Literary Eats: The Cookbook Collector

Allegra Goodman is a masterful storyteller and I didn't appreciate her in my 20s and 30s. Obviously I was too young for her genius. So I ended up not reading anything of hers in the past ten years. Now I've read two of her books in a month and loved them. It's so nice to re-find authors when you're a grownup.

If Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector has an audience of one, I am it. It’s a family-and-friends saga with absolutely no secondary characters. Admittedly, I wasn’t as invested in the other storylines as much as I was totally immersed in Jess and George. George owns a rare bookshop. George is old and set in his ways. George is secretly in love with Jess. And George, my friends, cooks.

I mean he motherf’ing cooks!

George had studied old photographs to re-create his kitchen’s 1933 layout with two open cupboards for dishes, scant counter space, and just one sink. No downdraft grill, no appliance hutches, no microwave, no island, only an oak table. George’s kitchen was all air and light, with arched windows soaring almost sixteen feet to a peaked roof supported by trussed beams. Californian and medieval, the room was chapel-like, its woods ranging from gold to claret, its floorboards aged, its hones soapstone counters silky to the touch, luscious black when wet.

He opened the first bottle of the evening, a crisp Soave by way of appetizer, and as he sipped, he parboiled new potatoes, blanched green beans, reduced the sauce for the béarnaise. He had learned his way in the kitchen from an old girlfriend… Margaret taught George the mysteries of meat and fish, how to fillet a trout, and the best way to braise lamb and steam artichokes. She had explained the varieties of mushrooms and their uses, demonstrated the gentle stirring of risotto, how to select a perfect ripe tomato, and when to buy a peach… She and George would fall asleep with the scent of cinnamon or lemongrass or cardamom clinging to their clothes…

Just as wines opened at the table, so the friends’ thirst changed. Their tongues were not so keen, but curled, delighted as the wines deepened. Nick’s Latour was a classic Bordeaux, perfumed with black currant and cedar, perfectly balanced, never overpowering, to genteel to call attention to itself, but to splendid to ignore. Raj’s Petrus, like Raj himself, more flamboyant, flashier, riper, ravishing the tongue. And then the Californian, which was in some ways richest, and in other most ethereal. George was sure the scent was eucalyptus in this Heitz, the flavor creamy with just a touch of mint, so that he could imagine the groves of silvery trees. The Heitz was smooth and silky, meltingly soft, perhaps best suited to George’s tournedos, seared outside, succulent and pink within, juices running, mixing with the young potatoes and tangy green beans crisp enough to snap.

If he could have Jess, he would feed her. Laughable, antique, confusingly paternal, he longed to nourish her with clementines, and pears in season, fresh whole-wheat bread and butter, wild strawberries, comté cheese, fresh figs and oily Marcona almonds, tender yellow beets. He would sear red meat and grill spring lamb. Cut the thorns off artichokes and dip the leaves in fresh aioli, poach her fish—thick Dover sole in wine and shallots—julienne potatoes, and roast a whole chicken with lemons slices under the skin. He would serve a salad of heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil. Server her and watch her savor dinner, pour for her and watch her drink. That would be enough for him. To find her plums in season, and perfect nectarines, velvet apricots, dark succulent duck. To bring her all these things and watch her eat.

Now this is my kind of book boyfriend. I confess to wanting to smack Jess around a little when she was being so resistant to George’s culinary talents. Seriously, girl, if you don’t want him, I’ll take him! Bring all those things to me and watch me eat.

Literary Eats: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan and The Ocean at the End of the Lane was everything I could want from one of his books. But what I wasn’t expecting was so many wonderful little kitchen moments within the story. And food that was simple, beautiful and comforting.

Lettie cooked us pancakes on a big metal griddle, on the kitchen stove. They were paper-thin, and as each pancake was done Lettie would squeeze lemon onto it, and plop a blob of plum jam into the center, and roll it tightly, like a cigar. When there were enough we sat at the kitchen table and wolfed them down. There was a hearth in that kitchen, and there were ashes still smoldering in the hearth, from the night before.

That kitchen was a friendly place, I thought.

The old woman gave me a lump of honeycomb, from the Hempstocks’ own beehive, on a chipped saucer, and poured a little cream over it from a jug. I ate it with a spoon, chewing the wax like gum, letting the honey flow into my mouth, sweet and sticky with an aftertaste of wildflowers.

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There was a bowl of porridge on the kitchen table and beside it, a saucer with a lump of golden honeycomb on it, and a jug of rich yellow cream. I spooned up a lump of the honeycomb and mixed it into the thick porridge, then I poured in the cream. There was toast, too, cooked beneath the grill as my father cooked it, with homemade blackberry jam. There was the best cup of tea I have ever drunk. By the fireplace, the kitten lapped at a saucer of creamy milk, and purred so loudly I could hear it across the room.

I wished I could purr too. I would have purred then.


Lettie’s mother was already hauling a tin bath from beneath the kitchen table, and filling it with steaming water from the enormous black kettle that hung above the fireplace. Pots of cold water were added until she pronounced it the perfect temperature…

Old Mrs. Hempstock passed me a mug, filled with soup from the black pot on the stove. “Get that down you. Heat you up from the inside, first.”

The soup was rich, and warming. I had never drunk soup in the bath before. It was a perfectly new experience. When I finished the mug I gave it back to her, and in return she passed me a large cake of white soap and a face-flannel and said, “Now get scrubbin’. Rub the life and the warmth back into your bones.”


