I have a soft spot for uncategorizable nonfiction like this. My expectation was for a food memoir, but while the essays incorporate shards of autobiography and, yes, recipes, they also dive into everything from botany and cultural history to medicinal uses. Kate Lebo has a finger in many pies – a figure of speech I use deliberately, as she is primarily a baker (but also a poet) and her three previous books are about pie.
You won’t find any ordinary apples or oranges here. Difficult fruit – “the Tart, Tender, and Unruly,” as the subtitle elaborates – is different: rarer to find, more challenging to process, perhaps harder to love. Instead of bananas and pears, then, you’ll read about the niche (aronia and thimbleberries), the rotten and malodorous (medlars and durian fruit), and the downright inedible (just one: the Osage orange, only suitable for repelling spiders or turning into decorations). These fruits might be foraged on hikes, sent by friends and relatives in other parts of the USA, or sold at Lebo’s local Spokane, Washington farmer’s market. Occasionally the ‘recipes’ are for non-food items, such as a pomegranate face mask or yuzu body oil.
The A-to-Z format required some creativity and occasions great trivia but also poignant stories. J is for juniper berry, a traditional abortifacient, and brings to mind for Lebo the time she went to Denver to accompany a friend to an abortion appointment. N is for the Norton grape, an American variety whose wine is looked down upon compared to European cultivars. Q is for quince, what Eve likely ate in the Garden of Eden; like the first humans in the biblical account, Lebo’s pair of adopted aunts were cast out for their badness. W is for wheat, a reminder of her doomed relationship with a man who strictly avoided gluten; X is for xylitol, whose structure links to her stepdaughter’s belief in the power of crystals.
Health is a recurring element that intersects with eating habits: Lebo has ulcerative colitis, depression and allergies; her grandfather was a pharmacist and her mother is a physical therapist who suffers from migraines and is always trying out different diets. The extent to which a fruit can genuinely promote wellness is a question that is pondered more than once. Whether the main focus is on the foodstuff or the family experience, each piece is carefully researched so as to be authoritative yet conversational. The author is particularly good at describing smells and tastes, which can be so difficult to translate into words:
My first taste of durian was as candy, a beige lozenge with a slight pink blush that my boss at the time dared me to try. … It tasted of strawberries and old garlic. I had to will myself to finish. … My second taste of durian was at dim sum in New York City, visiting a man who would never love me. The durian was stewed, sweetened, and crenellated with flaky dough. … [It] was like peaches laced with onions, and had a richness that made my chest tight. Each bite was a dare. Could I keep going?
A single medlar that has been bletted outdoors through early December can be eaten in three bites. The first taste will be of spiced applesauce. … The second taste, because the medlar has spent long cold weeks on the branch, is sparkling wine. Not a good sparkling wine, but pleasant enough. Slightly explosive-tasting, like certain manufactured candies. Ugly, but what a personality. The third taste is a cold mildew one usually only smells, and generally interprets as a warning not to eat any more. You have now finished the medlar.
Two essays in a row best exemplified the book’s approach for me. The chapter on gooseberries, the cover stars, captures everything I love about them (we have two bushes; this year we turned our haul into a couple of Nigel Slater’s crumble cakes and a batch of gingery jam) and gives tips on preparation plus recipes I could see myself making. “Gooseberries are sour like you’ve arrived before they were ready for company, like they wanted you to see them in a better dress,” Lebo writes. The piece on huckleberries then shares Indigenous (Salish) wisdom about the fruit and notes that in a Spokane McDonald’s you can buy a huckleberry shake.
Over the eight months I spent with this collection – picking it up once in a while to read an essay, or a portion of one – I absorbed a lot of information, as well as some ideas for dishes I might actually try. Most of all, I admired how this book manages to be about everything, which makes sense because food is not just central to our continued survival but also bound up with collective and personal identity, memory, and traditions. Though it started off slightly scattershot for me, it’s ended up being one of my favorite reading experiences of the year.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
June hasn’t seen much progress on this project – though I’m currently on my fifth read, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, and enjoying it a lot – so July and August will need to include eight food- and drink-themed books each.
