You can find thousands of recipes for chocolate cake by typing the words into a search engine. Likewise, there are thousands of memoirs recounting every conceivable life trauma, from growing up in war-torn Sudan to enduring a politician husband's infidelity while fighting breast cancer. With neither memoirs nor recipes in short supply, what explains the sudden popularity of the memoir with recipes?
Two sparkling new books suggest answers. Neither A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg nor I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci recounts a superficially remarkable story, and therein lies their charm. These are not accounts of lives flying out of control, but of lives being kept in order. While there's a train-wreck fascination to reading about the latest agony suffered by Augusten Burroughs, there's an equally powerful appeal to reading about people who handle tribulations with grace and manage to get dinner on the table, too.
Melucci's I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti begins like a fizzy work of chick lit: The pretty, funny Brooklyn-born heroine moves to Manhattan, gets a job in publishing and starts looking for someone to cook for. The conventions of the genre require that Melucci kiss a few frogs, and so she does. First, there's the brainy alcoholic, then the "complicated communicator," followed by the commitment-shy TV producer, who is replaced by the novelist who sleeps with her but doesn't "want a girlfriend or whatever." If this were, in fact, chick lit, Melucci would run into Prince Charming at about this point. Instead, along hops another frog. And then another.
There's palpable sadness in this book; Melucci, now in her 40s, never got what she longed for (at least not yet.) But she has both wit and an enviable sense of balance that's reflected in the delectable evening meals she cooks, even when there's no one to share them with. Her recipes for gutsy, straightforward pastas reinforce the gutsy, straightforward persona she's created on the page, and you wonder how anyone could resist either "linguine with friendly little fish" or the woman who makes it.
Wizenberg is best known for her blog Orangette, where, since 2004, she's published pellucid personal essays revolving around food and her daily life in Seattle. Fans will recognize some of the material in A Homemade Life, but it's been artfully reshaped as a coming-of-age story, one that somehow manages to integrate shattering grief and erotic love with recipes for rum cream pie, toffee and meatballs.
Wizenberg's recipes never feel like trite tack-ons; they're both a natural extension of her autobiography and an expression of her aesthetic, grounding this luminous memoir in the everyday and relatable.
The first half of the book describes Wizenberg's (mostly) happy childhood and ends with the death of her beloved father, Burg, a terrific character whose oversized personality is embodied by the dishes he favored, like an insanely rich potato salad. In the second half, Wizenberg tells of meeting and falling in love with her future husband, ending the book with the recipe for the simple chocolate wedding cake she baked for herself. Few memoirs or chocolate cakes are more satisfying.
I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti By Giulia Melucci Hardcover, 288 pages Grand Central Publishing List Price: $23.99
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If I make a splendid rigatoni with sausages, broccoli, onions, and butter, and only I taste it, did it exist? I've spent just as much time single as I have as half of a couple, and though I much prefer cooking for two to cooking for one, if one is all I have, I cook for her. It's not like I only got into this racket to please men, though I do get a thrill out of feeding those unfathomable creatures. Many have found succor on that old green sofa, where sooner or later I'm going to offer them a cookie, but never enough to sign up for a lifetime of three well-made squares cheerfully provided daily. I don't blame any of them for my situation (well, I sort of do but not fully, at least); my logical mind knows that in every case I got precisely what I was looking for. I'm where I am because of me. I haven't gotten to the bottom of why that is, but I have a battery of professionals working with me on the case.
Because cooking and eating well are my raison d'être, I don't stop when there's no one else to feed. Even if it's just me, I make breakfasts of pancakes and sausages or French toast, just as I would if I'd woken up with a man in my bed. The idea of going to the café on the corner for coffee seems insane to me. I'll make myself a Niçoise salad with olives, capers, red onion, grape tomatoes, parsley, and canned Italian tuna for lunch. At dinner I'll roast some fish, grill a steak, or invent a pasta from whatever happens to be in the fridge. Those dishes, born out of random couplings dictated by whatever is available, are the ones that make me saddest. They are never to be duplicated; I am the only one who will ever know how delicious they were. I'm conflicted about whether that is good enough, just as I'm conflicted about whether it's better to be with someone or to be alone.
