Monday, November 05, 2018

Four Books And A Feast

"When life has difficult times,
fight back with normal life."
~ Unknown

Today I have four favourite books on my desk -- put them together and they are a reading feast. As we come into the season of drawing nearer the cozy corners in our own homes and maybe dusting off books we haven't thought of in a while, I'm delighted to share these titles with you. Three are memoirs, the fourth is a novel, and they each have a common element where food plays a supportive role in each of these gorgeously crafted and courageous stories.

In our upside-down world, we look around for those things that can help give us some measure of normalcy and comfort -- simple things like chopping vegetables for a hearty soup, setting a pot on the stove to boil pasta, or turning on the kettle for tea and then sharing it with others. Even taking solace in the normal routine of washing up the plates and cups later in hot, sudsy water -- these are essential ingredients that go a long way to making our lives feel less shaky, more normal. After all, we must eat in good times, and we still need to eat when it's not so good. Our souls, not only our bodies, continue to draw sustenance from the eating and sharing of food.

And, even when all is well in our lives? I ask you, who amongst us doesn't cherish and enjoy our creature comforts? As C.S. Lewis once said, "Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably." So I offer these four beautiful books that have food as a main character, or should I say, main ingredient, and whatever you are in the middle of this week, I hope they provide a feast for you.

Keeping the Feast (Memoir)
One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing
by Paula Butturini, 2010

This is one of my favourite books. I took it out of the library so many times when I first found it that I finally went in search of my own copy. It's a beautifully written story of food and love, trauma and depression, healing and hope.

It's the story of Paula Butturini and her husband, John, who were both journalists during the chaotic uprisings against Communism in the late 1980s. John had been shot and nearly killed in Romania, which led to months of recovery and eventually a debilitating depression. Paula, faced with taking care of John during this time, began to see how the daily routines of shopping, preparing, and sharing food for the two of them became not just a physical nourishment, but a sustaining comfort during that difficult season.

Opening Lines:  "Two ghosts. That was how a friend later described us when we returned to Rome in 1992. John and I had been away five years, and though neither of us knew it at the time, we returned, I think, because Rome seemed the most likely place to recuperate and cast out the demons we had picked up in our absence.

We moved into a small apartment near the Tiber on one of those golden October days so perfect that you could never imagine willingly leaving the city again. Every morning I would walk down our narrow street toward the hubbub of Campo dei Fiori, where the flower sellers, the fruit vendors, the vegetable sellers, the fishmongers, the mushroom lady, the bread shop, the lamb and chicken lady...the olive and herb vendors, the newspaper kiosk, the housewares stand, and the roving garlic salesmen...were always open for business no matter how early I awakened."

by Erica Bauermeister, 2009

The author once said that she always wanted to write and when she read Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing, she finally knew she wanted to "write books that took what many considered to be unimportant bits of life and gave them beauty, shone light upon their meaning." Oh yes, I totally understood that. I could see this author was kindred spirit -- someone who also loved to find the beauty in life, even in ordinary rituals, like eating and cooking.

I loved, loved this novel from the first page to the last. It was so rich with sensory details that I was right there inside the story, living it as it unfolded. When I finished the last page, I turned around and started it all over again, this time reading it aloud to my hubby who also loved it. It was so evocative and sensual to read out loud -- to hear words that somehow created a deep, rich, satisfying savour inside our souls.

The story, in a nutshell, is about a young woman, Lillian, who teaches a cooking class once a month at her restaurant. The students come to learn about cooking 'soulful' dishes, but in truth they each come looking for something beyond the kitchen. Little did they realize that meeting Lillian and taking her class would be a turning point in their lives. 

Opening Lines: "Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her -- ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her, even as she searched out those that might suggest a rotting orange at the bottom of a pile, or whether the new assistant chef was still doubling-dosing the curry dishes. ..."

If you've never read the book, run and find it, I guarantee you will be so glad you did. Here's a quote from the book I think need pondering: "Sometimes, Nina, our greatest gifts grow from what we are not given."

Making Toast (Memoir)
A Family Story
by Roger Rosenblatt, 2010

I found this book at the library book sale some years ago now. I was drawn to it because it was a story of loss and a family trying to find their way through this awful, strange period. I remember when my dad passed away and how odd it all felt, how huge the loss of his presence in our family's life. I was interested to know how, or if, this family got through it. 

This painfully beautiful story is a tribute to the author's daughter Amy -- a gifted doctor, mother, and wife -- who collapsed and died from an asymptomatic heart condition. It's a story of how people die out of order, and grandparents are suddenly parents again. It's about trying to help a family heal through the day-to-day routines as life goes on. 

Lines from Page 16-17:  "I wake up earlier than the others, usually around 5 a.m. to perform the one household duty I have mastered...I prepare toast. I take out the butter to allow it to soften, and put three slices of Pepperidge Farm Hearty White in the toaster oven. Bubbies (one-year-old grandson) and I like plain buttered toast; Sammy prefers it with cinnamon, with the crusts cut off. When the bell rings, I shift the slices from the toaster to plates, and butter them."