Today I have a reread of a funny (yet more serious than I remembered) favorite and a light collection of mini-essays on the English love affair with particular foodstuffs.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)
From my original Bookkaholic review from 2013:
Dunn’s debut is a book of letters – in more senses than one. It is a fairly traditional epistolary novel, but also toys with the letters of the alphabet: the wordy citizens of the island nation of Nollop are zealously engaged in creating pangrams (pithy sentences that contain each letter of the alphabet) in tribute to their founder, Nevin Nollop, who authored “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” the original pangram displayed in ceramic tiles on his statue in the public square. But things go awry when particular letters start falling off the monument.
A superstitious lot, the Nollop Council decide that the fallen letters can no longer be used, and the characters’ missives become increasingly constrained as they have to avoid certain vowels and consonants. Their writing grows exponentially avant-garde and hilarious as they resort to circumlocutions and phonetic spellings. Before long only L, M, N, O, and P can be used – which, handily, still allows for an approximation of the title character’s name. A madcap journey through the English language and its use in literature: enjoy the ride.
On this rereading…
I engaged more with the individual characters: Ella and her parents, aunt and cousin; other members of the community; and a few off-island visitors who lead the research into what’s happening with the letters. I was also struck much more by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text. Those who continue to use forbidden letters are turned in by their neighbors or enemies and get 1) a warning, 2) a flogging or time in the headstocks, and 3) banishment. The council members see themselves as interpreting the will of Nollop, and believe the pangram to be a miraculous sentence that can never be bettered – but the citizens prove them wrong by creating a superior example (using only 32 letters, versus the fox’s 35) purely by accident.
A remembered favorite line that my husband and I often quote to each other – “No mo Nollop poop!” – doesn’t exist (it’s actually “No mo Nollop pomp! No mo Nollop poo poo!”). My favorite alternative phrase is “terminal-cot” for deathbed once D is disallowed. I also love the new days of the week: Sunshine, Monty, Toes, Wetty, Thurby, Fribs and Satto-Gatto.
Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition: a rare combination that makes this an enduring favorite. I also recommend Dunn’s Ibid: A Life (2004), which is told entirely through the footnotes of a biography, taking “reading between the lines” to a whole new level. I haven’t enjoyed his other novels as much as these two.
Source: Salvation Army store, Cambridge (September 2016)
My original rating (Borrowed from a friend – in 2007?):
My rating now:
Eating for England by Nigel Slater (2007)
Nigel Slater is a foodie known in the UK for his television programs and newspaper columns. Not as edgy as Gordon Ramsay, as matey as Jamie Oliver, or as ethically clued-in as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he doesn’t have a particular shtick. A middle-of-the road, middle-class type, he’s all about simple comfort food. We have a few of his cookbooks.
As in his memoir, Toast (2004), food links in to nostalgia for childhood. In 200 or so essays that range from a paragraph to a few pages in length, Slater extols everything from marmalade to Brussels sprouts. He devotes by far the most time to the sweet stuff, though, considering the respective merits of every type of biscuit, candy, chocolate bar and pudding. There’s a clear love here for teatime treats (“Afternoon tea may be the only meal we take that is purely and utterly for pleasure”) and for stodge (“Is there something in our demeanour, our national psyche, which makes heavy, rather bland food sit so comfortably with us?”).
This was all pleasant, if inconsequential. I enjoy ‘observing the English’-type books because I’m familiar enough to recognize everything but still foreign enough to enjoy the quaintness and contradictions. What rubbed me the wrong way, though, were the arch portraits of kinds of cooks. I don’t often write in my books, but I found myself leaving corrective comments in the margins in a few places, especially on “The Slightly Grubby Wholemeal Cook,” an unhelpful stereotype of the “dirty hippie.” His ideas about hygiene and political correctness are a little off in this one. I also objected to his annoyance at people who won’t simply split the bill after a meal out (I’ll pay for what I ordered, thank you), and his defense of the gollywog used in Robertson’s advertising seems particularly ill judged at the current moment.
Source: Charity shop in Newton Stewart (Wigtown trip, April 2018)
In January 2018 I had the wonderful opportunity to have a free bibliotherapy session at the School of Life in London with Ella Berthoud, one of the authors of The Novel Cure. I wrote about the experience in this post. I quickly got hold of all but a couple of my prescribed reads, but have been slower about actually reading them. Though I’ve read five now, I’ve only written up four, two of which I only managed to finish this week. (These 250-word reviews are in order of my reading.)
