I really wanted to love It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food by Moira Hodgson. The description of the book was perfect; there is nothing I love more than good food and international travel. Yet, whereas I plunge into life abroad with excitement and curiosity, Ms. Hodgson struck me as naïve, at times almost uppity, about the cultures of her new-found homes in the first few chapters. However, as the book progressed and her autobiographical self aged, she also matured both in her thoughts and her writing, so that by the end of the book, I certainly grew to like It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, if not fall completely in love.
Moira Hodgson has been a food writer for The New York Times, a senior editor at Vanity Fair, and a theatre critic for The Nation. She currently writes for the New York Observer. Quite an impressive résumé and one that makes me think, “She is the kind of woman I would want to know,” although many of these accomplishments are glossed over in her memoir, in favor of boarding school memories and dance classes.
Here is a very brief summary of Moira’s well-lived life as told within the pages of this book: Moira’s father works for the British government in a capacity that requires him to move his family to various exotic lands, so Moira grows up in Beirut, Sweden, Vietnam, and Germany, interacting mainly with her family’s servants. She also goes to boarding school in Britain, where she interacts with her grandparents and other students. As a young adult, she does the requisite impoverished, find-yourself stint in New York City, and then the requisite live with an artist stint in Paris. She then has a seven year relationship with a Pulitzer-prize winning married man and falls into her own writing career and a passion for cooking, back in New York. She travels to Morocco. Then, she lands that fantastic job as a restaurant critic for The New York Times, which opens up doors to multi-course meals that cost as much as a pony, and fantastic dinner parties with famous New Yorkers. She gets married. The book ends poignantly, with Moira visiting her ailing parents in England, making Shepherd’s Pie for her father, and coming to some realizations about life.
Moira includes a few dozen recipes in the book, taken from various places and times in her life, which are hit and miss. In the first half of the book, many of them are for strange British concoctions such as Canary Pudding, or equally odd international dishes such as “The Elephant’s Foot,” which I am not really planning to cook. But as with my other impressions of the book, the recipes in the second half offer a vast improvement. Lamb Tajine with Green Olives and Gordon Ramsay’s Pan-Fried Fillets of Red Mullet with Saffron, Fennel Puree and Pink Grapefruit Vinaigrette sound much more palatable.
I agree with Moira that love of food is the force that unifies the various societies of the world. However, I would have liked more reflection on life in different cultures, or analysis of the experience of being a foreigner and, despite the fact that the back cover mostly mentions the locales in which she lived in her youth, this British food critic provides her most interesting writing when she reflects upon her time as an adult living in New York City, moving among the fashionable set of intelligentsia and epicureans.
At times, especially when reminiscing about her childhood spent abroad, Moira’s personal memories can seem ponderous. Her experiences at boarding school were perhaps the least intriguing part of the book for me, because they are mostly personal memories of friends and lessons, which are less captivating for others. As a young adult, Moira had a part time job working at the United Nations. I have a personal fascination with the UN, and I would have a conniption if I could walk those halls. But instead of mentioning world leaders she ran into, or political events that took place while she was there that had reverberations around the world, Moira writes about whom she dated during that time. This would make sense for a personal journal, but just not what I expected when reading a published memoir. I guess I was looking more for impressions, and she gave me facts.
However, as one progresses through the tale of Moira’s life, she becomes ever more aware and reflective, and for that matter, interesting. I admittedly trudged through the first half of the book, but by a little past the midway point, many of my concerns as I read of her childhood were no longer valid. I had read the first half of this biography, hoping for reflections on a childhood spent traversing the globe from an adult perspective, but after some time I realized that she wrote about her childhood from her child’s eyes, and maybe it was unfair to fault her for her prejudices and incomprehension at the time.
Those who are fans of Moira Hodgson and just want to know all they can about her as a person will love this whole book. Those who are passionate about food and cultures, and want to find a like-minded thinker, would probably prefer to skim parts and focus more on the second half. If you approach this book expecting a memoire filled with personal anecdotes, then you will not be disappointed. I simply think I expected more of her than I received. But I do want to stress that there are lovely parts of this book, and the last half of the book truly does sparkle.
The greatest lesson I learned from It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time is that amazing things can grow from an eccentric life. But personally, I think it is extremely important to appreciate all of the oddities and surprises that cross one’s path along the way, and that is what I wish Moira would have dwelled on more.