December 2015

Teri Vlassopoulos

cookbookslut

In Short Measures: Three Novellas by Michael Ruhlman

Michael Rulhman has already written over twenty books about food. His cookbooks and memoirs have been both specific in scope (like his recent treatise on eggs) and wide (like The Elements of Cooking and Ratio). It's maybe the broader-subject books that have resonated most with home cooks -- Ratio in particular is the kind of instruction manual that inspires confidence in the kitchen, which goes much further than any individual recipe ever could. When Ruhlman talks food, you trust him. It was precisely that trust that made me apprehensive about reading his latest book, a collection of three novellas, In Short Measures. The rules are different when it comes to fiction, more elusive, and while ratios are wonderful for cooking, they don't translate well into literary writing.

So, when I got the book, I couldn't bring myself to read it right away. I eased into it by first reading another acclaimed food writer's foray into fiction, Ruth Reichl's, Delicious! When it was first announced, the idea that Reichl was writing a novel wasn't too much of a stretch -- her memoirs are beloved and held up as exemplars of the genre. Her Twitter feed has always been poetic -- easy to parody, but still forgivable. The reality of Delicious!, though, is disappointing and so far from her normal caliber of work that it's almost offensive. The novel is about a school marm in her twenties ("Billie") who moves to New York City to work for a food magazine, Delicious!, which is supposedly reminiscent of Gourmet (although imagine if it had an exclamation point at the end of it, Gourmet!). Billie has a tragic backstory and an impeccable palate. Despite her limpid personality, she attracts the attention of more interesting and eccentric characters, and eventually there's a mystery to solve and even a cringey sex scene that a friend warned me about, but that I couldn't stop myself from reading.

I knew that Ruhlman's In Short Measures couldn't be more disappointing than Delicious! I was right about that. Part of Delicious!'s problem was how it was so aggressively about food. I wanted to strip away her formulaic plot and read about a family-owned cheese shop in New York City or a recipe for the perfect gingerbread instead. Ruhlman's book, on the other hand, has nothing to do with food, and everything with relationships, infidelity and midlife regret. The first novella is about a forty-five year old woman having an encounter with the one who got away, the second about a couple with marital problems who get involved in an accident, and the third is kind of like the first, about the one who got away. In each novella, characters think about how the trajectory of their lives could have changed had they done something different when they were younger, and the burden of nostalgia and regret made my reading experience heavy, sluggish.

The writing itself has its moments, but when Ruhlman attempts to write a universal truth like, "How many different ways women can be angry. We circle a spot and our anger strikes its target from any of 360 degrees. Men are mad in a straight line. Simple but effective. We are elusive and unpredictable," I can't help but think how much I'd rather hear him talk confidently about cooking, of which he has more expertise than, say, female rage.

After recently reading a relentlessly sad book, I scanned my bookshelves looking for a palate cleanser. No death, no sadness, no irredeemable heartbreak, I told myself. I wasn't left with much, but I did pick up Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin. Colwin is better known for her food writing, but she wrote more novels and stories than she did wrote about food, and so maybe one of her big advantages over Ruhlman and Reichl is that she had practice. But there's more to it than that. Colwin isn't perfect -- her characters are generally exclusively wealthy, heterosexual, waspy New Yorkers, but there is still something so comforting about her writing. In her books, you know the characters will live until they're old enough to take photos with their great-grandchildren. They will never be affected by a debt crisis, and even though they often work in publishing, their lifestyles will remain the same even after the publishing industry crumbles. Their existential crises are manageable, and if they have affairs, their spouses never find out and no one ever gets hurt, even though there is the occasional cathartic cry in the bath while the children are asleep. I love her novels.

We like our artists to stay in their lane and to play to their strengths for good reason, but you can't fault them for their desires to expand. I do wonder why Reichl's and Ruhlman's fiction couldn't have remained private exercises, experimental meals that they cooked up and served only to their family after realizing they weren't quite ready for a dinner party. I suppose it comes down to economics -- when you have the kind of publishing clout they have, they can afford to be lavish with their experiments. Just like characters in a Laurie Colwin novel, how lucky they are.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. Her novel, Escape Plans, (Invisible Publishing), was recently released. More of her writing can be found at http://bibliographic.net.