Heligoland by Shena Mackay (2002)
(CURE: moving house)
Heligoland is a Scottish island best known from the shipping forecast, but here it’s an almost mythical home. Rowena Snow was orphaned by her Indian/Scottish parents, and a second time by her aunt. Since then she’s drifted between caring and cleaning jobs. The Nautilus represents a fresh chance at life. This shell-shaped artists’ commune in South London houses just three survivors: Celeste Zylberstein, who designed the place; poet Francis Campion; and antiques dealer Gus Crabb. Rowena will be the housekeeper/cook, but she struggles with self-esteem: does she deserve to live in a haven for upper-class creative types?
The omniscient perspective moves between the Nautilus residents but also on to lots of other minor hangers-on, whose stories are hard to keep track of. Mackay’s writing reminded me somewhat of Tessa Hadley’s and is lovely in places – especially when describing a buffet or a moment of light-filled epiphany in a garden. There’s not much to be said beyond what’s in the blurb: Mackay is attempting to give a picture of a drifter who finds an unconventional home; in the barest sense she does succeed, but I never felt a connection with any of the characters. In this ensemble cast there is no one to love and thus no one to root for. While I didn’t love this book, it did inspire me to pick up others by Mackay: since then I’ve read The Orchard on Fire, which I liked a lot more, and the first half of Dunedin.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
(CURE: worry over ageing parents)
Retired professor Nariman Vakeel, 79, has Parkinson’s disease and within the first few chapters has also fallen and broken his ankle. His grown stepchildren, Coomy and Jal, reluctant to care for him anyway, decide they can’t cope with the daily reality of bedpans, sponge baths and spoon feeding in their large Chateau Felicity apartment. He’ll simply have to recuperate at Pleasant Villa with his daughter Roxana and her husband and sons, even though their two-bedroom apartment is barely large enough for the family of four. You have to wince at the irony of the names for these two Bombay housing blocks, and at the bitter contrast between selfishness and duty.
Perhaps inevitably, Nariman starts to fade into the background. An increasingly speechless invalid, he only comes alive through his past: italicized sections, presented as his night-time ravings, tell of his love for Lucy, whom his parents refused to let him marry, and the untimely end of his arranged marriage. I enjoyed time spent in a vibrantly realized Indian city and appreciated a chance to learn about a lesser-known community: Nariman and family are Parsis (or Zoroastrians). There’s also a faint echo here of King Lear, with one faithful daughter set against two wicked children.
As to ageing parents, this is a pretty relentlessly bleak picture, but there are sparks of light: joy in life’s little celebrations, and unexpected kindnesses. Mistry’s epic has plenty of tender moments that bring it down to an intimate scale. I’m keen to read his other novels.
Maggie & Me by Damian Barr (2013)
(A supplementary prescription because I love memoirs and didn’t experience Thatcher’s Britain.)
Like a cross between Angela’s Ashes and Toast, this recreates a fairly horrific upbringing from the child’s perspective. Barr was an intelligent, creative young man who early on knew that he was gay and, not just for that reason, often felt that there was no place for him: neither in working-class Scotland, where his father was a steelworker and his brain-damaged mother flitted from one violent boyfriend to another; nor in Maggie Thatcher’s 1980s Britain at large, in which money was the reward for achievement and the individual was responsible for his own moral standing and worldly advancement. “I don’t need to stand out any more,” he recalls, being “six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”
There are a lot of vivid scenes in this memoir, some of them distressing ones of abuse, and the present tense, dialect, and childish grammar and slang give it authenticity. However, I never quite bought in to the Thatcher connection as an overarching structure. Three pages at the start, five at the end, and a Thatcher quote as an epigraph for each chapter somehow weren’t enough to convince me that the framing device was necessary or apt. Still, I enjoyed this well enough as memoirs go, and I would certainly recommend it if you loved Nigel Slater’s memoir mentioned above. I also have Barr’s recent debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, on my Kindle.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
(A supplementary prescription for uncertainty about having children.)
I enjoyed this immensely, from the first line on: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Upton is back in her hometown, pregnant by her older, married archaeology professor after a summer of PhD fieldwork in Alaska. “I had come home to be a child again. I was sick, heartbroken, worn down.” She gives herself a few weeks back home to dig through her family history to find her father – whom Vi has never identified – and decide whether she’s ready to be a mother herself.