There are many things I like about being by myself and few people who can provide me with the sort of peace I get buzzing around my apartment, singing along to Belle & Sebastian's "Funny Little Frog" as it emerges from speakers planted wirelessly in every room of my apartment-including the kitchen, of course-a system I masterminded and installed all on my own.
I manage to be both ashamed and proud of how self-sufficient I am. When I was going to an office every day, I hesitated to admit to colleagues that I couldn't wait to go straight home after work, roast myself a piece of salmon over a bed of asparagus (450-degree oven, handful of asparagus drizzled with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and a grinding of pepper, salmon fillet over it seasoned in same manner, roast for twenty minutes, squeeze a little lemon on top, and chop an herb and stick it on there if you wish, but delicious even without), and sit with it and a glass of cool white wine at my dining room table toute seule. Back then I found this vastly preferable to post-work socializing at a bar. I love drinking, but only when there's food involved. When I had to go, I was the one showing up with a bag of pretzels.
There are as many pros to being alone as there are cons to being coupled. Sacrifices you must make to be in a couple that you don't have to make when you are single, and many pleasures to being alone that you forfeit when you are bound to another person. Like being able to watch whatever you want on TV-my current fave is Gossip Girl; I don't think any man would abide that habit (well, Mitch might, but I won't give him the chance to find out). When you're with a man, you have to pretend you like shows like The Wire, which I can't believe any woman actually likes, though my married friends swear up and down that they truly, truly do (and I'll take them at their word, but you won't find me watching it). Or being able to jet off to Cannes with a friend who is going there on business, as I recently did, without having to take anyone else into consideration. Then there's having the entire bed to spread out in all by yourself.
It's the sheets that get to me-there is absolutely no way on earth to do a proper job of folding them alone. And that stuff that's fun to do in them, you really do need to be in a couple to get the most out of that. Meals, of course, are vastly more enjoyable when shared. I can't marvel about how perfect the rigatoni is to myself, though I sometimes do. Yes, as much as I like my freedom, I am convinced that it's better to be with someone than not. If nothing else, it makes it that much easier to explain yourself at group functions.
My own dinner parties are full of couples. What choice do I have? When you are my age, the lepers who remain single are few and far between. And as my guests compliment my cooking, which feels great, I also have to hear them wonder aloud how it could be that I'm not married, which feels awful. The person who brings it up is usually a man, a man married to a woman who doesn't cook. I end up wishing I were a fat, terrible cook; that way my life would make sense to me. But my reasoning is faulty. Fat people get married, and women who can't cook get married to nice men who cook for them. In fact, both of my brothers do most of the cooking for their wives, and they are quite talented. What I like most about cooking for the priests is that they never ask me why I'm not married. I don't ask them, either, but if I did, they would have canon law to explain their situation. There's nothing to explain me.
It can be lonely to be alone. But there is nothing that screams "loneliness" louder than takeout. I don't want my dinner for one brought to me by a man on a bike. I can't stand waiting around for him to arrive. I'd rather be busy in the kitchen, not sitting around waiting for the doorbell to be rung by a man with whom I have merely a business relationship worrying about how much to tip. No, it is infinitely better to prepare your own food. I believe in a well-stocked pantry and the sense of tranquility that comes from a well-appointed domestic life, even if it's only for me, as sad as that may sound.
Those who don't cook think it's too much trouble, especially if it's just for one. If there is anything I want to convince the world of, it is that this is not the case: Cooking is impossibly easy. Food that is prepared simply from a few fresh ingredients is the food I like best. Like this spaghetti with arugula, which involves absolutely no work if you buy baby arugula that is already washed and ready to go. I try to have some in my refrigerator at all times so I can throw together this wonderful pasta at a moment's notice.
