Molly Wizenberg, the blogger behind Orangette, has a food memoir out: A Homemade Life. The book is, as the jacket would suggest, about death as much as food; it is billed as a “coming of age” story, and she writes of growing up through a series of recipes. Chocolate chip-bourbon pie made in the memory of an aunt who died too young, a gooey celebration of her baking prowess, is a sweet, if spare, memory. I do not eat sugar, and I know I will not make this pie. Much of her early writing is this way: full of sugar and high school.
As she grows up, and as her father becomes fatally ill, as his body crumbles to cancer, Wizenberg’s writing deepens and connects, becomes real and raw. His last days are paired with recipes for more pie, and a bean-and-chard soup. This is the recipe I’ll make, I think, and set the book down for the dailiness of life. The boys have given me their terrible winter cold, and I’m exhausted, and Truman is desperate with aches; I wrap him up in arms and blankets and we suffer together, me barely napping as he and Monroe sleep off the pain of living this day.
Later, I pick up the book to read the soup recipe again; it’s not unlike a recipe I’ve made dozens of times. Like many of the recipes in Wizenberg’s book, its provenance is very young; they are recipes that have a story, memory, a passage from one hand to another, and another, they are the life of her mother’s generation, though I have become accustomed to reaching back to my grandmother’s generation, to her grandmother before her. For this book, recipes reach back through time to a restaurant in Italy or a magazine from the 1980s, a memory from childhood or barely adulthood, if you can taste the salt in your mouth, the bitterness of that year, and when you bite down on the spoon the memories still hurt — that is ancient, itself. For a young writer, history is pierced with her life’s greatest pain.
The soup was made in the month of November, shortly before Wizenberg’s dad died. It calls for celery and zucchini and a can of tomatoes, and exhorts readers to buy good heirloom marrow beans. It is a recipe which, were it followed exactly, would call for a trip to the grocery store, for vegetables plucked from their seasons around the globe. The recipe is me six or eight or ten years ago, before I threw out much of what I thought I knew about food and began again.
So I take the recipe and I begin again. Not celery; instead, I’ll use celeriac, the knobby soul of winter, sweet and mellow and elegant. Not chicken broth or Wizenberg’s recommendation to use a good vegetarian brand; instead, I’ll use bacon grease I’ve reserved from breakfast, and water, maybe simmered with the ends from the fat orange carrots and enormous storage onions I brought home from the farmers’ market last weekend.
Sage, yes; my wintered-over garden is still full of it. Tomatoes, no; I’ve been rationing the seven pints I have left over from my mad dash to preserve enough for my wintering family. Chard is so young in the beginning of Oregon’s March; instead, handfuls of hearty broccoli raab. This raab, this cabbage, these carrots — this is winter. This is a soup I can connect to.
Here’s what Wizenberg has to say about her father’s death: “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.” Writing to sink your teeth into.
In the next chapter, and the next, I skip over the recipes, barely skimming the ingredients as a door to the next chapter, the next story. I am still not feeling well; my head keens with pressure and my ears are hotly stopped. I am not hungry, but I am reading with gusto.
And perhaps that is what I look for in food writing: not so much the food but the writing, the connection of someone’s life to the things that they ate. There is not a connection in every story; the tales of her sweet courtship with her adorable husband are, indeed, sweet and adorable. But my life is neither sweet nor adorable. I do not stop to savor her decision to love raw cabbage (after all); I do not taste the yogurt cake, the inspiration for her to-be-husband’s first emailed courting call.
I read Wizenberg’s recipes and I filter them through my eyes, those of a 35-year-old mother of three, the one who knows altogether too much about the chemicals in canned tomatoes and the way commercial chocolate is grown, whose loves are fraught with far more ambivalence than hers. I take her stories and weave them into my own homemade life. I honor her struggle and overlap it with my own, very different struggle.
Together we are remembering her father’s death, and together we are making soup. And this is the circle of life; through our shared connections and far different selves, we are each connected to time, to a pound of heirloom beans, to an Italian chard soup.
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