Friday, February 24, 2012

Cooking up Stories

Once in a long while, I read a book that doesn’t just stay with me, but changes how I see the world in some fundamental way. This week I read one of those books: An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. 

I hate to be bossy, but I will: Buy it. You’ll want it in hardback. You’ll want to read it over and over again. You’ll want to underline passages—some for wisdom, some for practicality, and some for sheer beauty. You’ll find yourself looking forward to grocery shopping, without a list, eager to buy whatever vegetables look fresh and trusting you will find a way to enjoy them.

I must confess that I am not a foodie. I don’t watch cooking shows. I have never tasted truffles and I don’t drink wine because I don’t like it. I also don’t like very spicy foods or anything that tastes like the sea. I had foie gras once, in the south of France, and it took all my willpower to swallow without gagging. I have never learned how to cut up a whole chicken and I have an unabashed love of ranch dressing.

With Ms. Adler’s guidance, I may still make friends with a raw chicken.

An Everlasting Meal is not a cookbook, or even a book about food. It is about reclaiming a relationship many of us have lost or never had between buying food and nourishing ourselves with it. The subtitle, Cooking with Economy and Grace, is apt, but could as easily be reworded Living with Economy and Grace. For me, this is a book about living. And, for me, a book about living is necessarily also a book about writing.

I’ve been working on my first novel for about two years. When I started, the experience was as all-consuming as any budding romance. I was swept away with the act of creation, with guiding characters through my twists and turns, with the unexplored corners of my own imagination. 

It turned out to be a bit of a turd.

So, I began a second draft, and then a third, learning more about story structure each time. The more I analyzed and reworked, the more my writing time started to evoke the same emotions as scrounging for dinner when I haven’t made it to the store, the kids are hungry, and it’s already 6:00. I get enough of that feeling when it actually is 6:00 and I haven’t made it to the store and the kids are hungry. The honeymoon was over.

I studied scene and sequel, pacing, inciting incidents, four-act structure, 8-sequence structure, plot points and pinch points, and the dreaded info-dump. I’ve learned a lot, but the problem is that good stories don’t come from recipes. 

In An Everlasting Meal, Ms. Adler includes recipes sparingly, explaining in the introduction:
But cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page. There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals' remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become.
Isn’t it the same with stories? You begin from wherever you find yourself. You begin with a character, or a scene, or a situation. You follow your imagination through all the loose ends and wind up with ideas that can’t be used but get thrown into the hearty stock of creative juices to season another meal. You write today’s pages and then let them marinate as you go about your day.

The opening essay, “How to Boil Water,” graces the act of boiling vegetables or pasta or chicken with a spiritual simplicity:
There is a prevailing theory that we need to know much more than we do in order to feed ourselves well. It isn’t true. Most of us already have water, a pot to put it in, and a way to light a fire. This gives us boiling water, in which we can do more good cooking than we know.
This, too, is how to build a story: put water (or characters) in a pot and light a fire.

People have told stories as long as they have had language, which is somewhere on the same scale of ancientness as starting fires. Yet, when my son asks for a story, I seize up the same way I do when it’s dinner time and I haven’t planned a recipe. What if I get it wrong? What if I leave something out? What if I don’t know what I’m doing?

The other night, I surveyed my refrigerator and found only a few odds and ends hastily purchased without a plan. I had ground turkey, a bunch of kale, half an onion, garlic, and sliced baby bella mushrooms. In the meat drawer I discovered a forgotten but unopened tube of cooked polenta.

I scoured the Internet for a recipe that didn’t require canned tomatoes, and came up with zilch. 

So I started where I was, browning turkey with onion and garlic and mushrooms. I smelled all the spices in my cabinet until I came to garam masala, bought long ago for one recipe, and my nose perked up. I added a little, tasted, found out it’s freaking delicious, and added more, plus kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, tension on the tongue. I added the kale, steaming to emerald green. I dug in the pantry and threw  in a handful of raisins for sweetness. I cut cubes of polenta and browned them in butter, then called it all dinner. It wasn’t pretty, but the kids cleaned their plates, even the kale. When John got home, they couldn’t wait to tell him how good dinner was. Even the kale!  

