Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant
edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
Published by Riverhead Books
172 pages, 2007
Silk Purses and Sow’s Ears
Reviewed by Diane Leach
The adage of making silk purses from sow’s ears has lost its oomph for a generation of foodies raised on Fergus Henderson. Instead we might say a crispy pig ear salad cannot be got from the frozen foods section. So it is with Jenni Ferrari-Adler’s anthology, which borrows both concept and title from the late, great Laurie Colwin’s essay, which you can find in the magnificent Home Cooking. If you haven’t read Home Cooking, or its sequel, More Home Cooking, I suggest you drive to your nearest independent bookseller and purchase both books immediately. Now. This minute.
Are you back? Congratulations on your purchase.
Colwin wrote fiction and a regular column for Gourmet magazine until her untimely death in 1992. She was 48. If you were seeking further proof that life is unfair, and were hoping for some additional fodder in the “why is so and so dead but ________ (insert nefarious politician here) is alive?” department, I offer you Laurie Colwin, whose essay opens Ferrari-Adler’s book, setting a tone the other contributors have difficulty matching.
The book closes with a piece by Rosa Jurjevics, Colwin’s daughter, a nice gesture likely to suck in lots of Colwin fans like me. Rosa was eight when her mother died, and though her essay, “Food Nomad,” is largely upbeat, it’s tough reading for Colwin fans. The three-year-old who bade her mother to “Go to Balducci’s and buy me a sourdough bread and goat yogurt,” is all grown up now, and she misses her mother. So do we.
Strangely, or perhaps annoyingly, Ferrari-Adler is not one of these people. After spending her undergraduate years cooking in food coops at Oberlin, Ferrari-Adler found herself in the admittedly envious position of studying creative writing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had ample time, a nearby farmer’s market, and a tiny stipend. Instead of cooking for herself, she steamed cabbages or baked potatoes. The genesis of this book came to her one night while eating sautéed onions from a pot and listen to Aimee Man sing “One is the Loneliest Number.” Aimee Mann? Never mind. Ferrari-Adler found her copy of Home Cooking, and lo, a book proposal was born.
The resulting collection is an uneven one, its stated theme of cooking and eating alone stretched far from its original intentions, often with irritating results.
Contributors include Steve Almond, Nora Ephron, Paula Wolfert, Ann Patchett and M.F.K. Fisher. Lesser-known writers Laura Calder, Laura Dave and Courtney Eldridge offer their insights. The book divides into three camps: those who cook for themselves, those who concoct meals from boxes, jars and cans, and those whose culinary existences revolve around restaurants.
Many of the contributors are in their 20s, living marginally while trying to get writing careers off the ground. This group is largely unable to cook for themselves; nor do they seem especially interested in learning how. Instead, they find solitary mealtimes indicative of all sorts of failures, from the romantic to the parental to the professional. Erin Ergenbright is a waitress at Portland’s clarklewis: fed wonderful staff meals, she lacks the inclination to cook. She alludes to past eating disorders and a general discontent with food: her essay finds her spooning cold refried beans from the can while contemplating an incredibly picky diner who frequented clarklewis solo. Laura Calder makes a dinner of cashews. Laura Dave embarks on Chicken Parmaigiana but, incredibly, falls asleep in the midst of preparing it. Waking at three a.m., Dave puts the chicken into the fridge, planning, she writes, to eat it the next day. The chicken had been out on the countertop for hours. I hope Dave didn’t poison herself.
The better essays shock or amuse. Ann Patchett, a writer incapable of sloppy sentences, is a skilled if indifferent cook: “I think it is quite possible to be a very good cook while caring next to nothing about food,” she writes, admitting to existing on Saltines and Spaghetti-O’s. Jeremy Jackson’s “Beans and Me,” is a love song about canned black beans, a lowly food that carried him through college and beyond (while reminding Colwin fans of her essay “Black Beans,” wherein she warns, italics hers, that “A home without canned black beans ... is a house that is not stocked for an emergency.” (A few weeks ago I did run out of canned beans, and her words rattled around my head until I went out and restocked.) Jackson imagines his beloved beans “holding hands ... and singing some kind of bean song.” But “no bean stands above the black bean. The black bean reigns supreme. The black bean has the keys to my heart. The black bean and me go way back.”
Then there are the Jewish eaters. Being one myself, I cannot be accused of anti-Semitism. Steve Almond, Ben Karlin and Jonathan Ames all cite their Judaism as a sort of culinary excuse: all Jews assume their visitors are starving. It is our biblical duty to feed you. Never mind that Almond’s offering is the truly unkosher “grill-curried shrimp quesarito with avocado raita.”
Almond advises asking the fishmonger for tiger-tail shrimp, because tiger-tail shrimp implies coolness. I am terminally uncool. Nor would I ever seek validation from my fishmonger. I mean, he’s selling me fish. The wrong attitude could literally kill me. And Almond’s essay, thought self-deprecating, is highly reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s get stoned and cook m.o. And it must be said, that the piece has little to do with eating or cooking alone.
