August 2012

Anika Gupta

nonfiction

Recipes for Sad Women by Héctor Abad, translated by Anne McLean

What to make of this whimsical cookbook-meets-relationship manual, melange of Joy of Cooking and The Rules?

To start with, despite the name, Recipes for Sad Women imparts little by way of culinary education, so get that idea out of your head. Colombian-born author Héctor Abad opens with the line, "Nobody knows the recipe for happiness." The book that follows resembles a fairy tale except that it has no plot, The Rules as imagined by a more libertine author with a fondness for old-fashioned magical realism.

The recipes are woven throughout the text, and introduced in ways like the following: "On afternoons of fine, persistent rain, if your loved one is far away and the invisible weight of his absence overwhelming, cut twenty-eight fresh leaves of lemon balm from your garden." Another recipe begins with the line, "first, make a regular béchamel."

These recipes aren't meant to be followed; they are a dream of food, just like Abad must imagine his sad audience dreams of love.

What we're left with is food not as a focus but as literary device, a long and thinly spun metaphor for the things that truly satisfy: love, and its fractious sister, sex. Regarding these two, Abad is a consummate flirt: sometimes maddeningly direct with his advice, at other times circuitous, rarely willing to commit.

At one point he admonishes the eager woman by saying "Men distrust any woman who seems very keen to strike up relations." Later, he advises the adventure-seeking woman to "be as easy as you can."

If it were a real cookbook, Recipes for Sad Women might be retrograde in its assumption of a particular variety of femininity: weepy, full of longings, puttering about between garden and kitchen, eternally awaiting. The route to a man's heart lies through his stomach, and a woman's job is to awaken and satisfy an urge.

But then Abad sprinkles in advice like "Adultery is the salt of matrimony."

The bulk of the text perches precariously between these two extremes: the charm of happy domestic love and the heady allure of freedom, sexual variety. No one man, Abad seems to suggest, will ever satisfy any woman, no more than one dish could satisfy anyone for life. Women, unlike men, "belong to a sex that knows no exhaustion in pleasure."

He advises the generous hostess to remember that in some "wise countries... the good host offered his wife to the visitor." To those who decide to revive this custom, only one caveat applies, "if you don't tire of [the guest]" after a single course, "run away with him and don't come back."

At this point, it would almost be overdoing it to quote from Abad's rhapsodies on jambalaya and sancocho, two stews made more delicious by the addition of as many ingredients as possible.

Of course, Abad is hardly the first author to suggest that our appetites are synesthetic. It's an age-old trope. Who could forget the opening paragraphs of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, in which one woman's birth amid a kitchen full of onions presages a life of sad spinsterhood? Or the heady recipes of Isabel Allende's Aphrodite, in which she prefaces her recipes with stories that take place, often, in rooms of the house far removed from the kitchen?

If there's any charge to be levied against Recipes for Sad Women, it's that the book is sometimes too charming, too witty, too slight. Loneliness, heartbreak, impotence, disappointment, the realization that true love is, as Abad notes, "a scarce coincidence" are maybe too weighty to be banished with a few trite words about the joys of unfettered sex. By the end, the metaphor has begun to bow under its own weight, and I can't help thinking that for most of us, offering ourselves carries a great deal more risk than "serving the complete menu."

But Abad seems aware of his own airiness, of the yearnings that a book cannot satisfy and the guarantees that it cannot provide. At the end, he offers an apology that resembles Puck closing A Midsummer Night's Dream, saying "I don't wish to be anything other than... the guardian of recipes to perfume your fantasies."

On that front, at least, he satisfies.

Recipes for Sad Women by Héctor Abad, translated by Anne McLean
Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1906548636
160 pages