Book Review: The Cassoulet Saved our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family & How We Learn to Eat
By Caroline M. Grant & Lisa Catherine Harper
Publisher: Roost Books
Released March 2013
There are books of essays that are meant to be picked up and put down, up and down, slowly turning the pages and taking time to stop along the way. Then there are others that are the exact opposite, where you’ll want to keep reading late into the night, when you really should be asleep. The Cassoulet Saved our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family & How We Learn to Eat, a new book from Roost Books, is wonderfully in the second category. The bright pink cover, featuring a line-art drawing of a steaming pot with curly-cue swirls floating upwards, beckoned me like a favorite dish. I couldn’t wait to open it up.
The collection of essays, sourced by “Learning to Eat” blog authors Caroline M. Grant & Lisa Catherine Harper, is a balanced mix of names I recognized and those I had yet to know. Gleaning the histories of these writers made me feel as if I were standing in their kitchens, leaning against the counters with a glass of wine in my hand as I nodded my head along in an I-know-exactly-what-you-mean way.
The essays are grouped into three sections: Food, Family and Learning to Eat. In “Food” there are stories of ties to one’s culinary past. In an essay by Sarah Shey, we travel from the memories of her mother cooking on a farm in Iowa, to the present-day where Shey does the improbable: she cooks for the Polish construction workers outside her apartment in Brooklyn, savoring the joy when they return with an empty plate. Keith Blanchard writes of his painful junk food addiction, which left him with a smile littered with cavities, “a double-strand necklace of silver and gold beads draped over a few remaining stalactites and stalagmites of original tooth enamel.” It made me recall those crinkly candy wrappers, hidden and stuffed in my own pockets. The section closes with an essay by Phyllis Grant with prose alive in its urgency: I wanted to be her, I wanted to be the asparagus tips she was cooking, and the poached egg she’d just speared with a fork.
In “Family” we find the eponymously titled essay of the collection—a series of letters between a husband and wife. There was clearly an argument, a stalemate of sorts, but we’re not let in to that part of the drama. Instead we learn of their annual cassoulet parties and what they mean to each partner. The most affecting of the essays is by Karen Valby, who writes of going hungry as a teenager, and of the envious pain she felt in the cafeteria every day at lunch. She writes: “If I want your food, I want more than your lunch. I want your life.” When I read that line I had to stop. This vulnerable essay of need and want will make you look at food, and hunger, in an entirely different way.
The book closes with a set of essays about “Learning to Eat,” many of which center around how we pass down our history of food to our children. New York Times writer Jeff Gordinier writes of wanting his son and daughter to eat foie gras, not for the thing itself but for what it signifies: the desire to try new experiences. Gregory Dicum, a mostly-vegan vegan, writes of feeding his new son things he does not eat, and the personal dilemma of watching his ideas of food evolve along with his son’s growth. And Edward Levine writes of anxiety in an age of over-cautious, over-educated, danger-averse parents––PTA parents like himself––who become embroiled in email threads in a “throbbing symphony of food angst.”
I liked reading the essays and, in the back of my mind, wondering what recipe the author would select to share. I didn’t necessarily want to make any of them. But as my eyes scanned the details I thought about where each had come from, feeling the nostalgia from just a few pages back, and I quickly stirred up the ingredients, making the whole thing virtually in my mind.
The Cassoulet Saved our Marriage makes you feel like you’re in your favorite restaurant, the one with the black-and-white checked tablecloths, narrow tables, mirrors reflecting the room, waiters who know your name, and a seasonal menu that includes an ingredient you don’t know yet. It’s not a book I need to read again, but it certainly begs to be shared. These days, when everything is documented digitally or featured on television in 30-minute battles, is there anything better than reading a good story?
Larissa Zimberoff is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She has an MFA from The New School. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Untapped Cities and The Rumpus.