Delancey book cover“There were many moments early on when I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to be eaten alive by a wild animal than to show up for work. But in the midst of those hours, there was one that I always loved. It begins around 3:30 pm, when the servers set up the dining room. They set the tables, light the votives, and fill the water glasses. On the surface, it seems pretty mundane….But…for that hour, the room has this calm, consistent thrum to it, a sort of potential energy that feels peaceful and reassuring. I looked forward to it every day, and I still do.” Delancey

Delancey is a funny, beautifully written memoir about the founding of a wood-fired pizza restaurant in Seattle. It would make an excellent holiday present for readers who appreciate good food and frank, inspiring accounts of what it takes to start a business from scratch.

I loved Delancey because I grew up in our family’s floral shop, and the book is an authentic depiction of what it takes to establish and run a small business – the successes as well as the moments of despair when you question whether all the effort and sacrifice is worth it. Molly Wizenberg is frank and honest about the good and the bad. She is the author of the hugely popular blog Orangette, as well as another memoir, A Homemade Life. Orangette is one of my favorite blogs; Molly depicts her everyday life of cooking at home (recipes included), raising a daughter, and running Delancey with her husband, Brandon.

In the memoir, I especially enjoyed Molly’s descriptions of how Brandon developed and perfected their pizza recipes and the day-in, day-out routines and rituals of running a restaurant. They reminded me of days in the flower shop that began at the crack of dawn and sometimes ended after midnight, especially during the holidays.

Molly writes about the behind-the-scenes drama in the life of Delancey, but she also beautifully depicts her search for meaning in what she and Brandon are building. After the adrenaline of inspiration began to wear off, Molly got off the treadmill for a bit to take stock.

Here is one of my favorite parts, when Molly travels to London, dines with friends at the River Cafe and has an epiphany:

“…we watched the lunch crew set up their staff meal, a buffet along the bar. They filled their plates and began to stream past us to a lawn next to the patio, where they sat together, at least twenty of them, to eat. They smiled and gestured and leaned into each other, and the whole scene was eminently civilized, idyllic, the kind of vignette you find in an MFK Fisher essay about a restaurant in the French countryside in the first half of the last century. I couldn’t stop staring at them, watching the way they were with each other, the way they clearly enjoyed being there…These people, I thought, are making something here. ….These people know, and they care, that what they’re making is beautiful. They aren’t just going through the motions; they’re going after it. It was spectacular to watch: calm, precise, quietly exuberant.”

Oh, and, by the way, Molly includes twenty recipes for simple, homemade food she, Brandon, and their daughter June eat at home. This is a yummy, inspiring memoir.

Books at my door

Books at my doorDelancey book cover


If you like food writing combined with memoir, you will like Molly Wizenberg and her latest, Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage. The restaurant is in Seattle. Her first book, A Homemade Life, is a bestseller.

Sicily book coverI bought Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards for an upcoming trip – haven’t been there in seven years. Many of the greatest writers were drawn to this island.

Groundbreaking Food Gardens by Nikki Jabbour promises 73 plans that will change the way you grow your garden, such as: Slow Food Garden; Vintage Victory Garden; Edibles on a Patio; Heirloom Sampler; Formal Herb Garden; Eggs & Everything; and Living Walls.

Piazza, Carini
The piazza in Carini, Sicily, where my father was born

On the eighth day of Christmas: The Teacup Chronicles

juniper berries

The Teacup Chronicles

Because I like good stories about ordinary things, fine photographs, unusual recipes, and anything with “teacup” in the title.

On the seventh day of Christmas: Los Rodriguez Life

Winter snow scene

Los Rodriguez Life always makes me happy when I visit. Bilingual, so I can practice reading Spanish, and it feels like a grand celebration of family and being alive. There’s gardening, food, travel, photography, music and lots of personality.

I think you’ll enjoy “Fly On.” (Scroll down to the music video.) I love fiddle music.

December morning photo by Putneypics under CC By-NC 2.0

On the second day of Christmas: 66 Square Feet

Two turtle doves

Originally from South Africa, 66 Square Feet blogger Marie Viljoen lived in Brooklyn for many years while cultivating an amazing garden (from which she harvested fruits and vegetables) on her small terrace. Recently, she moved to Harlem, and it will be interesting to see her new not-so-secret garden in progress. Marie calls herself a writer, gardener, forager, and cook.