The next night’s bean stew didn’t go as well, but I know I can still save it. I have bacon up my sleeve.

Ms. Adler gives the moral of this tale in “How to Paint Without Brushes”:
If we were taught to cook as we are taught to walk, encouraged first to feel for pebbles with our toes, then to wobble forward and fall, then had our hands firmly tugged on so we would try again, we would learn that being good at it relies on something deeply rooted, akin to walking, to get good at which we need only guidance, senses, and a little faith.
I picture ancient people around the hearth, telling stories of gods and monsters and romance and adventure as they break bread together, and I think: I have stories to tell as surely as I have water and fire and the wisdom to add an onion.

I have countless teachers, authors, and friends to thank for guidance. I have human nature to thank for senses. And I have An Everlasting Meal and a well-used pot to thank for faith.


  1. I haven't even finished reading your post yet, but my need to comment was so great I had to jump down here and do it so I could focus on what you were saying. I had the exact same life changing experience with "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. Not a day goes by that I'm not affected by reading that book. Especially when I see a turkey. :D

  2. Beautiful post as always.

    I have to say that you sound like an excellent cook. I would never have been able to throw together a meal like that. I like to tweak recipes, but very rarely do I come up with my own. But I'm a planner. I rarely wing it when I cook or when I write. :)

    But I love what you say here. I think there is something about story telling that is imbedded in us. I do a lot of my writing instinctively, and I only get analytical when my instincts tell me something is off. But I always trust my instincts.

    I'll have to check out that book. :)

  3. I'm sort of at the same spot in both my writing career and my cooking career--I've learned a lot, I think it's fun, sometimes it turns out just the way I want it to, but I'm not as good as I want to be. Great post, Sarah.

  4. Stephanie Walters-RoweFebruary 25, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    A food goddess, I am not. Garam Masala is the bomb. Love it. And turmeric and curry. My sons are not as adventurous as yours, and I am so jealous. I've created them, so I must deal with them.

    I would like to think that I can write, but I tend to roll in the non fiction genre with a thesis that I, of course, must prove. I think I cook the same way. I can tweak a recipe but am out of my element if left to my own devices. My brother, who is a chef, disagrees.

    You are capable of telling a story and do so very well. What we do and what shapes us is intuitive. Let go of convention and weave the story in your own, unique way. You can't study plot and character development and rising action and foreshadowing and the rest of the literary crap and hope to put it all into one story. Impossible. And boring.

    We, as readers, don't give a shit about all that. We want to be entertained and connect with the characters. We overlook a lot if an amazing author writes from the heart. Write about a character that you have faith in. Someone who allows for the reader to connect with them.

    Write from your heart.

  5. @Stephanie: That is such perfect advice, and something I really needed to read right now. Thank you for reminding me about what matters. I found a passion for writing all kinds of non-fiction long before I ever even considered attempting fiction, and it's an entirely different experience - both more challenging and more rewarding than I expected :)

    @MaryAnn: You have really good instincts for story, and so I'd say trusting them is a good move :D I've bombed a lot in the kitchen. I mean A LOT. Mostly with my "healthy" baking experiments. Poor kids sometimes ask me why I can't just make regular old chocolate chip cookies like everyone else.

    @Melanie - Aren't you my Scramble buddy? Everything I know about cooking I learned from Aviva Goldfarb. After about a year of following her weekly plans pretty religiously - even if I didn't think any of us would like the recipe - I realized I was starting to get a feel for how recipes come together. I'm still not a fantastic cook, but I would be lost if I didn't have literally hundreds of recipes under my belt because of The Scramble.

    I haven't read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" yet. It's on my shelf, in the TBR pile...

  6. Yes! The six o'clock scramble taught me everything I know about cooking too. I'm trying to live without it right now--I've got my favorite recipes printed out--but sometimes I think I ought to be getting it weekly again. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to fall in love with cooking and food.

  7. Oh, this was a beautiful analogy, beautifully written. I can tell I'm going to be thinking this one over.


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