Spaghetti with Arugula and Pine Nuts (Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine)
2 to 3 ounces spaghetti (depending on how hungry you are)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus a touch more for taste
2 heaping cups arugula (preferably prewashed baby arugula, for your sake; regular arugula is very dirty, and that's more work than you want to do right now)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated parmigiano, as much as you like
1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
When the spaghetti is nearly cooked, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over low heat, add arugula, and cook until just wilted. When the spaghetti is done, drain and add it to the arugula. Add a touch of olive oil, lemon juice, and some pepper; taste for salt, then remove from heat, add cheese and pine nuts, and serve.
If you want to double this recipe and make it for a boyfriend, that's your problem.
I will allow that there could be something in my DNA that makes cooking easy for me when it is not so for other people. Those people, on the other hand, are probably gifted with a gene that makes men want to marry them, or at least ask them out on a second date. In the past few years, even this has proven a feat akin to making a soufflé that never falls. Would I trade with them? Probably.
While I've struggled with relationships, cooking has been a fairly consistent source of satisfaction. How to behave with men, I just don't have a feel for it. It doesn't come naturally to me the way creating a perfect base for any sauce does. "And then she never heard from him again," is how I'd jokingly wrap up any report of a promising date, phone conversation, or e-mail exchange. It was my defense, so that when it happened I would be protected by the fact that I expected it. I really didn't think I would never hear again. But date after date after witty banter and comic repartee, I didn't. I was astounded by the fact that I did not manage to arouse even the slightest curiosity in the criminal defense attorney, money manager, business magazine writer, book editor, or pickle maker I went out with. (The pickler actually decided he'd had enough of me while the date was still going on. He invited me back to his apartment to make me a salad. We sat on the couch and he fell asleep straight away. No steam and, worse, no salad.)
I renounced my vow of celibacy for nothing. Joel once told me that one can regain her canonical virginity after three years. I didn't want that; it took me long enough to lose my regular one in the first place.
Then, in classic New York style, I found just the thing to take my mind off all of it: real estate. I had been waiting for a man to swoop in and take me into our new home and life, but he never came and there were things I wanted to do, like cook in a real kitchen and entertain like a grown-up. I couldn't wait any longer. I had to go it alone, and in order to do that, I needed a better apartment. What did I discover? Real estate affords a girl just as much heartbreak as dating. This I took to be both disturbing and refreshing. It was nice to know there were other things in the world that had the same power over me that men had.
Was it the bridal magazines strewn about the place, whispering, If you buy this apartment, this will happen to you, too? that made me fall so hard for the first apartment I ever looked at? It was a condo on an up-and-coming strip of Brooklyn waterfront. Good move on the owner's part. But it was more than that. Mainly it was the kitchen with its brand-new de rigueur stainless-steel appliances: the Viking stove, the Sub-Zero refrigerator, the Bosch dishwasher. These things were even more my birthright than the white dresses in those magazines.
I lost three nights of sleep trying to figure out a formula to determine what I should offer. I jumped out of bed hourly and ran to my computer, typing in numbers: square footage, times the number of burners on the stove, divided by the prime rate, minus the balance of my savings account, divided by the number of shelves in the refrigerator. I had no idea how to figure it out, so I came up with some number that was bigger than the one they were asking for and faxed in the paperwork. Then I roasted a chicken and thought about what a better experience that would be in my new kitchen.
Real Estate Roast Chicken
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken
2 tablespoons soft butter
Freshly ground pepper
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Rub the chicken with butter, season generously with salt and pepper, squeeze the juice of the lemon over it, and stuff the cavity with the lemon rinds and garlic. Place on a rack breast side down in a roasting pan; roast for 30 minutes, then turn breast side up, baste with pan juices, and roast for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the breast is golden and the juices that run from a pierced thigh are clear.
Yield: 2 servings.
Getting the call from the listing agent telling me that my bid didn't cut it felt just like getting dumped. I had rebuilt my life around this apartment, and then one miscalculation, and one phone call, and it was gone.
After that first taste, I got addicted to the hunt. Every Saturday I would scan The New York Times real estate pages and Internet to set my course for Sunday afternoon open houses. For eight months, I never saw a thing to compare with that first place. After eight months, I decided I was never going to find an apartment, so I started fixing up the one I had. I was cruising through my savings buying furniture and cookware while halfheartedly stopping by the occasional open house.
Of course, that "when you give up on it you find it" dictum was going to work for me somewhere. Unfortunately, it happened to be with real estate.
On a Saturday in February, I spotted an apartment that looked pretty nice on the Internet, but big deal, that had happened a million times. Still, I decided to go to the open house that had been scheduled for the following day.
That day coincided with a massive blizzard. I called my brother Nick, who doubled as my real estate coach.
"There can't possibly be any open houses today."
"But that's exactly when you have to go, you'll have an edge."
I called the Realtor. Were they still having an open house on Lincoln Place?
Yes, they were.
It continued to snow, hard. I called the Realtor again.
Yes, the open house was still on.
I trudged the mile and a half from my apartment in a foot of snow. Nick and his wife, Yuki, met me there. The Realtor was taking off her boots when we arrived. We lined ours up beside hers and entered. Immediately I sensed it-something felt right about this place; it wasn't perfect, but it had everything I wanted. I'd heard this was how you're supposed to feel about the man you marry, but lacking that, I'd take the apartment. Once inside, I found a nice big central foyer, which connected all the rooms. The art deco bathroom was tiled in black and white with toile de Jouy wallpaper, the large living room had French doors and ample room for dining and lounging, the bedroom had windows that looked onto a pretty courtyard. The piece de resistance was the kitchen, which, though not enormous, was beautifully done. After a year of looking, those stainless-steel appliances, which I liked so much at first, began to seem soulless once I noticed them in every newly built condo or recently renovated co-op in New York. This kitchen had the top-of-the-line stuff, but here it was interpreted in a traditional style. There were white wooden cabinets with carved details against a backsplash of white tile with an impressed floral molding. The cabinetry continued on the doors of the refrigerator and dishwasher. There were big drawers and sliding shelves to conveniently store cookware, a microwave oven concealed behind a sliding door, a shelf for cookbooks over the sink. The woman who lived here (who was selling it because she was getting married to a German she met on Match.com) had painstakingly restored every inch of that apartment and overseen the kitchen renovation, thinking through every detail. And this single woman would be the one to enjoy it. I told the Realtor I would make an offer. I was pretty sure no one besides me would be showing up today and it would be mine.
"More people may come," she said. "I got two calls asking about the open house."
"They were both from me," I said, laughing.
I got the apartment. The roast chicken I made in my new oven was divine.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table By Molly Wizenberg Hardcover, 336 pages Simon & Schuster List Price: $25
Italian Grotto Eggs
My father had a bad back. He'd had trouble for as long as I could remember, ever since a cross-country skiing accident when I was a baby. He'd been skiing with me on his back in a frame pack, and he'd lost his balance. To keep from falling backward and crushing me, he sat down instead. After that, his back would go out sometimes, every now and then, and for a day or two he would stand crooked, his spine listing to one side. But he was a doctor, and he kept a tackle box full of pills in his bathroom drawer. He took them when he needed them. We all did. We didn't think much of it.
One night—I think it was the fifteenth of September, the day after my twenty-fourth birthday—he was in Toronto for a family bat mitzvah, and he stumbled on the stairs to his cousin's house. He'd been having back pain for a while, but he hadn't told anyone. He was never the type to talk about those sorts of things. But now the pain was so bad that he thought he might have broken something. I had moved to Seattle only a week earlier, and he and my mother called one night to tell me. It might be a broken vertebra, he said, or maybe a spinal infection. Instead, a couple of days later, a bone scan showed that it was cancer. It had started in one of his kidneys but had been growing for a while, creeping into the bones of his spine. He was a radiation oncologist, so he knew what it meant.
"What a kick in the ass," he said.
My mother told me the plan. He would have his kidney removed, and then he would be at home for a while, recovering, before the chemotherapy began. My brother David would fly in to keep him company while my mother went to work. I imagined the two of them tottering around the house, my father in a flannel nightshirt and David in a T-shirt and sweats. They would watch TV in the den, and at night, David would help him up the stairs.
But the surgery came and went, and he didn't go home. He didn't leave the hospital for five and a half weeks, and when he did, it was on a stretcher. When they opened him up to pull out his kidney, it was the size of a jumbo Kleenex box, the deep, rectangular kind they keep in hospital waiting rooms and therapists' offices. The cancer had spread to the bones of his pelvis, and to his skull, and to the skinny bone that runs along the shin. There were spots on his liver, and in his lungs.
My mother tried to be calm, counseling me to stay in Seattle. But in mid-October, I flew home for a weekend, and four days after, she called, asking me to come back.
. . .
For a long time, all I could think about was the duffel bag.
When my father checked into the hospital, he took a brown leather duffel bag with him. It was stained the color of melted milk chocolate, a shiny brown that bordered on red. Inside, he had packed everything that he thought he might want: a book of crossword puzzles, a bottle of cologne, his blue cotton bathrobe with the big white polka dots. He was wearing a white dress shirt and a pair of wool pants that he held under his belly with a brown leather belt. When he exchanged his clothes for a hospital gown, he folded them and put them into the bag to wait for the trip back home.
But after the surgery, he never walked, or wore those clothes, again. Bone cancer, his doctor told me, is one of the most painful kinds. It would require patches, pills, and eventually an epidural port, a coiled wire that slipped eerily into a hole in his back. Then there were the bones themselves, which were slowly ceding ground to the soft tissue of the cancer. About a month after his diagnosis, a CAT scan showed his pelvis almost completely blacked out by tumors. I remember standing by the sink in his hospital room with my mother and the doctor, looking at the scan against a fluorescent light. It was as though a storm cloud had floated across the film and settled under my father's ribs. I gasped when I saw it. My mother covered my mouth, so Burg wouldn't hear.
He couldn't stand because of the pain, but if he had, his bones would have crumbled under the weight. I didn't even know that bones could do that. I was terrified of what it might look like. But he didn't try to stand. He just lay there in the bed, propped at varying degrees of supine. Sometimes he slept, and sometimes he cried. Sometimes he just stared at us. He must have been trying to understand how we got there, to that room at the end of the oncology hall, where we read old issues of People to pass the time and warmed soup from the neighbors in a microwave at the nurse 's station. The duffel bag sat where he had left it, on the window ledge next to the bed.
Sometimes I would open it up and look inside, overwhelmed by the rush of odors, his smell. He had expected to get up and walk the hospital halls in that robe, and to go home in the clothes he had arrived in. When he left home, he thought he was coming back. When he got out of bed that morning, when he stood in the bathroom, when he combed his hair in the mirror and stooped gingerly to pack his bag, he thought he would be back. He didn't know that he would never see the second floor of his house again, or, for that matter, anything more than a single room downstairs, the room in which we would install his hospital bed, a humidifier, and, for sixteen hours a day, a nurse.