We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. Groff gives voice to everyone from a Mohican chief to a slave girl who catches her master’s eye. Willie and Vi are backed up by a wonderful set of secondary characters, past and present. Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. (If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably for the baseball museum; it’s not far from where my mother is from in upstate New York.) Templeton is “a slantwise version” of Cooperstown, Groff admits in an opening Author’s Note, and she owes something of a debt to its most famous citizen, James Fenimore Cooper. What a charming way to celebrate where you come from, with all its magic and mundanity. This terrific debut novel cemented my love of Groff’s work.
I also have Ella to thank for the inspiration to reread a childhood favorite, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, last year; the experiment formed the subject of my first piece for Literary Hub. I also worked my way through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, another of my prescriptions, over a number of months in 2018, but failed to keep up with the regular writing exercises so didn’t get the maximum benefit.
My husband and I made a start on reading a few books aloud to each other, including Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, but that fell by the wayside after a handful of weeks.
(Incidentally, I had forgotten that Cutting for Stone turns up in The Novel Cure on a list of the 10 best books to combat xenophobia.)
Still to read: Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (CURE: horror of ageing)
And one I still have to get hold of but haven’t been able to find cheap secondhand because it’s a Persephone classic: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (a supplementary prescription because I love Victorian pastiches).
It truly felt like spring was on the way. Temperatures were in the mid-fifties (I’ve never really gotten to grips with Centigrade) and the daffodils in our back garden were trying their best to join the snowdrops decorating the churchyard in town. I started reading this pair of books to look to the seasons ahead instead of dreading that winter might return in earnest:
Some lovely things have happened in the past week.
- I’ve delighted from afar as my sister, a widow for just over two years, precipitously falls in love with a pastor she met through a dating website.
- I had my second yoga class and, after the one other participant had to leave early, got what was essentially a private lesson. Many of the poses feel right at the edge of what my flexibility and balance will allow, which is surely a sign that the exercise is doing me good.
- (This one’s not so much lovely as annoying yet amusing.) The cat, already a connoisseur of cereal milk, discovered the illicit pleasure of melted butter in a dish we unthinkingly left on the counter, and now will not rest in his search for it. This is bad news as he’s already quite the butterball. He’s also ramped up his efforts to access all of the house’s secret spaces, including the airing cupboard, the under-stairs cupboard, and the crawlspace under the bath. [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s mini-reviews of yet more cat books, including one about some very mischievous Siamese cats.]
- On Friday I got an e-mail out of the blue asking me to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement. It was October 2015 when I first wrote for them, but that ended poorly: they ran out space in the magazine for my review and paid me a “kill fee” instead, but it made me doubt myself – was that code for them not thinking my writing was good enough to publish? So hearing back from them five months after I’d last gotten in touch asking for work was a great surprise. And I get to read History of Wolves, which I’ve heard marvelous things about.
- We went to a brilliant gig by folk artists Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin in a hole-in-the-wall venue 10 minutes from our house. It was doubtless the first time I’d seen beatboxing and a classical Indian sitar/guitar used in folk music, and Henry’s harmonica skills were literally unbelievable. You had to have been there. I was impressed anew at how folk, arising as it does from liberal working-class traditions, is unafraid to tackle social issues. They had songs about his cotton mill-working grandfather, the war in Syria, immigration, and a detention center in the Midlands. My favorite, though, was “Landlocked,” about a real woman from the eighteenth century who went to sea with her naval husband but ended up right back where she started: selling fish at Exmouth harbor. I loved Martin’s deep, rich voice and the complex interplay of guitar, banjo, pedal steel and fiddle in many of their songs.
- With one of our leftover jars of homemade mincemeat we made a decadent mincemeat cheesecake from this Nigel Slater recipe. What with the shortbread crust and crumbs and the orange zest in the topping, it was very much like having mince pies – but also cheesecake. Yum.
- This morning we attended a service led by a former archbishop. We knew that George Carey was a parishioner at the Berkshire church we’ve been frequenting since December, but hadn’t seen him at the pulpit yet. He’s one of various retired and lay clergy who have been filling in while the church seeks to appoint a new vicar. Carey gave a damn fine sermon (I guess he’s had plenty of practice) on the enormous topic of why bad things happen to good people, refuting the prosperity gospel and telling the tragically fascinating story behind the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”
And, of course, I’ve been reading some brilliant books. This week’s ongoing reading has included three terrific novels: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh.