Five Essential Food Memories ‹ Literary Center


The stew wouldn’t let me go. Was it its plump, sexy beans or the bubbly, golden crust? Was it his grassy tone that spoke of the forests up there in the Black Mountain? Once I tasted Eric Garcia’s cassoulet in Carcassonne, I was spellbound. And to think it started with what I assumed was a simple task for culinary arts magazine on the history of the dish! Instead, the journey changed my life and led to the writing of Cassoulet confessions, food, France, family and the stew that saved my soul.

Photo by Thomas Schauer.

Culinary memoirs rarely focus on a single moment. Often it’s the time spent in the kitchen with a beloved family member that sparks a lifelong passion or the realization that a flavor can transport you to another time. The truth is, there’s no better vehicle for nostalgia than food. In my case, it would take more than ten years to understand why I had become obsessed with a clay pot filled with pork, duck and beans.

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It may not sound very appetizing to open a list of treasured culinary memoirs with the word “heartburn,” but Nora Ephron’s debut novel, Stomach pains, remains a personal favorite. But wait, novel or memoir? When the book came out in 1983, telling the story of cookbook author Rachel Samstat’s discovery of her husband’s affair with her friend Thelma, most readers understood that this fictional tale was actually a personal memory. Ephron had recently discovered her second husband, Carl Bernstein’s affair with Margaret Jay, the daughter of a former British prime minister. And if that wasn’t enough to inspire an opera, the plot thickens as the author struggles through the seventh month of her pregnancy.

Stomach pains is a culinary memoir disguised as a novel, and its cast of characters includes salad dressing and the lime pie that Rachel/Nora tosses her husband. Throughout, she offers easy-to-follow recipes mixed with her unique, hard-hitting wit, “Even now,” she says, “I can’t believe Mark wants to risk losing my dressing.”

The recipes on the page are just the beginning of the adventure for Dorothy Kalins, founding editor of Metropolitan reception and Flavor Magazine, whose memoirs, The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the wisdom of our friends comes out in pocket. Guided by her passion for the “bigger story”, Kalins has interviewed, written and cooked with some of the most important chefs of our time. As she walks through her kitchen, they whisper in her ear.

There’s Marcella Hazan, the Italian food authority whose views are rooted in authenticity, “I teach cooking, I don’t teach measurement,” she said before explaining to Kalins how making risotto all’onda and why the shape of the rice matters as much as the shape of the pot. Author Colman Andrews, co-founder of Flavor and a Catalan food enthusiast shows Kalins how to cook salt cod. “Elementary and ancient,” she muses, “cooking cod evokes history and danger.” In his kitchen, we learn about overfishing, Basque Spain and lost species.

Then we sit down at Zahav, Mike Solomonov’s famous Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, while documentary filmmaker Roger Sherman prepares to shoot In search of Israeli cuisine. A whole world of spices and ingredients, which will forever change the flavor landscape of Kalins, is revealed. Kalins ends up editing and producing several cookbooks with the chef.

It is this same larger story that Edward Lee explores in Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine, a memoir named after the iconic Southern ingredient that Lee comes to love at his Louisville restaurant and the art form that first defined his identity. For Lee, the story may begin on the plate, but that’s only the opening of the trail. Who is the person cooking, what did they go through, why did they end up in this particular corner of the universe?

In Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Lee enjoys Russian specialties, but for dinner he chooses Kashkar, which may be the only Uyghur restaurant in America. Suddenly, he senses the world is bigger, mysterious, and the lamb broth noodles rock all the cultural references the chef associates with lamb. In Seattle for a movie premiere, Lee finds himself in the Ballard neighborhood, once a hub of Scandinavian immigrants. At the Swedish Club, he asks a colleague what it means to be Scandinavian. “We are not a soup, we are a stew,” she replies, meaning that each country is distinct but the identity is harmonious. Around a locally made aquavit, the Scandinavian spirit par excellence, the chef remembers his late father and their difficult relationship.

The relationship with his father made me fall in love with Diana Abu-Jaber The language of baklava on page four, when she described her Jordanian father at the stove, holding his six-year-old self slung over his shoulder. “We are Arabs at home,” she later wrote, “and Americans on the street.” The memoir opens as the family lives near Syracuse, NY, but after his father is missing for a while, it turns out he’s back in Jordan where everyone joins him for a year.

Back in America and torn between pancakes and kebabs, Abu-Jaber juggles the two identities as she becomes a defiant teenager. “I hate Arabic food,” she tells her aunt Aya before they start cooking baklava together. As her father clings to the tastes of her youth, the author finally accepts that she can handle two identities. That’s exactly what makes her who she is and her writing so true.

Speaking of real, have you heard of the original The Apprentice, the charming memoir of Jacques Pépin? Chances are you’ve seen it on TV, starring James Beard, Danny Kaye or Julia Child. We first follow his childhood during the Second World War, his life as a boarder in a Jesuit high school, and his efforts to find a sausage in France in 1942 as a first communion gift for his older brother!

With the opening of his mother’s restaurant, Pépin finds himself spending more and more time in the kitchen. At 13, he left school, “More than anything, I wanted to be a chef”, he said, but he began, of course, by becoming an apprentice. Everything changed when he boarded the Ascania bound for New York in 1959. The day after his arrival, he met Pierre Franey, executive chef of the first Le Pavillon, who took a quick look at his letters of recommendation. “Can you start tomorrow? is all he says.

After my first trip to Carcassonne and the meeting with Chef Eric Garcia, I wrote many articles inspired by stew, its ingredients and the Occitaine region. I knew there was a book to be written about this experience and that it was much more personal than telling how to learn how to cook a dish. However, it took me more than ten years to find the key to the family and dramatic stories that were hidden under the cassoulet crust.

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Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family, and the Stew That Saved My Life by Sylvie Bigar is available from Hardie Grant Publishing.

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