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Dinner was wonderful. There was a joint of beef, with roast potatoes, golden-crisp on the outside and soft and white inside, buttered greens I did not recognize, although I think now that they might have been nettles, roasted carrots all blackened and sweet (I did not think that I liked cooked carrots, so I nearly did not eat one, but I was brave, and I tried it, and I liked it, and was disappointed in boiled carrots for the rest of my childhood). For dessert there was the pie, stuffed with apples and with swollen raisins and crushed nuts, all topped with a thick yellow custard, creamier and richer than anything I had ever tasted at school or at home.

There was a plate waiting for me in my place at the table in the farmhouse’s huge kitchen. On it was a portion of shepherd’s pie, the mashed potato a crusty brown on top, minced meat and vegetables and gravy beneath it. I was scared of eating food outside my home, scared that I might want to leave food I did not like and be told off, or be forced to sit and swallow it in minuscule portions until it was gone, as I was at school, but the food at the Hempstocks’ was always perfect. It did not scare me.

While Neil Gaiman’s books are often frightening, the food in Ocean at the End of the Lane is nothing to be scared of.

Literary Eats: Touched

Mara White’s Touched is a book about appetite. Poor appetites and appetites that can't be satiated. The appetite of the belly and the appetite of the flesh. Those who hunger and will never be filled. The writing is voracious and ravenous and insatiable and once when we were doing a live reading in New York City, I begged Mara to do the chicken-and-waffles chapter. She did, and it was better than porn.

Chicken and waffles were how Junipera met Cheron Max, who as a young idealistic man he had spelled Xeron in honor of Malcom X.

Junipera sat by herself in a red padded booth with a glass of milk while she waited for her waffles. Fork on her right, knife on her left, syrup and Grace’s hot sauce in front of her like an arsenal. Cheron watched her from the stool where he sat at the counter reading the paper and drinking his afternoon coffee…

“Girl, I ain’t expecting you to share your supper. I just wanted some chatter. That and to watch you eat it, cause those eyes are as big as saucers and I could see them clear across the restaurant.”

June smiled her best smile that held just a hint of derangement. Her lips were wet from her watering mouth and she quickly took a sip of milk so as not to drool on her place setting. “It’s my first time,” she said.

Just then the waitress arrived and placed a steaming pile of golden brown crispiness nearly in June’s lap. She looked like she might cry and Cheron smiled at her assumption she could finish the masterpiece by herself. She grabbed her fork, ready to stab.

“Wait,” Cheron said. “Allow me the honor.” He grabbed the glass syrup pitcher that was warm and sticky. He poured a thick stream of it onto the crispy fried chicken where it slid down the sides, thinning from the heat and blossoming out onto the waffles. Then he grabbed the hot sauce and hit it on the bottom four times; each impact released a splash of spiciness onto the mountain before her.

June exhaled and dug into her food. Cheron watched for fifteen or so minutes as June polished off every last bite. Her expression was one of rapture and she unabashedly feasted while he watched every move. It reminded him of porn. But this was better because it contained real joy in it.

“Girl, what’s your name?” he asked her. Junipera was lovingly caressing the empty white plate with her pointer finger and then sucking off the trails of syrup and hot sauce with her finger fully submerged in her mouth.

Touched is a story that will devour you as you stuff your face with it.

Maybe only a month had passed of the girls being at New Dawn when Maude started feeding Junipera Jones. She told herself at first that she did it in order to keep the girl from stealing and getting too many demerits in their system, and maybe in the beginning that was the real reason. She brought in an extra Tupperware of ham hock and collard greens. June took one sniff and circled her like a hungry dejected dog. Maude felt so many complex things for the child that she covered her eyes and held a forkful out to her. June’s greedy mouth snatched it like lightning. She swallowed it whole without chewing.

That was Thursday, and on Friday Maude brought oxtail soup. June circled again like a shark until Maude went to the staff refrigerator and pulled out the extra portion she’d brought for the child. They both watched the deep brown liquid spin until it bubbled in the microwave. She put her finger to her lips as she passed it to her. June’s eyes were as wide as full moons. Tears had sprung to her own eyes when she’d handed the nourishment over to her.

Ten minutes later she came out of the girls’ restroom with an empty container and a deep look of sleepy contentment. Her satisfaction was somehow contagious and it made Maude feel good. So began weeks of secret cook and hungry patient. June sampled home-baked macaroni and cheese covered in golden bread crumbs, sautéed green beans in bacon grease, sweet potato pie and even curried goat when Maude was feeling especially adventurous. June seemed to become more and more attached to Maude with every meal; she shadowed her in the hallway and even trailed her to the locked exit when Maude would escape for an occasional cigarette break.

I can’t recommend Mara White’s banquet of a novel enough. You’ll not only touched, you’ll be digested.

He watched her closely as she bit into a pork chop. She’d picked it up with her fingers and in her graceful hand, the meat appeared as big as she was. Her thin red lips took an awfully big bite. When she chewed and swallowed, her eyes closed.

“Good?” he asked her.

It was a stupid question. The girl enjoyed food as if she were a starving beggar in a soup line. Her eyes were bright and glittery, and the grease shone up her lips; the smile she gave him was feline. But not like some domesticated house pet—no, it was the smile of the lioness in the zoo, satisfied yet so full of power it scared you… She inhaled the cornbread and pressed the crumbs with the tines of her fork; she even ate the garlic cloves and the pork skin that were used to flavor the greens. The girl could eat.

Cheron looked under the table.

“Did you drop something?” June asked. She stuck her head down too and peeped at Cheron across the dark expanse between them.

“I’m looking for your hollow leg, because I don’t know where you keep all that food, Miss June.” She laughed and Cheron felt relieved. She wasn’t uptight about it or ashamed in the least.