Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Recipes for connections

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It’s strange how things intersect. Here I was thinking about secrets around recipes, and then just yesterday I was given a very special cookbook. It’s called “Emily’s Table.” The recipes in it are from the kitchen of Emily Mehlman, a beautiful woman I had the privilege to know as a friend.

Emily was a homemaker in the finest and largest sense of the word--a community-maker, with her table as its center. She was one of those people--mysterious to me--who always “knows”--how to get cut flowers to open, how to store sweaters properly, where to shop for a new car, how to make Jordan Marsh’s blueberry muffins, how to get any kind of stain out of any kind of fabric. She was the wife of Bernard Mehlman, former senior rabbi and now senior scholar of Temple Israel in Boston. When the temple was active in helping bring people from the former Soviet Union to Boston, she instinctively understood what the newcomers would need to know and when. A few weeks after they had arrived, when they had caught their breaths from the first frenzy of moving in, she would arrive to make sure they knew things like how to adjust the thermostat in their apartments, how to take publc transportation to wherever they needed to go, how to find a doctor.

When Emily died in 2006, a group of her close friends decided to collect some of her favorite recipes into a book. It’s a book much like Emily herself--beautiful, thoughtful, filled with goodness. These are recipes for meals eaten with family and friends. They are not, by and large, recipes for special occasions as much as they are recipes for making a special occasion of every day. You can picture people gathered around doing what human beings have done throughout our existence--sharing sustenance, talking, making the necessity of food into something sacred.

Sharing recipes, like sharing food, is a generous and nurturing act. It is an act that defies mortality. It lets us, in a very immediate, concrete way, keep close something real about those we no longer have physically present in our lives. It’s a line drawn through generations and across borders. What more basic human act can carry us through time and space than the words on paper telling us, "This is good--try it."

Looking through “Emily’s Table,” I am tempted by one recipe after another. And as I remember this extraordinary woman I think, too, of the extraordinary women--her friends--who took on an enormous project in order to preserve their delicious memories of her. They created a worthy tribute. Anyone who knew Emily will treasure this book. And anyone who didn’t know her would be well advised to try the recipes.

I have a food spatter on one page already.

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Secret recipes and the secret of recipes

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Item number one: My old friend Jay came to visit a few days ago, brought the most delicious chocolate chip cookies, and sent me the recipe. It’s from Neiman Marcus, but it’s a real recipe for really wonderful cookies.

(If you’ve never heard the story--which is total urban myth--it involves a woman eating at the restaurant in Neiman Marcus, loving the chocolate chip cookies so much she asks for the recipe, only to be billed $250 or some such outrageous sum for it. Story is a complete fabrication.)

Item number two: In today’s New York Times Michelle Slatalla has a piece on neighbors trying to outdo each other with secret recipes for stuffed cabbage.

The confluence of those two items got me thinking about the whole idea of the secret recipe. Not a pretty picture. For two reasons.

Take one: Food is a basic need and also love made concrete. It’s nurturing, caring, the one indispensable thing we can offer someone else in true generosity. So the whole idea of withholding a recipe is so stunningly miserly when you think about it that it’s really not so far removed from bread lines and continents of starving children. The smallness of begrudging someone food--maybe especially delicious food--has implications of a world view that goes way beyond our little recipe files.

Take two: Just who is it who is usually seen as hoarding those secret recipes--or maybe giving out the recipe but with one vital ingredient missing? Women. Women whose place was so firmly rooted next to the stove that the secret recipe can be a stand-in for the miniscule power they had, the perceived value of what they had to offer in the world. Tiny scraps of yellowed paper. Tiny aspirations, truncated possibilities.

So, thank you to my friend Jay and to Neiman Marcus for the cookie recipe. Thank you, Marcie, for carrot pudding,; Caryl Kahn for peach pie; Fran for bread pudding and another Fran for Tuscan bread soup; my late neighbor Dan for country stew; my aunt Sara, gone for decades, whose noodle pudding recipe lives on and has now evolved to include one new ingredient suggested by my granddaughter. My recipe file is filled not only with foods, but with people, with their history, and with my ties to them. My thanks to you all: your generosity continues to sustain me.

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