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Book Review: A Homemade Life – Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

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As a devoted reader of Molly Wizenberg's weekly culinary blog Orangette, her Bon Appetit magazine column, and a committed archaeologist of her online archives, I thought I knew Molly's story. I certainly knew the parts about quitting grad school to start a blog, that the resulting blog landed her a husband and attention from publishing houses and so on. But sometimes a whole book is needed to fill in gaps and order chronology, plumping out the story more than these snippets ever could. A Homemade Life begins with the brown faux-fur mini-dress that her mother was wearing when she met her father, winds through her childhood aversions to bananas, and ends with a chocolate wedding cake.

Upon first hearing that she was writing a 'cookbook' I was apprehensive that what I loved about Orangette might be compromised by squishing it into a serial recipe format. On the one hand it would be great – a shortcut to the food. In my experience, Molly's approachable recipes are almost always spot-on hits. You're not really taking a gamble when you try any one of her concoctions for the first time on guests (and I have). For a reliable log of toothsome recipes her work would fit the bill.

On the other hand it's the writing, it’s the stories, it's the Molly behind the meals that makes her my menu-planning-pick over any four fork recipe on Epicurious.com (though you can find her there too authoring a monthly column entitled 'The Cooking Life'). It's not the list of ingredients and their order of mixing, but rather the way she describes celariac root, making you ashamed that you never before noticed it lying shriveled and hairy on the grocer's shelf. That is what made her blog, as her friends might have said, 'spread like wildflowers.'

Happily, Wizenberg streamlines the same story-based-format into A Homemade Life. Her philosophy — outlined in the introduction — is that 'In the simple acts of cooking and eating, we are creating and continuing the stories that are our lives.' Nothing attests to this creed more than her recollection of her father's last days, and its inevitable reminder of the Italian Grotto Eggs that she fed him on his hospital bed in the den. When 'French-Style Yogurt Cake with Lemon' is passed around she never forgets that she owes that humble cake a debt of gratitude for leading her husband to her.

Pairing 45 single-serving sized essays with one or two recipes each, Wizenberg exchanges the dreamy photos that usually attend her words for quaint Camilla Engman illustrations. I was delighted to recognize a sprinkling of my favorite lines from Orangette slightly re-spun; 'Getting married is tricky. First when you get engaged a few things happen. You agree to marry someone, for starters. Also, your head sort of explodes. Third, you are handed a ticket — rather sneakily, I should note, with no warning at all — to an amusement park ride known as THE WEDDING.'

Phrases like this one are too delicious to be used only once in the soon-buried form of a blog post. Laughing out loud, — and thinking, ‘Exactly!’ — as a reader it is impossible not to identify with Molly, or perhaps more accurately feel that she identifies with you, as if you had experienced something together and then she went and put it to words. It's a sentiment, I believe, that she hears often. Indeed, this affinity was expressed in the very first email she received from her future husband (reproduced entirely, with her reply, in the book) as he said, '…(My friend Meredith and I) relate to you because your writing is exactly how we feel and talk about food and life.'

Ah yes, the food. The food that Molly believes worth making must be unpretentious, and yet it must be delicious, something worth whipping up every day for a week since she freely admits she is a sucker for routine. If she can add a ginger glaze without being fussy she will. A potato salad that is perfect in its original incarnation should be left alone. She has a knack for reducing something intimidating, like pickling carrots or grapes, to a one page description with soothing assurances that it will be impossible to mess up.

If the stories comprise the meat of the book, the recipes are the special ingredient and I would be remiss in neglecting a test run and summary of at least one. A impromptu trip to the grocery store was necessary to make the delectably described Buchons au Thons, since canned tuna had not entered my kitchen since that long ago snobby phase when I also gave up mayonnaise. I will not make that mistake again. An unlikely combination of gruyere cheese, egg, tomato paste, crème fraiche and yes, canned tuna produced one of the most puzzlingly satisfying muffins I have ever tasted. Molly's description is accurate: 'They tasted like what I imagined France itself would taste like, if it were small enough to fit in my mouth.'

With the whole internet at one’s disposal when deciding what to serve for dinner, my cookbook library stays small and carefully selected. As I read Molly’s book I thought that I was discriminating in the recipes I added to my must-make shortlist, but when I finally closed the back cover I saw the 313 pages were a veritable land mine of dog-ears. Now that the stories have been relished the book sits accessibly on a shelf above the stove where it can be reached for over and over again as I weave her recipes into the stories of my own life. I have a feeling it will be a long while before, come dinner time, I’m tempted to open a web browser rather than A Homemade Life.

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About Sarah C. Culver

  • Peter

    I don’t cook. I don’t read about cooking. I only eat. But your review actually made reading about cooking an interesting future prospect…especially if it were to result in good eating.