." In response, Marjorie published "Cross Creek Cookery", a collection of recipes and anecdotes that are equally enjoyable. For example, there is the time she confused an electric ray with flounder and shocked herself trying to catch it. There is also the tale of Godfrey, a Florida version of Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson who considers serving collard greens beneath his dignity. (Godfrey must have been out of his mind; collard greens are the first vegetable that made me fall in love with Southern Cooking.) Cross Creek Cookery is the first cookbook that made me laugh out loud.
But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear. His cookbook, Recipes of My Life describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people. I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life. Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes. Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter's Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food. Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision. A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal. That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!