66 Square Feet book coverI have her new book, 66 Square Feet: A Delicious Life, which I love. I’m a former New Yorker, and I especially enjoy her nature and foraging expeditions around the city. I don’t have much of a garden, but I garden vicariously when I visit 66 Square Feet.

If you only have time for a quick blog stop, 66 Square Feet is perfect – the photography is fabulous, and often there is just a bit of text. Marie has another blog, 66 Square Feet (The Food) where you’ll find her recipes.

It so happens Marie was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela passed away. Here is a link to her post, Madiba’s Garden, about Mandela cultivating a garden while he was in prison and what it meant to him.

(Vintage bird illustration, turtle doves, photo from Vintageprintable1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tasting Home – Judith Newton on writing memoir

Tasting Home book coverI’ve been reading Judith Newton’s  Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.

I was curious about how Judith so successfully conquered new territory by authoring a memoir, having spent her career writing for academic audiences. My background as a marketing communications writer has been both a help and a hindrance when it comes to memoir and other personally expressive writing.

If you are a writer who wants to try new forms or reach new audiences, you may find Judith’s insights helpful.  And if you simply want to read more fine food memoir collections, Judith has some excellent suggestions.

In your acknowledgements you mention having to transition from writing academic texts to writing memoir. Can you comment about some of these challenges and how you overcame them?

When you write as an academic,  you are writing defensively.  It’s customary to begin a book by outlining  the arguments of other works on the subject. You then situate your own argument in relation to those of other works and point out how your own says something better or new. You’re always aware of how others might criticize your argument and you’re careful to defend yourself against that.  It’s a competitive culture and some people are downright mean.

Judith NewtonWriting a memoir requires a different emotional orientation.  The idea is to open yourself up, to share private stories with your public, and  to engage with readers on an emotional level. I had to imagine a non-academic audience to write like that and, even then, writing the memoir sometimes felt like jumping into free fall off a cliff.   Taking classes was helpful with this.  I often imagined my audience as the other people in the class.

I did read other memoir writers. M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me was a big influence because it conveyed a great deal about the emotional hungers that are fed in cooking for, and dining with, others.  Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate implicitly connects food to politics, which is something  I wanted to do. In Like Water cooking for, and eating with, others is what sustains women and men, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.  Mollie Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, which, among other food memoirs, combines personal vignettes with recipes, supplied a model for the form.Like Water for Chocolate

I had to learn how to write differently as well.  Although I made a habit of including personal stories in my academic writing,  those stories were an addition to, or comment on, the argument I was advancing.  I had to learn how to sustain a personal story for the length of a book, how to give it a narrative arc, how to write scenes, develop characters, write dialogue, use imagery and all the rest.  I took classes to do this (at U.C. Extension and Osher Lifelong Learning), and I really believe in classes for the instruction and for the community they give you.  I needed that community support.  (I also loved being a student rather than the teacher!)  I made a conscious decision to go into my classes feeling open to criticism because insightful criticism is a writer’s gold.  I wanted to experience, in a full way, whatever the class brought.

Your Life as StoryI can remember feeling that Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird was incredibly liberating and comforting.  Two other really helpful books were Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story and Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing.  I especially like Rainer’s book and think that people who write screenplays have a lot to teach us.

If there are food memoirs and cookbooks you’ve especially enjoyed, let us know in the comments below.

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.

Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.

In addition to Tasting Home, Judith is the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these were reprinted by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012. Currently she writes for The Huffington Post.

Tasting Home – Judith Newton on cooking, coming of age, feminism

“…cookbooks were more to me than a reflection of my past. They’d been agents of my recovery – from childhood misery, from profound self-loss, from my fear, even as an adult, that the world would never seem like home. I’d cooked from them to save my life, and I’d succeeded.”

In her newly published memoir, writer and historian Judith Newton looks at her own life and the culture of her time, from the 1940s to the 2000s. Along the way she writes of the cookbooks and cuisine that fed her in body and spirit.

I can’t say enough good things about Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen I just loved it. Judith writes of her difficult early childhood in Compton, California, of coming of age at Stanford and Berkeley in the 1960s, and of her beautiful and haunting relationship with her husband, Dick. I found Judith to be especially eloquent in describing her intellectual and spiritual awakening and continual growth.

