Cookbook fantasy life a rich way to escape on the cheap
May 3rd 2009 10:00AM
Updated May 4th 2009 3:10AM
When I opened Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life, I sighed. This was not, it turned out, a practical cookbook about how to discover your own inner home chef. Instead, it was a memoir filled with blog-like essays about her young and, despite the death of her father while she was in her early twenties, eye-bogglingly happy life. So happy, in fact, that she veritably gushes. One phrase she uses over and over is "spread like wildflowers," a mashup used to describe how her boyfriend -- the one she met through her food blog, Orangette -- takes over her life. And that reminds me of a fennel salad...
Recession cooking, it's not (though she does provide a nice recipe for cabbage). Nor is What we eat when we eat alone, another slim book inexplicably filled with color illustrations, which nearly doubles the cost of a book. By best-selling cookbook author Deborah Madison and her husband, Patrick McFarlin, an illustrator (ok, there's the explicability), the book is a cookbook, but it would be more accurate to call it a trend piece. Filled with barely-edited, first-person stories about lonely meals, whimsical (and often stereotypical) analyses about how women and men eat alone, and cute observations (men always use "violent" words to describe their recipes), oh, and recipes for polenta, breakfast burritos, and roasted asparagus, it's the sort of book you'd read if you just wanted to escape.
Is that it, then? According to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), sales of cookbooks are up (just like in the Depression, dontcha know), but it's not 101 Ways With Pinto Beans or Grow Your Own Potatoes For Fun & Profit! Instead, it's this: "The idealized world of cookbooks... a fantasy retreat of culinary possibilities." Among them, titles like Wizenberg's A Homemade Life; Neil Connelley's In the Kennedy Kitchen; David Tanis' A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes.
It's books that transport you, away from the everyday of, well, pinto beans, and toward whatever is your aspiration; whether it's Molly's sweet happy Seattle life with her sweet happy husband and plenty of disposable income to afford aged parmigiano reggiano and 30 kinds of vinegar; or David's achingly introspective life nibbling this perfect dish in Spain, the other one in Italy; or swept up in the almost imaginary world of the Kennedy family. This is what we're buying, more and more, turning books of rather few recipes and rather a lot of eye-rolls and exclamations into best sellers as we seek to shove aside our dinners of leftover spaghetti and leftover lentils, tossed with the end of the olive oil (hmm, not so bad, after all, right?).
In the WSJ piece are also mentions of vastly different books, like Grant Achatz' Alinea at Home (because, at home, it's likely you have a thermocirculator and a ready supply of dry ice) and Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for the Food (a practical, funny takeoff of his very popular Food Network show) -- because they're targeted toward men? I'd be more likely to include My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals in my list of transportational cookbooks. Or how about Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes. Author Tessa Kiros' bio is this: "Tessa Kiros was born in London to a Finnish mother and Greek-Cypriot father. She grew up in South Africa and has since traveled the world learning about diverse cultures, traditions, and tastes. She has worked in restaurants in Australia, Greece, Mexico, and at the famous Groucho Club in London. She and her husband call Italy home."
This is where we want to be. Familiar with the cafes of Paris, of course; able to order a good lunch in several languages; in possession of a pantry whose passport has been stamped more times than even our own; just famous and beautiful enough. While on a staycation this summer, it's a good bet we'll have our feet up on the kitchen table, sipping iced Lipton tea we brewed our selves and hoping to find a recipe whose ingredients we can actually afford.