September 20, 2007
Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life by Michael Lee West
Nonfiction - Cooking Memoir
Finished on 9/11/07
Rating: 2/5 (Below Average)
Nonfiction Challenge #5
Not all Sundays were spent in Mississippi, but our leisure time was still dominated by food. Sometimes we drove to Biloxi and searched for flounder in the cloudy Gulf. Other times my daddy took me to the French Quarter, where he bought a sack of oysters and a dozen cream doughnuts. At least once a month, we drove across another bridge to Westwego, where we were entertained by Alice and Emile, two middle-aged Texans who had a summerhouse in the backyard--built for the sole purpose of entertaining. The food would be lined up on a long picnic table--enchiladas, tamales, barbecue, and huge vats of boiled crabs, shrimp, and crawfish.
Since my mama's relatives lived in the piney woods, they were dependent on the New Generation to keep them on the cutting edge of fashion and food. They were especially fond of Jell-O salads, and casseroles made with cream of mushroom soup. Mama was always trying to introduce these country cooks to the cuisine of New Orleans. One afternoon she tried to explain how to make a roux. "Oh, stop putting on airs," said Aunt Dell. "Stop talking foreign."
"Every Sunday, the whole family gathered at Mama Hughes's house in Amite County, Mississippi. They were ferocious eaters and talkers, devouring rumors and innuendo with gusto. Food was their common language, and everyone understood the dialects." -- Aunt Tempe, reminiscing about family dinners
From Michael Lee West, author of the acclaimed American Pie, She Flew the Coop, and Crazy Ladies, comes a delightfully quirky memoir of an adventurous food-obsessed life, laced with delicious secret recipes passed from generation to generation. Wonderfully presented and thoroughly entertaining, this warm and witty work unites West's evocative voice and humor with the uniquely American form of kitchen tales in the tradition of Laurie Colwin.
West lends her distinctive humor and often hilarious insights to stories about her trials and tribulations as a Southern woman who became an "accidental gourmet." In this irresistible memoir mothers swing from chandeliers, elderly aunts brew love potions, a South American nymphomaniac stirs up trouble at a Louisiana barbecue joint, Margaret Mitchell's bed is discovered during a routine antique hunt, a cabbage-eating ghost haunts relatives, mother and daughter peek under fig leaves on statues, and bees attack--all in pursuit of good food.
By watching a multitude of relatives cook, squabble, and carry on tradition, Michael Lee West went from a noncooking student to a full-on gourmet of food and words. Using her own experience and the witticisms of relatives, or clever inspirations overheard in parking lots on the way to the mayor's funeral, West fills these pages with insights such as:
"Potato salad is our friend. It will never let you down. It's a shame we have to eat it, but that's life" and "Live and learn. Die and get food. That's the Southern way."
Often bawdy and always entertaining, West is wonderfully outrageous, charming, and delightful.
"Anybody can cook. But it takes a special person to feed the souls of her guests."-- Miss Johnnie, sitting in a rocking chair, musing about hospitality, 1979
I picked this book up at a Fort Worth Public Library sale several years ago and finally got inspired to read it, thanks to Joy's Nonfiction Five Challenge. While it has close to a dozen Post-It Notes marking various recipes I'd like to try, I wasn't that impressed with West's foodie memoir. Perhaps a Southerner would find it entertaining, but for me it was a chore to get through and I have no intentions of reading any of her works of fiction. Just not my cuppa.
But, oh, the recipes! They do look tasty! I'm anxious to try Mimi's Buttermilk Biscuits, Fried Green Tomatoes, Arny Jean's Red Beans and Rice, Mama's Shrimp Alfredo, Cousin Lula's Sweet Potato Soufflé, Fall Spice Cake, Brabham Family Chocolate Sheet Cake, Better Than Sex Cake, and Georgia Gingersnaps (which, according to the author, are just how I like them - crisp at the edges and moist in the center). Since fall is just around the corner (can y'all believe Sunday marks the first day of autumn?!), maybe I'll start with the spice cake and gingersnaps. Boy, won't that make the house smell cozy!
In addition to garnering a few new recipes to test, I also learned a couple of things from the author. I've always been curious about the name Chess Pie. According to West, "old Southern cooks used to keep their pies in a chest, or safe. The doors of the chest were made of perforated tin to allow air circulation." Well, of course! I happen to own two pie safes (one is an antique with punched copper panels and the other is a reproduction with tin), but never realized a pie would be named in association with these, particularly since I have always thought of them as pie safes, not pie chests. I think the first time I heard about Chess Pie, I envisioned a strange looking pie that might resemble a chess board! Go figure.
And that brings me to another misconception that I've held my entire life. I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, it's so silly. I have always thought "iced tea" was called "ice tea." I know it's a minor mistake, but I was so surprised to see it in print (where have I been?!) that I had to set my book aside, go downstairs, dig through the cupboard, and read the label on the Lipton ICED tea box. Well, whaddaya know! ;)
Consuming Passions starts off very much like a food memoir, but slowly transforms into what I would consider a full-blown cookbook. Not only does the author include close to a hundred recipes, but she offers all sorts of cooking advice. For instance, she devotes an entire chapter to the importance (and care) of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
As I love to bake cakes from scratch, this particular passage struck a chord with me:
A scratch cake is an emotional creation, thought to be superior to anything in a box. It is steeped in domestic rituals: measuring, sifting, creaming, beating, stirring. The procedure seems daunting; but as you study the recipe, adding up the long list of ingredients, you find yourself reading between the lines. Who dreamed up this recipe? Who served it and why? Was it a cake to impress a beau, to distract a husband, or to donate to a church bazaar?
If I really wanted to be fair, I'd wait until I've tried the selected recipes before rating the book. With three or four winners, I could conceivably raise the low rating. Unfortunately, Southern cooking isn't exactly low-cal, and after several weeks of dining out while on vacation this summer (and most recently, the consumption of numerous bowls of clam chowder while in Oregon), I can't quite bring myself to try all the recipes I marked in a short span of time. So, the rating will just have to stand. And on that note, it's Raffle Time!
As soon as I've copied down all the recipes I plan to sample, I would like to pass this book on to another reader. In order to enter the drawing, you'll need to pop over to my food blog (Kiss the Cook) and leave a comment on my most recent post. In order to give my "end-of-the-month" visitors a fair chance, the contest will conclude on October 6th. Remember, it's a hardcover library edition, but it's in excellent condition. And, I hope the winner will also be inspired to try some of the recipes, sharing the successful ones on his or her blog.
Happy reading AND cooking!