As a young girl, I watched the 1960s unfold mostly on television and in newspapers and magazines. Reading Judith’s memoir, for me, was like hearing stories from an older sister who actually lived those events.

And the food! Judith includes childhood recipes inherited from her parents and the land they lived on (Death Valley Date Nut Bread, for example) and recipes from influential and groundbreaking cookbooks of the day, such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al., and The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. (Moosewood Cookbook is another classic Judith knows well. See a previous post with an excerpt from Tasting Home.) Throughout her memoir, Judith speaks of the joy, fulfillment, and healing power of cooking and sharing meals with loved ones.

Here is part 1 of an interview with Judith. Watch for part 2 in my next post. Thank you for talking with me and sharing your thoughts with us, Judith!

When I read your comment about cookbooks being an agent of your recovery, I realized I view books and music in the same way. I’m sure many of your readers have had a beloved pastime that got them through tough times. Has reader response to Tasting Home borne this out? Did this theme resonate with those who supported you during the writing process?

Tasting Home book coverYes,  it did!  One woman in my writing group found release in jazz and in singing and  dancing. Another reader, Linda Joy Myers, who is herself a memoirist, writes of how she was sustained by the warmth of a music teacher, by the beauty of music, art, and the Midwestern plains. Several of my old colleagues at Davis found refuge in cooking and understood very well how a kitchen table can lay the groundwork for political community.

How did you come to believe the personal affects the political and society?

My years of teaching women’s studies had made me aware that the private and public spheres are dependent on each other and that the personal always informs the political. Traditionally, for example, women have fed, cared for, educated, and humanized members of their household including men, children, and the old.  This frequently invisible and unpaid labor is essential to having a society at all, and especially one that involves people working in cooperation with each other.

In writing a book that celebrates home cooking as a humanizing and healing kind of work, I  think of myself as carrying on a feminist project—that of giving value to a traditionally female,  often unseen, but essential form of labor, one that the political scientist Janet Flammang, in her book A Taste for Civilization, calls a preparation for civil society itself.

Another feminist project has been to show how political movements also depend on a kind of emotion work.  The sociologist Belinda Robnett,  for example, in her book How Long? How Long? African American Women and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes about how African American women worked behind the scenes during the Civil Rights Movement, meeting ordinary people, listening to their needs, and building face to face relations of friendship and trust. This emotion work was critical to the success of building a grassroots movement, and is critical to the success of present-day coalition as well. By demonstrating how cooking can bring people into connection with each other, not just in a domestic setting but in a political group as well, Tasting Home continues this project of linking the political to the personal and emotional.

Do you feel this healing through cooking helped you make a more meaningful contribution through your work?

Judith NewtonAbsolutely!  I learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement,  that a committed political life could and should involve “sensuality.”  “To be sensual,” Baldwin wrote, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

For me sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food.  Being able to access this joy in a daily way kept me going in every facet of my life and work, making it possible for me to retain the optimism that has informed my politics and my writing.  If I didn’t feel that optimism, I wouldn’t write at all.

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.

Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.

In addition to Tasting Home, she is also the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these were reprinted by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012. Currently, she writes for The Huffington Post.

The Stories We Tell

Speaking of memoir, this just-released family documentary directed by Sarah Polley looks so tantalizing, and it’s gotten rave reviews. There are a few trailers floating around but I like this one the best:  The Stories We Tell.

A WWII era classic American cookbook

canned goods

After my post about family cookbooks passed down through the generations, reader Deborah Brasket left a detailed comment I’ve highlighted in this guest post.

I like what Deborah has to say about one of her favorite cookbooks, published during World War II, because that was my parents’ era. Whenever I hear about Victory Gardens and rationing, I remember my mother telling me about how you couldn’t buy silk stockings back then, and how she and her siblings had to take turns tending the kitchen garden, and how there were no boys to go out with because they were all fighting overseas.

I think about my father in the Army in Europe, 1943. He missed his mother’s Italian cooking, and one cold November day while exploring Luxembourg he happened upon a tavern where there was an Italian wedding celebration. The family welcomed him with open arms and invited him to dinner the following day. It was my father’s last good meal before he was wounded at Cherbourg a few days later. He ate Army hospital rations for over a year while he recuperated.