Maman's Homesick Pie (Memoir)
A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen
by Donia Bijan, 2011

This is a wonderfully written memoir. It's both beautiful and heartbreaking, emotional and entertaining, all the while giving the reader a rich glimpse of the author's former life in Iran and her new life in the United States.

The author, a chef, tells her heartfelt family story 'through the prism of food'. Her family fled to California when the revolution in Iran threatened their safety in 1978. Looking back, she sees how the 'familiar flavors of her mother's cooking formed a bridge to the life they left behind'. Years later, Donia Bijan studied at Le Cordon Blue in Paris and came back to the US where she opened her own celebrated bistro. This book is peppered with delicious-sounding recipes and anecdotes of how they came about and why they are meaningful to the author, e.g. Roast Duck Legs with Dates and Warm Lentil Salad, Purple Plum Skillet Tart, Madame's Cocoa Pound Cake, Orange Cardamom Cookies, Cinnamon Date Bars, to name a few). I had the pleasure of making the Orange Cardamom Cookies -- oh my, they were lovely. You will find the recipe HERE.

Opening Lines: "My mother had been dead eight days when I showed up in her kitchen. There I was, on a gray January afternoon, with empty boxes and grocery bags, determined to cope with my colossal loss by salvaging a head of lettuce, a quart of milk, a pint of plain yogurt, and jar after jar of homemade pickle vegetables.

Walking down the hallway to her front door, I was no longer greeted by the familiar aroma of sweet Persian spices, nor could I hear the faint notes of the classical music station my mother tuned in to from morning until the evening news. I half expected her to open the door and pull me to her chest--Here you are, darling, here you are--and tell me it had been a huge mistake...that the mangled body we buried just a few days ago was not her. Not her."

* * *

I have taken comfort and joy from these stories, because in our troubled times, where rough stuff happens, it really comes back to remembering some of the simple ingredients of life: love, family, food ... not to forget, the books and words of wise people who remind us to hope and not to give up.  

Can you recommend a book you've enjoyed reading where food plays a key role in the story?

Wishing you a week of goodness, kindness, and beauty.



  1. Great post. Food and books, books and food--they go together so very well! My first thought of a book where food is a main character was Peter Mayle and his "A Year in Provence". He certainly feasted his way through the year in southern France! I love your photo with the teacup and books, so cozy feeling.

  2. Oh you make me want to read them all, if I were able to cope with other people’s sadness. It is lovely to read about food, but I have rarely read an entire book on food (cookbooks excluded). Not sure that “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler qualifies, but it certainly is a pleasant read.

  3. I loved The School of Essential ingredients too, such a beautifully written book. Books with food, particularly European, always grip me. Elizabeth Falconer's series, set in France, maybe out of print now, but wonderful reading.

  4. That lovely photo at the beginning just drew me right in. I so agree with Vee...each book you described made me want to read it more than the one before. Thanks for this beautifully presented post, Bren.

  5. Like Vee, like Debby, I am drawn to each one after your enticing descriptions!

    I have not read One Hundred Foot Journey, but my girls and I loved the movie!

    Scooting off to see if my library has any of these titles . . .

  6. Oh, Bren I love it when you recommend books. I have read "The School of Essential Ingredients" twice, thanks to you. Love, love this book. Now, I want to read all the others.

    The latest book I read which connects with food was, "The Apprentice, My Life in the Kitchen" by Jacques P├ępin. I highly recommend it.

    Thank you, Bren for another lovely post!

  7. Oh such wonderful book recommendations. I so enjoyed Bread Alone by Julie Hendricks.

  8. I loved the nonfiction book by Shauna Niequist called Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes. It is one of those books I have read over and over.

  9. Another lovely post, Brenda, with more books to add to my list. I also enjoyed The School of Essential Ingredients, but not quite as much as you did, I think. When our children were younger, we read The Redwall Books to them. There are many more now, that I haven't read, so I can't vouch for the later ones. But the earlier ones were full of rollicking fun and always feasting on such delicious sounding ingredients that our mouths watered.

  10. I'll have to look for "The School of Essential Ingredients" at my local library. Thanks for the suggestions!

  11. Oh! Where to begin? I enjoyed reading the excerpts you selected.... Thanks for such a delightful post!

  12. Hi Brenda~

    I love to read cookbooks, and a cookbook with a story attached...heaven!! Lots of good things to read about and ponder today!

    Hugs and Love,

  13. Ahhhh... you gave us such delectable choices! Which one first? I have my eye on, The School of Essential Ingredients.
    I'm "eating up" this post!
    Thank you for always including us with what you are reading and giving us great reviews.

  14. Thanks so much for these wonderful book suggestions - I will be reserving them at my library. In trying to think of books I've read with that special family and food connections, I come to several of Amy Tan's novels.
    Thanks again!


To My Beautiful Readers,

Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same. ~ Franz Peter Schubert

Thank you so much for leaving your 'footprint' here in my comment box. I do appreciate you taking a moment to share your thoughts today.

Brenda xo