I earned my undergraduate degree in fiction writing, the only student in the department to finish writing a novel. My mentor recommended it to his publisher who promptly disagreed that it was great. I wrote three more novels, collected three more rejections, respectful, even supportive, wanting to read the next one, if there was a next one. Nevertheless, three rejections.
I never thought of trying non-fiction. I married a journalist and admired his profiles and essays but I couldn’t see myself doing either. You have to talk to people and tell the truth, two things I was very bad at.
Then I was hired at a newsletter that reviewed restaurants in New York City and, after three years typing up other people’s stories, I thought I might just be as good, maybe better, than them. I’d have to sometimes talk to people and learn to tell the truth but I had three things going for me the other writers didn’t. I was for many years a damn good waitress; I’ve served time as a short order cook; my mother insisted I learn how to read recipes, make gravy, and bake pies.
It turned out that I wasn’t a very good reviewer, lacking the main requirement for the job–an iron-clad stomach. Several months of almost weekly food poisoning demolished me. The economy size bottle of Pepto Bismol on top of the office’s filing cabinet didn’t help. I told my boss I wanted to write essays, instead. They were about walking around the city, finding out about the history of different neighborhoods, poking into bars and dives and hanging out with the cooks, bartenders, and patrons inside. A new obsession took hold.
My agent called to ask how the fourth novel was going. I told her I’d been walking around the city. She said, “why don’t you think about doing something around food.”
I’d been thinking about a bunch of women I’d worked with years before: Two Italian cooks in their seventies, clear-eyed veterans of failed marriages; a lusty short order cook; a sweet child-bride dishwasher; and a hard-boiled waitress who rose at 4 a.m. every day to bake the best pies in the county. I don’t think I would have gotten through my first year of being a wife without them. I wrote the essay and my agent sent it around. Within a week I had a contract, a good advance, and a new career as a food writer.
By any measure the book was a success. But I hated being known as a food writer. It seemed to me a wretched comedown from writing fiction. Readers came to my book wanting recipes but found stories they either loved or were annoyed by. Interviewers expected original recipes and perfect cooking demonstrations. They didn’t know what to do with me when I admitted I didn’t create recipes and flubbed demonstrations (there used to be several hilarious videos and radio spotlights out there).
And yet, I wrote three more books. I loved weaving together memoir and history. I wandered about the country–once over to Spain–and sank into how food reveals the essence of a place and people. I gradually admitted that food has always been an intricate part of how I navigate the world. I am the daughter of a woman who, to the day she died, believed the most important and enjoyable part of her day was making dinner. I am the daughter of a man who used the kitchen table as a platform for story telling. My brother and sister and I go right to planning a meal when we’re together. It’s an innate instinct in me to make sure people around me eat and drink well. To share the simple pleasure of a meal is among the most meaningful gifts I have to offer.
I still feel a little fraudulent, though. Unlike nearly everyone else in the food world, I’m not an expert cook, an investigative journalist, an intriguing theorists, an anthropologist or historian. This site will never–EVER–receive the Saveur Magazine blog award. When I teach, my students tend to be befuddled by my emphasis on narrative arc, rather than tips to conquer the culinary world.
When I feel lost in my own hungers and my own life’s desires, when I compare youthful dreams to aged realities, I remember this: first we eat, then we do everything else. I’m not sure I’ll ever be as fine as M.F.K. Fisher, but I’m learning to be satisfied with the meal I am making for myself.
A Quick Recipe
The husband has come down with something. He’s lethargic, a little addled, his fine wit strained. I need to make him feel better but the cupboards and refrigerator are uncommonly bare. I’d run out to the market but it’s freezing rain outside. This is all I have.
Make-Do Beef Soup
1 potato, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup flour (more or less)
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
About 2 cups beef broth or stock (I always have a box on hand for just these occasions)
3 past-their-prime beets, peeled and cut into serving-size cubes
1 garlic clove, minced
1 inch slice of ginger (or more to taste), minced
Herbs (Above is marjoram, rosemary, dill. I used only rosemary)
1 tablespoon of sherry or port (to taste and optional)
Boil the potato until tender. Drain then mash into a medium size bowl. Mix in flour, egg, and salt and pepper until you have a nice dough. Take a large pinch and roll it in your hands to form a small dumpling. Set aside on a plate, covered in plastic wrap.
Make the soup
Pour broth into a large pot. Add beets, garlic, ginger and a medley of fresh herbs to taste
Bring to a boil then lower the flame to simmer. Cook until you can just about pierce the beets with a fork (you don’t want them mushy), about 15 minutes.
Carefully drop the dumplings into the soup, cover the pot and cook until the dumplings are tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in sherry or port and serve with bread.