Discovering book gems from the past is a pleasure quite different from cracking open a brand new book. I’m looking forward to tracking down a copy of Deborah’s family treasure.

Here’s what she had to say:

One of my favorite cookbooks was passed down to me from my mother: The Lily Wallace New American Cook Book, published in 1941. What I love about it is how it shows a whole different era of cooking “basics”. It has recipes for cooking frogs legs (3 recipes), grouse (3), rabbit (4), squirrel (2), turtle (2), snail (alas, 1) as well as other kinds of game (quail, partridge, venison, woodchuck, and pheasant.) It also has sections on preserving food, including canning, brining, and pickling.

My favorites are sections on: Ration Cooking, Saving Food for Victory, Saving Fuel, and Sugar Ration Cooking. The “Saving Food and Expense for Victory” chapter starts out:

“America may march to victory on its stomach. A nation’s morale and health depend greatly upon food. If the homemaker can do nothing else, she can wage an earnest battle for health and strength for her family in the kitchen, and thus contribute her share to ultimate victory on the military front.”

Another chapter I love is on menu planning, which includes sections on a Plan for a Liberal Diet ($3000 or over income) down to A Plan for a Restricted Diet for Emergency Use ($1000 or less annual income  – this one restricts meats mostly–Thursday’s dinner consists of whole-wheat chowder with carrots and potatoes, and bread; Saturday’s dinner consists of Hominy soup, stewed prunes, bread and butter. Yum.)

Deborah has sailed around the world, and she blogs about her journey, and nature, and writing at her beautiful site, Living at the Edge of the Wild. She writes fiction, essays, articles, poems and book reviews. You can read her work at

Please tell us about your favorite family cookbook in the comments, or share a family cookbook story with us – send me an email at

Next up: I’ll be celebrating the first-year anniversary of Books Can Save a Life with an “open house” and a book giveaway.

Photo: Library of Congress

Christmas comfort

For the first course of my Christmas dinner, there must be something hot and inspiring – a cup of what is to me quite the most marvelous and stimulating of soups ever created, a deep carnelian-clear and concentrated fish consommè, an essence of Mediterranean fish and shellfish made aromatic with leeks and tomatoes, fennel stalks, lemon peel, olive oil and white wine.  Elizabeth David, in Elizabeth David’s Christmas

Friday was the winter solstice, a typically cold, gray day in upstate New York. This year, barren of snow and darker than usual in spirit.

The 50-bell carillon in the Rush Rhees Library tower at the University of Rochester rang 26 times, followed by melodies children love: “Mr. Rogers Theme,” “It’s a Small World,” and others. In the medical center chapel that afternoon, we lit candles to brighten the longest night and welcome the lengthening days.

Giant evergreen treesSnow fell that evening. The next morning, in the woodsy part of our backyard, I saw two young white-tailed deer hopping nimbly over a fallen tree.

We need comfort food more than ever this year. On Christmas Eve, I’ll make a feast of four fishes, not quite keeping up with the feast of seven fishes traditionally prepared in seaside Mediterranean villages. Seven for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. As for what kinds of fish you’d find on the Christmas Eve table in villages of old, I imagine whatever the fishermen caught that day.

When we travel to Sicily we stay in Scopello, a small village by the sea. We hear the fishing boats heading out before sunrise. Later, we go to the market and look over the fresh catch. One day, on a trip several years ago, our boys were thrilled to see a magnificent six-foot swordfish on display.

This year, I thumbed through an old paperback cookbook my Sicilian father often consulted, The Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Lo Pinto, to plan our holiday menu. The pages are yellow and I’ve lost the back cover of this edition, which was the 40th printing. First published by Doubleday in 1948, the cookbook was picked up by Bantam in 1955. The Art of Italian Cooking cover

The Christmases of my life seem to fall into distinct phases. Do yours? The holidays of my childhood and adolescence I spent in my family’s floral shop surrounded by poinsettias, piles of fragrant evergreen boughs, and fresh flowers by the dozens.

