Book Review — Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times

Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times
Amanda Hesser (Editor)
W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

I began my writing career wanting to be an essayist until I discovered that most people have little interest in reading essays. Or writing good ones, since it reminds them too much of being forced to do so at school. Having said that, someone other than me must enjoy the things because the New York Times ran a regular column of food essays, written not so much by food writers but by authors, columnists, and other people of note.

In her introduction, editor Amanda Hesser states:

There was just one rule: nothing sentimental. No one wants to read an overwrought paean to Grandma’s corn bread. But we might well be interested in why your grandma made it whenever she was lonely.

Hesser does a good job of weeding out the sentimental and serving up a collection of mostly fun and quirky stories. A few of them fell flat for me, as is the case with any anthology — you’re never going to love everything — but many of them were enjoyable reads.

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s piece on interviewing an aspiring line cook who happened to be blind was both amusing and relatable. There was a deaf man in many of my own classes at chef school, and while he had an ASL translator for the theory classes, the two of them together in the kitchens for practical labs became a real danger to themselves and others as we all moved around with hot pans.

Family Menu by Allen Shawn tells the story of his institutionalized sister celebrating her birthday outside of her home for the first time in decades and how she adapted so beautifully when her family all expected her to have a meltdown because things were different. This is a lovely look at the boxes we force each other into simply because we think they cannot accept change.

Tucker Carlson’s piece about working in a baked beans factory is one of the best of the collection, with a sharp wittiness and charm that is belied by his caustic TV persona.

Many of the essays come with a related recipe, including the excerpt from Julia Child’s My Life in France which offers the trio of recipes that caused Child to fail her first attempt at her chef’s diploma at Le Cordon Bleu.

Overall this is an enjoyable collection of essays that remains fairly timeless. Ten years after publication, none of them are especially dated. And while not all of the selected works are great or even memorable, there are enough gems here to make it a worthwhile read.