I devour books. When I find one I love I’ll read it cover to cover, as fast as I can, and all other activities pale in comparison. I have a particular passion for food essays that started when I was a little girl.
I would read about exotic places and food and imagine myself eating it, and then beg my mother to make whatever it was I was reading about. She was busy, though, so she let me try to cook some of it myself. One of the reasons I cook the way I do today was this insatiable desire to make what I was reading a reality, to transport myself to foreign, delicious-sounding places and experience what I was imagining in real life.
When I was a teenager I read an essay by James Beard in his 1964 book Delights and Prejudices about his childhood food memories. Beard wrote in a wonderfully descriptive, pompous, generous voice that made me wish I could know him. He talked about his “taste memory” in such a romantic way that it made me bound and determined to have one of my own.
Later, when I was in my twenties and in the throes of a serious and potentially life-threatening love affair with France (I was eating so much butter and cream and cheese that I could actually feel my arteries clogging), I found Madeleine Kamman’s book When French Women Cook. The book is both memoir and love letter to the women from whom she learned to cook. Each chapter is devoted to a particular region of France, and the writing is beautiful and the recipes, wonderful. My copy is broken into several pieces and held together with rubber bands. The page containing “Coq au Riesling” is almost unreadable, as I have spilled so much of said Riesling on it while making that recipe over the years.
I reach for these books over and over, every time my rushed, modern life seems overwhelming. They take me to a fantasy world where I have incredible ingredients and lots of time to cook and a family who has more than 15 minutes to eat. Sometimes the world on those pages can inspire me to slow down, taste carefully, pay attention to what I’m making, and remember it.
(This commentary originally aired November 18, 2011.)