Then came Christmases in New York. I remember the paper bags filled with warm chestnuts I bought from street vendors, the Salvation Army bells ringing along Fifth Avenue, and the department store window displays: Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman, Macy’s. I’d buy a small Christmas tree and bring it home by taxi to my third floor walk-up.

On to upstate New York, and Christmases with my husband and two boys. Decorating the tree, watching the children dressed as angels and sheep in the Christmas pageant, waiting for Santa, leaving cookies and milk for him by the fireplace and a little something for the reindeer. One Christmas morning, the boys discovered a fresh hoof print pressed into the small bowl of oats.

Now, we wait for two young men to come home for the holidays. We have a wonderful time, and the holidays are over way too soon.

If you’d like, leave a Christmas memory in the comments below.

Quote from Elizabeth David’s Christmas, edited by Jill Norman. David R. Godine, Boston: 2008.

Evergreen photo by M. Hallinan

Family cookbooks that become heirlooms

I asked my brother, John, to contribute to my series on favorite family cookbooks. I’ve tasted some of the recipes from the cookbook below, prepared by John. Fabulous, unpretentious Sicilian cooking, the kind we grew up with.
The Sicilian Gentleman's Cookbook book coverI often consult The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook [by Don Baratta] when I want to do some Sicilian cooking. I think cooking becomes very personal, because we all have different tastes. I remember my dad describing different ways to make tomato sauce.  His mom, my grandmother, liked to make simple sauce. You cook down the tomatoes, add spices and, of course, garlic and onion, and you’re done….simple. But my grandfather had to have his sauce strained. Absolutely forbidden to have seeds and skin involved.
To me, The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook is simple cooking. Just the way I imagine peasants cooked in Sicily, because they didn’t have much. They made do with what was available. I usually pull down the book for a quick idea and I go with what we have. Simple. I suggest the artichoke hearts with pasta, which is a family favorite when we get together with friends for Valentine’s Day. I also like the fish stew/soup recipe. It’s really a remarkable meal.
When we were visiting at Thanksgiving, I was browsing through the cookbook and found the Sicilian gentleman’s secret to losing weight: have a bowl of homemade soup every night for dinner. Sounds like a great idea for the long, cold winter nights to come. A hot bowl of homemade soup with a slice of fresh bread and a glass of Malbec or Beaujolais Nouveau, then a good book in front of the fire.
Elizabeth David’s literature of cookery
Italian Food book cover
John’s story got me thinking about one of my favorite Italian cookbooks – Elizabeth David’s Italian Food.  The recipes are somewhat antiquated and difficult to re-create, because you can’t always find the proper, authentic ingredients, but they’re mouthwatering all the same. David, who was British, raises food writing to a high art. This is a book you could read and enjoy by a winter fire every evening, without ever making a recipe.
It was difficult to choose an excerpt, the writing is so good, but here are two of my favorites:
It is worth noting that in the dining-cars of trains, where the food is neither notably good nor to everyone’s taste, a dish of uova al burro may always be ordered instead of the set meal and will be brought rapidly and with perfect amiability by the dining-car waiter. So browbeating are the attendants in certain French and English railway dining cars over this question of ordering eggs or sandwiches instead of the dull, expensive, six-course meal provided that I have thought the matter worth mentioning.
She’s talking about a bygone era that sounds wonderful to me. Here is a link to the dining car menus on Amtrak’s long-distance trains – they even serve meals on Christmas Day.
Here is David’s description of a Venetian fish market:
The colours of the peaches, cherries, and apricots, packed in boxes lined with sugar-bag blue paper matching the blue canvas trousers worn by the men unloading the gondolas, are reflected in the rose-red mullet and the orange vongole and cannestrelle which have been prised out of their shells and heaped into baskets….In Venice even ordinary sole and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly-minted silver coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn.
I’d like to continue this family cookbook series, so send me the titles of your favorite family cookbooks and I’ll list them here. If you have a story or anecdote about a particular cookbook, please send it along.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior goes to….
Darlene Niman, who owns and operates Out With a Friend, a senior companion service in New York City. She says one of the best books she’s read recently is That Summer in Sicily by Marlena De Blasi.
Quotes from:
Italian Food, Elizabeth David, Penguin Books, New York: 1987.
The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook, 3rd Revised Edition, Don Baratta, Firefly Books, Buffalo: 2002.