Ben Karlin is also Jewish, also amusing, offering a memoir and the killingly delicious-sounding salsa rosa. Good as it sounds, preparing salsa rosa has nothing to do with dining or cooking alone. Jonathan Ames writes of nearly killing himself with an egg dish and, in highly semitic fashion, imagining his own funeral. He recovers sufficiently to write about his love of waitresses, who bring him food, and “... I love waitresses because of the angle at which I observe them -- I stare right into their asses and vulvas, two of my favorite spots, and when they bend over sweetly to warm my coffee, I catch glimpses of breasts, another all-time favorite spot.”
Call me unkind, but after a remark like that, I wish the eggs had killed him. Or that he had a better editor. Other tough spots include Courtney Eldridge’s “Thanks, but no thanks,” a wide-ranging rant covering her ex-husband the chef, her famous ex- mother-in-law, her impoverished childhood, and the food her cash-strapped mother produced, all strung together in the ironically bitter tone so popular these days. As for Haruki Murakami’s “The Year of Spaghetti,” which first appeared in the New Yorker, well, it’s fiction, and rather fantastical fiction at that. In “Protective Measures,” Jami Attenberg, having fled to a Jamaican resort to clean up, bemoans the lack of single diners, ultimately taking refuge in room service while deciding to empty that bag of Jamaican weed over the balcony after all.
My heart bleeds.
Nora Ephron, Paula Wolfert and Marcella Hazan all come through -- each discussing their favorite dish to eat alone, offering a little memory with it, closing with a nice recipe that somebody alone in a kitchen, with or without an eggplant, could prepare for herself. So does Amanda Hesser’s “Single Girl Cuisine,” from her lovely Cooking for Mr. Latte.
Rosa Jurjevics’ “Food Nomad,” offers a touching evocation of her parents: her mother, of course, but also her father, Juris Jurjevics, a man we know from Colwin’s writing as a lover of Latvian bread and maker of weekend pancakes rolled up with jam. From Rosa we learn of secret trips to her father’s office, where the two snuck the junk foods Colwin banned from their home. We learn that Rosa has inherited her mother’s salt tooth, loves capers, and still wanders Chinatown markets, as she did with her mother. “Heaping my basket at the market, as much a delighted stranger here as I was in the adventure spots of my childhood, I think of them both. Roti and cabbage. Lemons and lentils. Goat cheese and pancakes. Mom and Dad.”
Cooking and dining alone need not be so fraught. We need not step into the kitchen each night dragging parents, weight woes, or money pains with us. It is possible to eat well alone without being Julia Child or depending on Saltines. If you are interested in feeding yourself decently, or reading about feeding yourself decently, get thee to Laurie Colwin, to Judith’s Jones’ recently released The Tenth Muse, or to Elizabeth David, a relentless curmudgeon who liked nothing better than a ham sandwich and champagne for Christmas dinner. Alone.
Three meals I like to eat when my husband is out:
1. An artichoke with mayonnaise.
Trim your artichoke. If it has a nice long stem, leave it on -- there’s good stuff in there. Boil your choke senseless in acidulated water while prepping the mayonnaise. I rarely have farm-fresh eggs, so I use Hellman’s, cut with tons of lemon juice (another Colwin trick) and lots of raw garlic.
Drain your artichoke. Dip the leaves into your little pot of mayonnaise. Eat.
My husband does not like polenta. How can you not like polenta? I don’t know, but he doesn’t. So I wait until he isn’t around. I use Arrowhead Mills cornmeal, which I stir with water, chicken broth and sometimes, borrowing from Paula Wolfert, a cup of flour. Sometimes I cut up onions and garlic and add this to the polenta. Sometimes I shake hot sauce into the bubbling mass, or grate in heaps of cheese.
Polenta is easy to make -- one cup cornmeal to four cups liquid. But it does take time, patience and the acceptance that sooner or later, one of those mealy little bubbles will explode on your forearm.
My husband likes rice, but he generally wants something with it -- a piece of cow or chicken or pig. Sometimes I make my rice with chicken broth and garlic and vegetables, a pseudo-risotto. Sometimes I go into total stir-fry mode and whip up veggies alongside my rice with lots of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and fiery Thai chile paste.
These are all nice, comforting, easy dishes. They are inexpensive and nutritious. They will not make you fat or fill your body with unpronounceable chemicals. You will be left with a full belly and a few dishes to wash, but dirty dishes are a small price to pay for feeding yourself well. And somewhere down the line, should a significant other or child appear, or just a person in need of meal, you will know exactly what to do. You’ll surround yourself with Laurie and Elizabeth and maybe even Julia or Alice, and you’ll page around, seeking inspiration, which of course will come, and you, little old you, alone in your kitchen, eggplant or no, will prepare a meal. | November 2007