You have most likely been thinking (ok, not really, because you probably don’t spend tons of time reflecting on what I have or haven’t posted), that these Paris posts have been sorely lacking in one of my very most favorite things: food. Lest you be tempted to think that I have not been scarfing my way around the city, I have saved all of the my food crazy photos for this one post so that we can talk about food and books and life. As Simone de Beauvoir said in her memoirs of her earliest years:
Amen girl. An important task indeed.
I love food, I love eating, and I love the community that gathers around the table, the counter, the kitchen floor, the picnic blanket, or the couch. I’ve been pretty open about that on this blog (what? You missed it? You are blind.), and for that reason, many of you have recommended Shauna Niequist’s book Bread and Wine. For those of you who haven’t read it, Niequist proposes to share “a love letter to life around the table,” highlighting the transcendental importance of gathering to share a meal.
There were several things I loved about this book. I loved the introduction, nodding and wanting to underline everything (I resisted, as it was a borrowed book) and considered painting phrases like this across my kitchen walls (also impossible, since we rent):
There were a couple moving or humorous moments in the book, some great encouragements to love ourselves and our friends, and obviously I cried anytime she mentioned miscarriage or infertility struggles, because we are at that stage of life where so many of our friends have dealt with the heartache of childlessness through one way or the other that it always hits close to home.
But I kept feeling dissatisfied with the book, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until this past week. Niequist supposedly is sharing stories, but the chapters didn’t really read like stories, like events that culminated in one dish that held in it’s taste the entire story. I wanted Proust’s madeleine and instead I got a series of mostly similar stories about how the author had lots of dinner parties and traveled a bunch. I can barely remember (and I read it on the flight here) the recipes, or distinct stories because they seemed kind of the same. Moreover, I found myself getting annoyed about the discontinuity that the book seemed to convey between her life and her mission. Her mission was to inspire us back to the table and kitchen to build simple community, to remind us of the “sacred and the material at once, the heaven and earth, the divine and the daily.” Yet her chapters were full of perfect communities everywhere she went, trips abroad, parties with letter-pressed menu cards, and jobs and incomes that somehow facilitated constant entertainment status. And, as a friend pointed out, so much coffee and alcohol.
None of that is wrong, but for me the heart of food is its simplicity, its democracy, and her introduction made me think that was where she was going. Everybody eats. Even the lonely, even the undomestic, even the person who never travels. I felt like that simple message got a little lost in her lofty spiritual ambitions to remind us that the Word became flesh, which became a meal that we are called to remember. I didn’t want a recipe that was at one point served at a dinner party to great success; I wanted a story that evolved into something tangible.
I wanted it to be more like Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, the stories and memories of which are burned so vividly in my brain that I absolutely insisted on eating a salad lyonnaise while in Lyon. She made me taste it with her story of eating it and I had to turn those words into reality.
I wanted it to be more like Deb’s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, where, even if not a memoir, every recipe starts with the story that produced it. Because that is what our stories do, they drive us to the table and inspire what we spread across it. In one of my favorite recipes from Deb’s book, she recreates roasted chicken and potatoes similar to something she had in Paris. Not from a restaurant, but purchased from a street vendor that sells rotisserie chickens and the buttery potatoes cooked in their drippings. Deb’s description of that taste, that feeling, that greasy bag that she carried back to their apartment, stayed with me and last week, I had to have one of those chickens. I bought my chicken, carried it home through the cobblestone streets and ate it with two friends at the kitchen table. There were no place cards, no menus, not even any real cooking, since we paired it with salad and baguette. But we stayed around that table for a while, reaching back into the pot to pull out one more potato, one last bite of chicken. And that is the point: to be nourished, body and soul.
There is a beauty in food, in eating, in cooking, and Bread and Wine certainly got that right. But there is also a simplicity in it, a roughness, a reality, a concrete story that I felt she missed. I think by basing her title and premises on the miracle of the incarnation, she forgot that it ended in simple things. Bread and wine, earthly things, un-grand, everyday things. In her focus to drive us back to the table, she forgot that food, the community it inspires, and the stories it brings forth in us, aren’t limited to the table. They are in the to-go meal in the car that you laugh over on a road-trip, the pizza on the couch that is a Friday night tradition, the toast eaten alone with a book and a blanket at the end of a long day. These too are worthwhile, these too matter. Anyone else read it? What are your thoughts?