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Book Review: Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times by Suzan Colón

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I expected to relish Suzan Colón’s memoir Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipes for Hope in Hard Times. Colón’s premise of discovering the joys of home-cooked food after she is forced into a simpler lifestyle by a layoff is appealing. Yet, I find myself approaching the book with a resistance that only abates a number of chapters into my read.

For one, Colón opens her book by telling the reader that she lost her six-figure salary and therefore suddenly had to start shopping at big-box bulk stores. I cannot relate to such a mindset because: 1. I have never made close to six-figures in my life, and 2. I have never bought my food at Sam’s Club, or Wal-Mart for that matter. For years, I have managed to buy local, organic, high-quality food on a student budget (which I am fairly certain is less than Colón made on this book); it is simply a matter of what you prioritize.

As someone who has always valued food as a means to find beauty and joy in the most basic activities of life, I don’t understand those who think they can only afford McDonald’s because they are spending their modest incomes on Coach handbags instead. I have long been a proselytizer for the idea that more pleasure can be gleaned from a succulent meal shared with kind-hearted friends or a vacation to a local food festival than could ever be gained from shopping at the mall.

Also, Colón’s first recipe is so depressing: Suzan’s Rigatoni Disoccupati [Pasta of the Unemployed] — dried spaghetti and microwave marinara sauce. Surely she had enough savings from her high-paying job to splurge on some fresh vegetables to sauté in the sauce?

On a more fundamental level, I take issue with the widespread belief in American society that simplicity is something that you only learn to appreciate when you have to. I am perplexed that we don’t recognize the inherent disconnect between wealth and happiness when most of us possess so much, but are still on anti-depression medication. Why do we think that consumption is the default lifestyle choice, and any other way of living is somehow a failure?

That said, I have no doubt that the majority of the population looks at the world through a perspective more similar to Colón’s than my own, and, because of that, I appreciate her efforts at stepping herself and her readers in the direction of a genuine appreciation for a contemplative lifestyle that places more value on living well within ones means than constantly striving for more than we can afford just because society tells us we should want more stuff.

And Colón does move past her initial budget shock and desire to eat pasta all day to write some truly moving observations.

Colón’s is a story of family, and the binding thread that weaves through the book is her grandmother’s cookbook: a reminder that she comes from a line of women from whom she can draw strength, who have dealt with poverty by turning to the cooking pot. The book starts off with Colón reflecting on her mother’s memories of her grandmother’s life during the Depression, including a few of her grandmother’s recipes, such as Baked Pork Chops with Sauerkraut. The title of the book comes from the fact that, even when they are broke, this is a family of women who will still, on occasion, spend too much money to buy gleaming cherries in the dead of winter, just “because.”

I respect Colón’s desire to learn how to cook — something she says she never did as a single working-girl, preferring to eat out or take-out. But then she suggests adding hot dog pieces to her split pea soup, and I think, “She still has a ways to go.” I suddenly realize what this book reminds me of: Sandra Lee.

It is charming that Colón has included typewriter-written copies of her family’s 1940s recipes. But this book is more about her family’s history than recipes for food, and the majority of the recipes that are included are markedly simple. (Of course, simple living is the point of this book, but my belief is that you can live as simply cooking with porchetta as you can with hot dogs, if you take the time to concentrate on the process of cooking and find that food is as much a source of entertainment as a human necessity. If you do that, you can cut back on your cable bill and buy the good ingredients.)

Interspersed with the often forlorn memories from her grandmother and mother’s lives are Colón’s own fears that we are living through a Depression, and her tips for getting through it, such as walking the neighbor’s dog for money. She confesses how direly bleak the career prospect are in her field (no inspiration here for would-be writers); even her career counselor is impressed by the paucity of job opportunities.

Colón’s writing style is straightforward and brisk — before this book, she wrote teen fiction. But this plays well in many of her stories, such as when she recalls her wedding day, saying, “After two months of naked salad, steamed vegetables, and plain fish, I think even a cake made out of nuclear orange Circus Peanuts would’ve tasted divine.” Or in her memory of her mother’s scrimping when she was young (eating liver instead of steak on Tuesdays and Thursdays) to save up enough money for a trip to Bermuda, only to arrive there in the middle of a hurricane. Her mother’s reaction: “We ate all that stinking liver…for this?”

Colón turns what could be a bathetic tale into an almost comical story to make for future family jokes. The greatest charm in this book is its humor: On how she ate everything as a child, Colón’s mother says, “You loved martini olives,” to which Colón replies, “What were you doing feeding martini olives to a two-year-old?” Her mother shrugs, “It was the sixties…”

Actually, one of the funniest inclusions is the notes at the very end, in which Colón, who admits to never having been a chef, gives her suggestions and thoughts on each recipe. For example, in reference to her great-grandmother’s German Potato Salad, she writes, “A quarter cup of sugar. Whoa.” Or when, noting an admission in one of the recipes, she tells that her step-grandmother used to purposefully leave off one ingredient when she would give recipes to friends and family, just so people would say that no one could make the dish like she could.

At one point, Colón realizes just how frugal she has become when she expresses shock and outrage to her husband for having thrown away half of a banana. I could relate to this, having a meticulously unwasteful European boyfriend who is forever perturbed by the extent of food waste in America. I find myself becoming more and more dismayed by it as well.

We shouldn’t wait until we are destitute to realize the value of food: I myself become very sad when I get too full to finish a meat dish and think about how many animals die every day in this country just to be thrown in the garbage. I once took my boyfriend to the (very delicious) cafeteria at the university where I worked, only to be confronted with paper flyers congratulating the students on reducing the amount of food thrown out daily to only a hundred pounds (or some such absurd amount).

There are beautiful, moving moments in Cherries in Winter¸ such as when Colón remembers not only clamming in the Bronx with her grandpa, but also having him sit by her bed when she would awaken crying after the death of her nana. In the saltiness of the clam chowder recipe included in this chapter, one can almost imagine her tears. We feel the all-consuming anxiety her mother feels when Colón learns she may have breast cancer (luckily to discover it is a benign cyst). In a moment of pure insight, Colón wonders why her mother and grandmother fell apart contemplating a mere possibility (cancer in both cases), when their realities were often scary enough. How true that we create bugaboos out of things that are unlikely just to avoid recognizing how tenuous our everyday existence is.

Colón is so splendidly honest, as when she writes of her desire but difficulty to have a baby, including a recipe for lemon meringue pie to abate stress and anxiety. The book closes with a mature reminder to be grateful. And with advice from her nana to “leave the dishes in the sink”: there are more important things in life than washing the dishes right away (advice I myself have always espoused).

Cherries in Winter is not a cookbook — the recipes are as sparse as the lifestyle of generations of the women in Colón’s family. This is a book about hardship, and finding a little humor through it all. And this is a book about and for traditionalists. Colón remembers that they always ate mashed potatoes at family gatherings (there are three different recipes for mashed potatoes in this chapter).

I think this is ultimately why I never completely fell for it. I am not much of a traditionalist. Although, millions of Americans are, and I believe they will find comfort and a handful of usable recipes in Cherries in Winter. And I certainly appreciated Colón’s openness; simply sharing our lives with each other is worth more than any high-paying job.

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About Kerri Shadid