There never is enough time for reading, is there?
I’ve heard the same thing from so many of you. Something like Oh no! More recommendations! I’ll never catch up! Of course, I know you’re winking. I know you’re dropping everything to read that novel though there are so many more important things to do.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we?
When I’m honest with myself, I am never truly afraid that I won’t make it to the bottom of my must-read list. When I’m honest with myself, I know that my real fear is this: I am afraid I will run out of good books. I am afraid I’ll be caught waiting for a child somewhere and I won’t have a good book in my car. I’m afraid the baby will fall asleep at the exact same moment when the kids busy themselves with a game and I won’t have a good book on my desk.
I know. This is crazy talk. But let’s just make sure shall we? Let’s keep those bookshelves and nightstands and library order queues nice and full.
As always, I am here to help.
(P.S. This post includes affiliate links. You can find more info about those right here.)
Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them. – Lemony Snicket
This was my recent stop-everything-must-read-to-the-very-last-page reading event: The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaimon.
I’ve mentioned before my weakness where fairytales for grownups are concerned. Gaimon’s newest book makes an excellent addition to this list. It is the book I want to write when I grow up.
This is a slim novel about a young boy living in an old house on a country lane in England. On the surface of the story, you’ll find a fairy ring, three generations of mysterious, ageless women, and an evil housekeeper/creature. Beneath the surface, you’ll find a boy growing into a man, a family breaking apart, and all the big questions about life and death and loss and the meaning of it all.
This is what I love about fairytales: something small and simple like the death of a beloved kitten is at the same time something big and meaningful and important. It is both. This is a novel exactly like the ocean at the end of the lane: it is so much bigger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside.
‘Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.’
‘Oh, monsters are scared,’ said Lettie. ‘That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups …’
– Neil Gaimon
My love for books about food (a category not to be confused with actual cookbooks) is well documented on this blog. A new-to-me classic of this genre is Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries).
These essays are part memoir, part hilarious confession, part cookbook, and, well, I’m sure a few other secret ingredients have been added to the mix, but the result is delightful.
Colwin was a writer and a home cook. Her book is funny, informative, and mouth-watering. Most of all, it’s a book that makes me just that much happier in my kitchen and at my table. Good things happen at the table, whether we’ve cooked our meal on a hot plate or a community center’s professional oven. Colwin knows this and celebrates it. And I love her for it.
The ultimate nursery food is beef tea; I have not had it since I was a child, and although I could easily have brewed myself a batch, I never have yet. I am afraid that my childhood will overwhelm me with the first sip or that I will be compelled to sit down at once and write a novel in many volumes. – Laurie Colwin
Here’s a book I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about, but maybe you have yet to pick it up? It’s Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books), the first in the series begun in 1940 by Maud Hart Lovelace.
I somehow missed this one as a child. My firstborn (recently turned ten) nearly missed it. But, thank heavens, we rectified that error in time. This may be a book well suited for little girls (ages four to eight, perhaps?), but, really, we are never too old to snuggle on the couch and read about childhood through the eyes of best friends Betsy and Tacy.
This is an old-fashioned book full of old-fashioned pleasures. Playing paperdolls. Building a backyard house out of a piano crate. Filling old bottles with rainbows of colored sand. It isn’t a life without hardship or sorrow, but it is a life made beautiful by friendship and imagination.
I’m not sure we’ll make it to the end of the series (Betsy’s Wedding? Maybe not). But this first book is a treasure.
Besides the little glass pitcher, she got colored cups and saucers, a small silk handkerchief embroidered with forget-me-nots, pencils and puzzles and balls. But the nicest present she received was not the usual kind of present. It was the present of a friend. It was Tacy.
A week ago Friday, Maplehurst’s kitchen was the scene of a pizza party.
Rice flour crusts turned crisp in the oven while puffy dough rested on the counters. Oregano snipped from the pot on the steps turned tomatoes, garlic, and oil into more than the sum of their parts. We sliced fresh mozzarella on one board. We scattered dairy-free cheese substitute on another. We browned sausage from Axel, our local farmer, in the cast-iron skillet.
We baked and sliced and baked again as seven children held out their hands for more.
The pizzas were delicious, but that doesn’t explain the looks on the faces of two mothers who hovered near the table.
“He’s never shared pizza with a friend,” she whispered.
“Never,” I said.
The kitchen table.
It’s a symbol of hospitality. Of togetherness and community. Except, for us, it’s the place where fear draws up a seat. The table doesn’t bridge the divide. It reinforces it.
We say no to potlucks. We decline the invitation to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner. If we say yes to the birthday party, I bake our own pizza and cupcakes ahead of time.
We don’t often say yes.
A young girl in California is given three injections with the epi-pen but dies anyway. Fear scores one more point.
Always there is another reason to be afraid.
In the daily sifting of life (this is good, this is bad), life-threatening food allergies are our constant Bad Thing.
The pizza party came during the week we hosted good friends, a mother with two daughters and a son. Our big girls were once babies together in Chicago. Their family left the city soon after that, but our lives have run on parallel tracks ever since. Epi pens and questions. Fear and hives. Uncertain blood tests and frighteningly close calls.
Most importantly, we share little boys. One has a grin slightly wider than the other, but they both carry medicines and their own packed food wherever they go.
This shared Bad Thing brought us together for a week, but it turns out Good and Bad can’t be sifted so neatly.
Our week together was perfect summer weather and long drives over green hills past storybook farms. Our week was three little girls laughing and noisy, nightly sleepovers. It was a week of good conversations. Of childish voices singing together during our own at-home Sunday morning service. We swam in the creek. We visited a new Amish farmstand every day.
And the food! Two ears of corn for each person at the table. Watermelon for breakfast, afternoon snack, and dessert. Garden squash even the children enjoyed (the secret? Julienne into matchsticks and cook it up in a pancake).
We ate Japanese fried chicken and ribs cooked on the grill. We dipped spring rolls fried in coconut oil into a no-sugar-needed apricot sauce. We licked our fingers over garlicky green beans, and we smiled over a rainbow of tomatoes dusted with salt and cracked pepper.
I don’t think a week like this would be possible if we handled our fears well. I don’t think it would happen if we tucked them neatly out of sight.
I think we arrived at this week because we felt the full weight of fear on our backs, but we kept on walking. We acknowledged our fear but asked, “Isn’t there more?”
It turns out there is more. Much more.
I’m no longer so confident about naming the good and the bad in my life. What do I know, really? I know that food allergies are terrifying but pizza shared with a friend is the most delicious pizza around, whether or not the cheese is real.
I think even a life lived in the valley of the shadow of death can be beautiful. I don’t fully understand this. I may never be able to explain it or account for it. But I am grateful.
“… the rising sun will come to us from heaven / to shine on those living in darkness / and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
I see the world through a lens of metaphor and story. The magnolia tree near our chicken coop is a love letter. The window in our stairwell is a promise.
Like a pair of good eyeglasses, metaphor helps me see the world and my life more clearly. It is the tool I use to scratch beneath the surface of things.
These days, I am learning its limits.
Or, maybe, I am learning my own limits.
I plunge my arms up to the elbows in a deep farmhouse sink. Snap peas, carrots, a rainbow of swiss chard, and heads of broccoli so richly green they’re also purple. In every moment I can spare, I am harvesting, washing, blanching, freezing, eating, feeding. The kitchen garden we rushed to build and plant this spring has become a fountain. Between the rain and the explosion of good things to eat, that is no metaphor.
Apparently, metaphor has been more than a pair of eyeglasses to me. It has also been my preferred tool for setting up distance between the spiritual world and my own. I have used it to say here are my life and my world and way over there? Can you see it off in the distance? Those are the promises of God. The things that truly matter. We will get there someday.
Except, someday is today.
The things of God are here.
The things of God are now.
In my Bible, I can point out an inky smear of a date. Also, a little scribble of a star. They remind me that two years ago, I heard God say this, “they will make gardens and eat their fruit.”
Those words felt like a promise, and I held on to them through two very unfruitful years. In other words, I believed them. Yet, I know now that I believed them in a hazy, over-spiritualized kind of way.
What if God means exactly what he says?
What if his metaphors indicate, not distance, but nearness?
He promised, and, today, I am eating those words. I have sautéed them in oil and garlic, roasted them at high heat. I have shredded them and peeled them into ribbons. I have tossed them in salads and shared them with neighbors.
They taste good.
Food is my love language.
Isn’t that one in the book? No? Well, I’m convinced food is my love language. I know my mother loved me because she sometimes surprised me during the after-dinner homework hour by sneaking into my bedroom with chocolate pudding. Yes, Mom, I still remember the chocolate pudding.
I show my kids love by feeding them.
Which has, on more than one occasion, resulted in a call to 911 and an epi-pen. Which just goes to show that love is complicated.
Making something that is healthy, non-allergenic, and liked by all is my holy grail of cooking. Actually, it’s my holy grail of motherhood. But, like any epic quest, mine is marked by failure, disappointment, and only occasional victory. Like the knights of old, I am not giving up.
Books like these inspire me to get up and give it another try. Books like these remind me that food and its enjoyment are among the very greatest gifts of our creator.
First, (for those whose taste buds have been set dancing by the photo above) is Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. Yes, that photo shows actual bread baked by the actual me. In my actual home kitchen. And, it actually tastes even better than the picture looks.
In addition to the cookbook, you will need a digital scale and a cast-iron combo cooker (though I think a dutch oven would also work). Then, simply follow directions. Robertson takes us step-by-step from making our sourdough starter through his basic country loaf and on to variations that include everything from pizza dough to English muffins.
I am generally something of a disaster in the kitchen, but this book makes me look like I know what I’m doing.
Next, is a book I suspect many of you have read. It’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. If you haven’t yet read it, then I am thrilled to be the one to give you that final push. Because read it you must.
Do you like food? Do you like memoir? Then you will like this book. Kingsolver chronicles the year she and her family spent eating only locally grown foods, most of them foods they had grown or raised themselves. Kingsolver talks politics, global warming, and the state of American agriculture, but at the heart of this story is good food, family, and love.
This is a book about tomatoes. How we care for them. How we harvest them. How we spoon them out of jars in the middle of winter and remember warm, summer days. This is a book about bread. About what it does for our families when our homes smell of fresh-baked bread.
This is a book about celebration.
Finally, a new-to-me book I admit I’ve only just begun. Two chapters in, and I’m smitten. It’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. Generally, I won’t recommend a book I haven’t yet finished, but this is one of those books you start telling all your friends about before you’re even halfway through.
Adler is funny and wise. She begins with the simple act of boiling water, and I am now convinced that a big pot of bubbling, well-salted water is the start of all sorts of magic.
This is a book for those of us who love food but get bogged down in long, complicated recipes. It’s a book to make you believe that you, too, can create, not restaurant masterpieces, but the stuff of life. Good, nourishing food.
Which is, of course, the whole point.
Once upon a time, Mondays on this website were devoted to poetry. Because the small bites of poetry are about the only literary food I have time for these days, I’m reviving the tradition. Please tell me what you think. Would you like a poem each week?
To help you make up your mind, here’s one from a favorite poet, Luci Shaw.
It reminds me that my own “quotidian wilderness” (a land of baby bottles and cinnamon toast, children with sniffles and autumn leaves) is saturated with glory.
They asked, and he brought quails,
and gave them food from heaven. Psalms 105:40
I’m not asking for quails for dinner
and, if they flew in my window, at mealtime,
in a torrent of wind, I would think
aggravation, not miracle.
Time is so multiple and fluid. If I lose a day
flying the Pacific and gain it back
returning, perhaps the prayer I offered
this morning at first light
was known and answered last week.
You never know what a simple request
will get you. So, no plea for birds
from heaven. Rather, I will commit myself
to this quotidian wilderness, watching for what
the wind may bring me next –
perhaps a minor wafer tasting like honey
that I can pick up with my fingers
and lay on my tongue to ease, for this day,
my hunger to know.
– Luci Shaw