Saturday, October 3, 2009

Bookish Love

Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother's Kitchen


My mother... asked me if I thought I was a good cook.
"Yeah," I said. "Not bad."
"Do you always leave the book open?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then you can't cook."

Matt McAllester's frequently delusional mother found an anchor in cooking (um, hello?). Elizabeth David, her favorite food writer, looms in these pages: "Study her if you want to know how to cook" his mother repeatedly chides. And McAllester, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, finally channels David, among others, as a way of working out his crazed, drinking mother's life and early death. Like Nigel Slater's riotous Toast, it is the thorny family in food, only less dense; in more human time.

I love that Elizabeth David's brilliance is a hub of Bittersweet. Some of the best chapters close with food she's inspired. Stark childhood pastiches and achy adult traumas end with cathartic recipes. He offers the most concise, approachable cassoulet you're likely to find, drop scones that sweetly mitigate childhood sorrow. His wife accuses him of cooking his way out of the stress of their failing pregnancies, and she's right - also out of broken youth; a mother's alienating madness. There is no end here to the restorative power of food.

It is an odd, sideways memoir/elegy/prayer of a book, as simple and knotty as Elizabeth David's superb three ingredient Oeufs en Cocotte à la Crème which McAllester finally grasps well enough to manage, book closed.