It's a relief to know that a writer on The New York Times food beat has kids whose tastes don't sound all that much more adventuresome than those of your own children. Given that people are obsessed with food and what the kids are up to, and perhaps more importantly, what the parents are feeding said kids, conversations around food and family have taken on different, arguably absurd, proportions.
While certainly in and of this climate, the writers featured in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learned to Eat, a new collection of personal essays edited by Bay Area writers Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper (Roost Books), shared the anxieties and joys tied up with all of this stuff by sharing plenty of their own.
Divided into three parts categorized as Food, Family, and Learning To Eat, the stories reinforce how good food and bad food have the power to shape experience, memories, and identity in near equal measure. (But it's definitely preferable if the food is good.)
Jeff Gordinier of the Times looks at how his own children's eating habits don't mirror his own precocious youthful ambitions at the table in an essay titled "Why Won't My Kids Eat Foie Gras?" (Don't roll your eyes. He's kidding. Sort of. Whatever; just read it yourself.)
In a contemporary twist on the unforeseen dangers of contemporary food and less-than-civil media culture, Neal Pollack, author of Alternadad, talks about how his young son became an unwitting target of Gawker trolls and labeled a "douchebag" after writing a seemingly innocuous post on Epicurious about tasting cheese at Whole Foods. It's tough out there for a publicly food-focused parent. "What is it about food and kids that drives people so crazy?" Pollack asks.
L.A. writer and performer Dani Klein Modisett's hilarious discussion of her son's "white food" proclivities and a few other entries cross over into the popular genre of the self deprecating parent confessional, other take the madeleine approach.
Deesha Philyaw looks at how she uses soul food, however unhealthy, as a vehicle for passing along family traditions and memories by throwing monthly Soul Food Nights with her kids. (The Secrets of Happy Families author Bruce Feiler, who believes "the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative," would approve.)
Melissa Clark dismisses the food TV backlash in her disarming and convincing story of how "Rachael Ray Saved My Life." At the very least, Ray helped Clark's relationship with her own mother.
Max Brooks describes the garden his mother Anne Bancroft planted in Santa Monica, and how after her death, Brooks and his father, comedian Mel Brooks, let the plantings languish before reviving the plot. The two then established a harvesting ritual, including canning marinara sauce.
Things take an intense turn in the essay by Deborah Copaken Kogan and Paul Kogan, from which the collection takes its name. Written "in the eye of this new marital storm," their epistolary exchange looks back on their lives together through the lens of their annual Cassoulet Day, an annual "all-day feast" the pair hosts that "is us, more than anything else we do as a couple or a family." (This public conversation with her husband is further evidence of Copaken Kogan's talent for candidly taking stock.) One quick glance at Paul Kogan's cassoulet recipe and you'll understand why Cassoulet Day is an enviable guest list to crack.
Thematic compilations can quickly turn into a slog. The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage avoids most redundancies, and even when a sub-theme (picky eaters, eating disorders) crops up more than once, the 29 writers give distinct voices to the personal issues. The reader doesn't come across marginally different versions of the same essay.
That said, if you don't want to read about stories involving lots of farmers' markets, seafood plucked directly from the sea, winning over grizzled hearts with food, kids who may or may not eat kale, treasured family recipes and such, then this isn't the book for you. Regardless, the recipes that accompany each entry are a bonus.
Editors Grant and Harper, along with Los Angeles-based contributors Melissa Clark, Dani Klein Modisett, Max Brooks, Stacie Stukin and Lisa McNamara will be reading from The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage on Monday, May 6 at 7 p.m. at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard.
In the meantime, benefit from McNamara's "years of practice and hundreds of what I deemed failures" that she made while on the road to perfecting her classic apple pie recipe.
See the recipe after the jump...
From: Lisa McNamara, in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage
Note: "My favorite pie pan is a glass 9-inch, as it lets you see if the bottom crust is browning while it bakes."
Makes: 1 pie
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur works best)
¾ teaspoon salt
½ pound sweet butter, very cold, cut into 64 pieces, N- to ½-inch cubes
(I like Plugra or Strauss brands because they contain little moisture)
7 to 10 tablespoons very cold water
3½ pounds apples (my favorite is the Arkansas Black, but Gala and Jonagold work well, too), peeled, cored, and sliced ¼ inch thick
½ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons ground cinnamon (I like Penzeys brand China Cassia best)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons whole milk or cream
1. To make the crust, spoon flour into a measuring cup and swipe off excess with the flat side of a knife. Put the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for a few seconds to combine.
2. Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour-salt mixture. Cut in the butter using about 13 to 15 one-second pulses. There should still be very small pieces of butter, about half the size of a pea, visible in the mixture.
3. Transfer the mixture to large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons cold water and mix together with a spatula. As you add the rest of the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, use your hands to mix so you can feel the dough's texture. You only want to add enough water for the dough to just hold together when you squeeze it in your palm.
4. Divide the dough into two pieces and shape each piece into a round, flat disk about 6 inches in diameter. Wrap the dough disks individually in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before continuing with the recipe.
5. Preheat the oven to 400˚F and place an oven rack on the lowest rung. To make the filling, combine the sliced apples, brown sugar, flour, 2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, the vinegar, and salt in a large bowl; toss to coat the apples well.
6. Roll out two pie dough disks into about 11-inch rounds so you have about a 1-inch overhang when it's in the pan. (A good way to measure is to turn the pie pan upside down on the dough round and leave an inch beyond the outer rim of the pan.)
7. Line the pan with the bottom crust and then pile the apple mixture on top; shape it into a mound. Lay the top crust over the apples and fold over the bottom crust -- crimp and seal. Cut vents in the top crust to let steam escape.
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8. Combine the granulated sugar and remaining ½ teaspoon cinnamon. Set aside.
9. Bake the pie for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven briefly to brush the top crust with milk and sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Return to the oven and bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbly, about 20 minutes more. If the top crust or edges appear to be getting too dark, cover loosely with aluminum foil and reduce the oven temperature to 375˚F.
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