December 2013

Teri Vlassopoulos

cookbookslut

Dark Night of the Soul Soup

2013 has not been my best year, although as it comes to a close I've realized that at least I've gotten better at managing the frustrations that littered its path. For instance, at the beginning of the year I gave up on cooking for a while. It no longer felt like a fun activity, just work, until eventually I remembered that the work involved in cooking is ultimately pleasurable: you get something to eat when you're done, and you can share it and that's nice too. In the meantime, your hands are busy, your mind is focused, the kitchen slowly warms up around you. I also realized that when I couldn't focus on most books, there were still cookbooks. They're my favourite escapist pleasure and so during a rougher patch this fall I knew enough to arm myself with ones I thought would help: picture-heavy The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings by Nathan Williams and words-only Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen.

There's something tantalizing about The Kinfolk Table. It has a satisfying heft to it, and the paper stock is thick and creamy. The typesetting is just so, and there's more than enough white space to give it an airy tranquility. The full-page, lush photos have such a distinctive aesthetic and tone that there should be an Instagram filter named after them. The striking design is no surprise, given that the cookbook is an offshoot of the quarterly magazine that got popular via lifestyle blogs, in large part because of the way it looked.

Kinfolk's aim (both the magazine and the cookbook) is to fill that nether region between home cooking and entertaining. "'Home cooking' sounds serious, even stodgy, and 'entertaining' has a formal and frilly ring to it," Williams writes in the first paragraph. My automatic association with "home cooking" is Laurie Colwin's similarly named classic, one of the most non-stodgy books ever written, but, okay, I continued on. Each recipe in The Kinfolk Table is contributed by a different person, and instead of a standard description of the dish, you get a brief biographical sketch. You learn that the contributors are bloggers, stylists, florists (a surprisingly high proportion of florists!) and advertising executives. They're even listed in the index so that rather than look up what recipes use, say, fennel, you can look up the name of a blogger or stylist or florist or advertising executive and cook his or her dish instead. It follows that the photos in the book are mainly of the contributors, although for a book dedicated to "small gatherings," they're curiously solitary. Contributors stand alone, staring soberly into the camera. Often they're engulfed in vegetation. There are pictures of food, but not as many -- a disembodied hand holding up a bowl, an artfully arranged plate on a rustic wooden table.

The book is separated into four sections -- Brooklyn, Copenhagen, the English Countryside, and Portland -- but if you flip to a random page, the location isn't immediately recognizable. The recipes often don't match up with the place, and the contributors have a visual sameness to them as well -- overwhelmingly white, similarly dressed. Because of this structure and the focus on the contributors rather than the food, you have to study the index to cobble together a meal. I found it hard to remember the recipes in the book once I put it away because they weren't particularly noteworthy (simple salads and appetizers for the most part), although there were a few that looked interesting, like pulla, a Finnish dessert bread. The accompanying photos were actually useful to the recipe as well.

I get it, eating is a social thing. This is what the book wants to inspire and celebrate. The food should be good, but what's more important is the communal aspect, the sharing, the sitting around a table with your mismatched cutlery and strung up tea lights and eating whatever was (surely lovingly) cooked for you. This is why it was ultimately disappointing that warmth didn't infuse the book, that rather than get the urge to invite friends over for an impromptu dinner party on the back patio, I wondered instead if I needed more florists in my life (probably?), but even if I did, what the hell would I cook for them?

It's maybe not fair to compare Kate Christensen's Blue Plate Special to The Kinfolk Table. It's a food memoir, not a cookbook, and there are no photos. But reading them one after the other highlighted what made me uncomfortable with Kinfolk. Blue Plate Special's origin is also the Internet. Christensen is most well known for novels such as The Astral and The Great Man, but in 2011, she also started a food blog. It resonated -- her food writing is gorgeous; not as fussy as a Ruth Reichl tweet, but still heady. With the blog as a starting point, she wrote a memoir. While the Kinfolk world is highly stylized, Blue Plate Special is looser, messier, or, in the parlance of lifestyle blogs, not as well curated.

Christensen takes the reader chronologically through her life. The first paragraph starts off with a sweet image: Kate, two years old, and her baby sister eating bowls of soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them. But by the end of the page, Christensen's father beats her mother while the children look on. Her mother eventually leaves him, but the book often revisits the complicated relationship Christensen had with her father.

The memoir is less about Christensen's discovery of food than it is a recounting of her life and the food that happened to accompany those moments. There's a food epiphany in France after she's finished high school, but it's different from the typical vacation-to-Paris revelations one often comes across in food memoirs. Instead Christensen is an au pair for teachers at a Waldorf school in a rural area. She realizes that zucchini can taste sublime and cozies up to "French nursery food" (scrambled eggs and brioche, potatoes au gratin) when her two young charges leave leftovers on their plates. She abandons years of vegetarianism for a rabbit stew.

Food isn't always a savior or means of comfort in Blue Plate Special. There are lengthy descriptions of various diets she put herself through and the recipe for the bean burritos she ate while at the Iowa Writers' Workshop is pretty dismal (tortilla, a can of refried beans). The book is also about her development as a writer, and it's interesting pinpointing parts of her life to her novels -- you see the origins of The Epicure's Lament, or how the effect of one of her sister's involvements with a cult played into The Astral.

What I liked about Blue Plate Special is how it depicts a realized life, that despite the various blows -- her abusive father, estrangement from a sibling, divorce -- there are also, inevitably, better times. There's new love, deep bonds, reunions, her art and its success. There are the bean burritos, sure, but there's also a chicken tagine sweetened with apricots, and persimmon pudding.

When I'm reading a cookbook for escapist purposes, I don't expect the kind of depth I get from a book like Blue Plate Special. In The Kinfolk Table's 500-word bios it would be impossible, ridiculous, to include that level of detail. But I do think that when your goal is to emphasize the importance of people and social connections, those short sketches serve the cookbook a disservice, that instead of emphasizing how great the person is, reduces him or her to a catalogue description. The Kinfolk aesthetic is fully realized, but it is only that: a look.

Blue Plate Special opens with a recipe for "Dark Night of the Soul Soup." It involves butternut squash, apples, lots of garlic, some ginger, and then gets topped off with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts. There's a short essay preceding the recipe, and the combination of the two is instantly comforting. It speaks to better times, to warmth, and not a single photograph is required. Kinfolk could learn something from that.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. She writes about food at waystocookanegg.tumblr.com and writing and life at bibliographic.net.