Thursday, February 13, 2014

Eat, Write, and be Merry

Some days start off out of sync and stay that way.  Monday was a day like that: an alarm that failed to go off, a latte that exploded in the car, a meeting to which I arrived late (with a coffee stain the shape of an erupting volcano on my shirt), a server that went down, a flat tire on the highway.  In the freezing cold.  So cold I could feel a layer of ice forming on my teeth as I waited for the service truck. 

Thankfully, there are days that make up—more than make up—for the crummy ones.  Days like unexpected packages in the mail, covered with stickers and international stamps and hand-addressed to you. 

Today is a package day.   Literally: the book a certain Mr. D ordered for me as a V-day present has arrived, and it’s even better than I thought it would be.   Yes, sometimes that is all it takes to make me ridiculously happy.  As the writer Susan-Lori Parks says, “I’m hard to impress.  But I’m easy to please."  A philosophy that works for me.

So what is this book that’s transformed my day?  Why,  The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.  I first heard about it on the excellent literary website The Millions, which published a wonderful piece about it, “Zen and the Art of Pie Making,” by Janet Potter.  Two sentences in, and I knew I had to have it. 

But this is a blog about writing.  What does a book about pie have to do with writing?

I’m glad you asked.  Reading well-written cookbooks is a unique pleasure, allowing one to revel in language invented for the sole purpose of describing the infinite variety of the sense world: taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch.  All come into play when cooking and eating, and all are evoked by descriptive writing.  I sit on the couch flipping the pages, immersed in this abundant sense world, tasting each pie, imagining the flavors, the aromas, the crumbly feel of the dough in my fingers.   And from there, memories effortlessly arise, about food and family, rituals and customs—rich material for any memoir writer.  

Food writer T. Susan Chang, who teaches the invitingly named course “Eat, Drink, Get Paid” for the Bay Path MFA in Creative Nonfiction, demonstrates these connections between food and memory in her stunning book, A Spoonful of Promises.   Less a cookbook than a memoir with recipes, it features short, sparking essays on the author’s life, each centered around a dish.  "I wanted to convey a sense that food isn't just about food, or that food is more than food," she says.  "I think of it as this unobserved companion that travels with us throughout our lives, helping to record our memories and lend meaning to even everyday happenings." 

Indeed.  My earliest memory, in fact, is about dough.  I’m lying on a stained linoleum floor, curled in a ball and weeping.  The source of my despair is four feet away from me: an alluring mound of fragrant cookie batter, Shangri-la in a mixing bowl, which a person I once loved as my mother is guarding like Cerberus at the entrance to Hades.  There will be no fingers in the bowl.  No sampling, no tasting, not a single lick of the spoon.  Hence, the collapse to the floor, the howl loud enough to rattle the bones of distant ancestors.   Hours later (it must have been hours), an exasperated hand descends in front of my face, holding a chunk of buttery deliverance.  I accept it reverently, chewing slowly as the room fills with light.  I am loved after all.  I can get up off the floor and live!  I think I may have heard singing, too, but memory is vague on this point.

What is not vague in the way in which food—and good food writing—serves as creative inspiration, a spur to use descriptive language in novel ways, a means to open up a scene from the small and commonplace to the larger canvas of life.  The acclaimed food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote about serving a meal to guests from a distant country, who as they dined tasted “not only the solid honesty of my red borscht, but the new flavor of a changing world.”

Food writing can be about the meeting of cultures and customs, or simply about the food and nothing more.  Here are Jane and Michael Stern, the “Roadfood” writers, describing their encounter with a slice of apple pie: “The crust is as crunchy as a butter cookie, so brittle that it cracks audibly when you press it with your fork; grains of cinnamon sugar bounce off the surface as it shatters.” This is food writing done so well it becomes a kind of evocative poetry. 

Which leads me back to T. Susan Chang.  Not only does she write beautifully about the linkages between food and feeling, food and family and love, she also describes food with a flair that can almost make a dish appear, ready to eat, on an empty plate.  In her talk at this Saturday’s Writers’ Day at Bay Path, “Finding the Flavor in Writing, or Escape from ‘Delicious,’” she will help writers learn to mine their vocabulary for fresh ways to write about food.  Such as this lovely little sentence, about panna cotta: "The final product was a subtly and sublimely decadent custard, which slid like silk stockings over the tongue."   Or this delightfully earthy paragraph, about ribs:

"In a lifetime’s and several pigs’ worth of ribs, these were exceptional, eyeballs-to-the-ceiling, swoon worthy.  There’s that “chunky rub” – an express train to flavor right there.  And then there’s that sour-sweet glaze, that alluring tamarind thing which balances the tart and the fruity in that kiss-slap!-kiss way I can’t get enough of.  It gilds the ribs front and back and reduces you to an absolute animal, if you aren’t one to begin with."

If, after reading this, you aren’t ready either to cook, eat, write, or sign up for Chang’s talk this Saturday, then I don’t know what will move you.  As for me, I’m up for all four.  Right now, though, I have a Caramel-Apple Cider Pie to make.  With any luck, I’ll write about its splendid success in my next post (without once using the word “delicious”…)!

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