By Michael Nagrant
There’s no way I could ever love a woman who was a vegetarian for a third of her life, has issues with heavy cream and is afraid to improvise in the kitchen. After all I have no problem with fat of any kind, I’m an equal-opportunity-organ-meat eater, and I’m like the Will Ferrell of the kitchen (And by that, I do not mean I run around naked and quote Frank the Tank lines from “Old School,” but that I am quick on my cooking feet). Of course, this woman probably wouldn’t have me anyway. Her childhood was generally free of processed foods and I have a penchant for Hot Pockets. Did I mention that she’s a married woman?
But on a lazy Fourth of July, curled up on a lakefront chaise lounge, with tang of BBQ smoke and the sparkly tendrils of burst fireworks still in the air, I fell hard for Molly Wizenberg anyway. But, before God and my mother-in-law strike me down, let me disclose that this is no Bill Clinton thing, rather more of Jimmy Carteresque lusting of the heart. Mine is purely a literary affair, an obsession with the words contained within Wizenberg’s recently published cooking memoir, “A Homemade Life.”
How could I not fall? Though she once took a veggie turn, she’s made up for her ways with a deep and abiding love of sausage. She bakes cakes at the drop of a hat. She recognizes her reluctance to tinker with recipes and she’s working on it. Most importantly, I’ve spent the better part of my food life fighting against the Ladies Home Journal culinary aesthetic of food writing, endured precious tomes by the ladies-who-lunch and expense-account-wielding critical curmudgeon set. In Wizenberg, I’ve finally found a food writer of MY generation.
She recognizes that food is not so much about conferring status and indulging in fussy pomp, but that it’s a vehicle, as she writes of her late father Burg’s life philosophy, “to go after life with your arms open and your teeth bared.” I suppose there are still many food writers, say MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl, who held forth in that philosophical vein. Neither of them however particularly loved Fugazi, had their noses pierced, and are children of the eighties. Whereas Reichl and Fisher read to me like old dear friends who eventually moved away, Wizenberg is the soulmate next door.
Wizenberg’s essay “The Whole Messy Decade” is the perfect parallel of my own childhood. Those who study VH1 retro-specials know that the eighties were a decade of leg warmers, questionable headbands and shiny leotards. However, outside of my own mother’s aerobics obsession and her thrice-weekly visits to The Shape Up Shop to get physical, I’d suspected those images were generally popular mythological constructs furthered by the movie “Flashdance” and Olivia Newton-John videos. And yet, Wizenberg’s recounting of her own mother’s obsession with terrycloth and tights, and another eighties obsession including white chocolate, affirmed that I was not alone.
Wizenberg’s book however is no mere indulgence in cultural touchstones. She is foremost a great storyteller who celebrates universal themes any generation can relate to: the life and death of a charming idiosyncratic cook and father, the giddy ride of budding romance, and seduction by the city of lights, Paris.
Wizenberg’s real currency is her honesty, which is neither the proverbial brutal version nor the revisionist kind. She parses the characters and the moments of her life with a refreshing balance, and is strong enough to come clean when she doesn’t really remember the whole story. As she says, “But sometimes, when I sit down to write, the stories are already half gone. … When I go to look for them they aren’t there anymore. So it’s hard for me to show you exactly who my father was, because I don’t know anymore. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to. I’m not interested in wrapping him up in a box with a tidy bow. He would hate that.”
Just as tasty as the memoir are the delicious recipe codas to each of Wizenberg’s stories. My favorite is her butternut soup with pear, cider and vanilla bean, both for its delicious sweet and savory invocation of autumn, and because the recipe represents an afternoon of experimentation, a shot of riffed culinary redemption for a cook who’s usually paralyzed by deliberation in the kitchen.
Wizenberg’s goal with her food is to “win hearts and minds, to love and be loved.” And by that measure, with both her culinary and literary acumen, she’s gotten me. Just don’t mention it to my wife. She might get jealous.
Follow Molly Wizenberg’s journey at her blog, Orangette.