When no one was around to hear me, I would say it aloud to myself. He thought he was coming home. This could have been a trip, a vacation, Paris, anywhere. The bathrobe he packed was the one he wore to make stewed prunes and, in the mornings, mugs of cappuccino for himself and my mother. I would hear him go down the creaky stairs, and then the sound of his feet on the wood floor. He would clear his throat, snort a little, and sit down with the newspaper, his knees poking through the folds of the robe. It smelled like him: a low, musky odor, masculine and pungent. When he packed that duffel bag, he didn't know that he would never wear the robe again. He didn't know that he would never put on his cologne. He didn't know that he would never do another crossword puzzle over Saturday lunch and wash it down with a beer in his favorite glass, the one with the grapevines in relief around the side. He didn't know.
. . .
For the last four weeks that he was alive, my father lay in a rented hospital bed in a room next to the kitchen. There isn't much a person wants to eat when he is hooked up to an IV drip, or when his legs feel as though they are on fire. The painkillers were strong enough to make him hallucinate—he once went on a duck hunt in his bed, pointing an imaginary gun at the fireplace and shouting pow! pow!—but they could barely keep up with the pain. Still, I got out of bed every morning to make his breakfast. There were plenty of people around to do it—my mother, my half-siblings, aunts and uncles, even the nurses—but I wanted to. Some mornings he took a bowl of oatmeal with half-and-half, or Cream of Wheat with fat lumps of butter. But most days, it was eggs. I would scoop the food into his mouth in quiet disbelief, watching his belly, the target of so much nagging, slowly melt away. Sometimes I would think about the last time I hugged him, standing in the driveway in early September, when I left for Seattle, and the way his gut, so distended, had pressed familiarly against mine. I didn't know then that there was a tumor behind it.
One day, he told me about the grotto. I'd come to bring his breakfast, some scrambled eggs with goat cheese and a slice of buttered toast. When he saw me in the doorway, he sighed and pointed dazedly, with one hand, toward the couch.
"Isn't it beautiful?"he breathed. We were sitting next to a grotto, he explained, gazing dreamily at the armchair, his voice an excited whisper. "Look at that water. It's so blue!"
Eyeing the plate in my hands, he asked if the picnic was ready. I nodded. Between bites, he murmured dazedly. We were in Italy, he said, and we were sitting on a blanket, and the grass around us was green and cool.
"When we finish eating, let's go for a swim in the water," he said.
I looked down to scoop up the last bite of egg. When I looked up again, he was quiet, staring at his thumbs. I slipped the fork between his lips. As quickly as it had started, it was over. He had left the grotto and come back to bed. He looked away. I didn't say anything. I didn't want to ruin it. I wiped his mouth, and then I carried the empty plate into the kitchen. But a few days later, when I asked what he wanted for lunch, he looked at me squarely.
"Italian grotto eggs," he said. Just like that.
Maybe he knew he'd dreamed it, and he wanted me to know. Or maybe he believed that we'd really been to Italy, eating eggs and swimming. Maybe it didn't matter. Somehow his mind was working to bridge the gap between the hospital bed and a hazy, faraway place. It was a grotto in Italy, a sea cave to swim in, somewhere far from that bed in Oklahoma. I guess it was his way of escaping the body that had carried him for seventy-three years and dropped him without warning.
It could have frightened me to see him like that. Sometimes, it did. His body was giving way, literal bone by bone, and so was his mind. But I was grateful for whatever relief he found, and when I wasn't afraid, I just wanted to help him find it.
Italian Grotto Eggs
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) unsalted butter
5 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon heavy cream
3 tablespoons fresh goat cheese, such as Laura Chenel, coarsely crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper, for serving
Melt the butter in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
Crack the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Add the salt and cream and beat to blend.
When the pan is hot, pour in the eggs and swirl to coat. Reduce the heat to low, and using a heatproof rubber spatula, stir the eggs gently, scraping the spatula along the bottom of the skillet, until they are loosely set in large, pillowy curds. They should be slightly runnier than you want them. Remove the pan from the heat and scatter the goat cheese over the eggs. Give them one more gentle stir to melt and distribute the cheese.
Serve immediately, with additional salt and black pepper to taste and, if you like, slices of buttered toast.