On a good day, I wake at 6:30am, while New York City is still shrouded in darkness and deep in sleep.
I don’t check email or walk my dog. Instead, I tuck her into the warm hollow my body has left in the bed, light a few candles so that I can make my way, pad sleepily into the pale kitchen to make a cup of tea, and then sit at my desk, all blackness and still around me. For the next hour, I write, blissfully free from distraction.
By 7:30, the sun settles on the trees outside the window next to my desk, as I’ve always dreamed a New York City writer’s desk needs to be, and mine finally is. My building superintendent washes the sidewalk below. The hum of busses increases; voices rise slightly from corners of space around me. New York City showers, and dresses, and pours Cheerios, and walks to the subway. My belly rumbles.
I take my empty teacup to the kitchen, turn on the kettle, and heat up my small cast iron pan. Leftover millet, roasted sweet potatoes, and two eggs from pasture-raised chickens come out of the fridge. In the cup, another bag of Earl Gray. Into a bowl and then the microwave, a small spoon of millet and potatoes. A big pad of ghee slides down the pan, where it spreads and sizzles and starts to smell nutty. I crack the eggs in, let them settle, and then sprinkle them with big chunks of crunchy Maldon salt and a few turns of black pepper. When they’ve set a bit, I scramble them slightly, the yolks and whites running together, turning without sticking to the bottom of the seasoned pan, until they’re just barely cooked, like a messy French omelet. This tops the bowl, and the lot comes back to my desk. The pup comes over, lured by the scent of butter and eggs, and licks the bowl clean when I’m through with it. I ponder my ritual.
I think of Emerson. Of Thoreau. Of their waking in New England in autumn, in the dark. Without cell phones and roommates and buses rumbling past and neighbors above who play loud music. Without the ease of computers that come to life when you touch a key. They would have much more quiet than I get on 157th Street. But they wouldn’t have microwaves that heat millet and potatoes in sixty seconds. Wouldn’t have a big machine to wash the dishes when you’re through with them.
But they would have eaten eggs for breakfast, most likely. Writers around the world eat eggs for breakfast.
At least, that’s what I read upon flipping through Natalie Eve Garrett’s The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook.
It’s a romantic remake of the 1961 original which, back then, included entries by Haper Lee and Marilyn Monroe. This one, instead, has the likes of James Franco, Edwidge Danticat, Ruth Reichl, Joyce Carol Oats, and Marina Abramovic; 76 total.
The food writer in me took a rather cranky first glance. Most of these “recipes”, I warn ye, are not of the type we buy cookbooks to cook. There’s no consistency in the way the recipes are written. Many don’t include cooking temperatures or times. Many don’t even tell you what you’ll need to have: a list of ingredients will then have you smoking coals or adding things never mentioned beforehand.
There’s little curation of content, too. There is no practical need for a breakfast chapter including instant oatmeal and five egg recipes which are, essentially, scrambled eggs maybe with stuff in them. Are you ever gonna stuff a camel with 2 sheep, 200 plover eggs, and 500 dates? Probably not? Is slicing cheese to put atop crackers essential cookbook reading? I’m not even sure this one is clever enough to be funny. Though maybe I just need more tea.
Smartly, Garrett knows hers is not a cookbook. It’s a Collection of Stories with Recipes.
Read as that, it’s delightful. Read as that…
…making popcorn on the stove (with canola oil and butter) is a feminist statement because Liza Lou’s self-sufficient mother refused to make little else, and so popcorn was a meal of wild joy and variation.
…sprinkling Jicama with lime juice and chili is best done with a margarita in hand and music blaring from speakers in the style of Ana Castillo’s Tia Flora.
…pairing a slow Bernaise with quickly seared scallops allows us to indulge both in the dark, pained, sleeping parts of our innermost fears while also nurturing the glimmer of hope that we can still wake and accomplish and achieve. Because that’s what Lev Grossman makes, and that’s the world he came out of, and that’s what he overcame.
…topping sticky rice with an egg and a drizzle of soy sauce and sesame oil is a Korean college kid’s (and, nowadays, pretty much any New Yorker’s) comfort-food-quick bibimbap.
The stories shared are largely from people living in the United States. But, being full of migratory writers and artists, this is not an ode to American cooking or art or literature. There are love songs to Jamaican Rice and Peas (Sonya Clark), Yucatan Black Beans (Ruth Reichl), Fo Tiao Qian (Zhang Huan), and Soup Joumou (Edwidge Danticat); a creamy pumpkin soup many Haitians make on Haitian Independence Day (January 1st) as a celebration of new beginnings. There are poems, and stories written like poems, and stories written like emails, and recipes written like stories. There are stories promised to be truth, and others clearly fictionalized. There are stories that speak of firsts — first meetings, first loves — and stories that speak of lasts.
Which brings us back to those eggs.
“Something simple like scrambled eggs with onions and smoked salmon and a particular sort of sourdough bread…” begins Joyce Carol Oates. She then describes her dish of eggs maybe with stuff in them. In this recipe, the eggs are folded with smoked salmon and onions, served with a leafy salad and garden tomatoes on the side, and slices of garden vegetables, and lit tapers, and a glass of wine. It is the meal her husband often makes for her when she returns home from traveling. It is the last meal he made for her before he died in 2008. It is the meal she has to face making for herself when she returns home to an empty house for the first time after his passing.
Eggs maybe with stuff in them more than just eggs. There are five stories in this book that share how, and why.
They’re why I’ll be cooking almond muffins and pumpkin stew and lobster rolls, soon. Most likely I’ll not even be using the recipes from the book itself; at least I won’t marry myself to them. I don’t need to reference James Franco’s tips on how to make a PB&J, or madly comb it for quick appetizers before my writer’s group gathering this Saturday.
But maybe on January 1st I’ll make pumpkin soup, because I respect the hell outta Edwidge Danticat and love the story behind her Soup Joumou (which I was about to share, but I want you to buy the book, duh). Maybe the next time I walk into my New York space or my Connecticut home, I’ll light some tapers and put a vase of flowers next to my plate, to bring a sense of peace to a journey often blanketed by stress, as I imagine Oats’ husband intended for her time after time. Maybe I’ll enjoy daydreaming up a picnic before a Daydreamer’s Salad, which Kate Christensen shares so vividly that I had to immediately jump on Goodreads and my library app so that I could bookmark everything she’s ever written, stored safely for future reading.
These are stories, with recipes. And whimsical, delightful illustrations. They take you all over the world, and to the writers’ desks and into the artists’ minds.
Buy it. Read it.
Cast iron + clarified butter + slowly stir your high-quality eggs + Maldon salt and cracked pepper.
The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes © 2016, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, published by powerHouse Books. On Sale October 11th. Pre-order on Amazon today!