26 FLAVORS by Ruth Polleys
Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table
A Collection of Essays from the New York Times, edited by Amanda Hesser
W.W. Norton, Reprint edition November 2009
Paperback 208 pp., ISBN: 9780393337464
Almost every day after school, I’d hop the 96 bus to Harvard Square and sling ice cream along with a gang of other 16 to 18-year-olds who chose not to bag groceries at Star or serve billions under the golden arches. Instead, donning a red, white and blue uniform amid a similarly patriotic décor, over and over I explained to Brigham’s patrons, largely transplanted Harvard students and tourists, that jimmies were chocolate sprinkles—that frappes had ice cream; milkshakes did not. For three years I went home with my right arm sticky and shiny from vanilla, mocha chip and peppermint stick. For three years I sampled every new flavor and invented any number of successful and dreadful ice cream/topping combos. You’d think I’d hate the stuff, but no. That would’ve been a blessing. For Colson Whitehead, novelist and one of 26 contributors to Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, it’s a curse.
In his essay “I Scream,” Whitehead describes how his disenchantment developed over several summers of scooping at Big Olaf in Sag Harbor, Long Island. He ate ice cream for “breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, depending on my shift” until he was nauseated. Now he eschews all desserts, much to the disbelief of dining companions. “To hate ice cream is to dread the clearing of the table, for at any moment the waiter will return with the dessert menu and put your nice evening to the test.” It’s unusual to read a writer writing about a food he can’t stomach (especially one I so thoroughly enjoy). Whitehead makes me laugh and makes me want to read more.
Just as Whitehead brought me back to Brigham’s and that slightly acrid aftertaste of constantly cooking hot fudge, Eat, Memory floods us with triggers of place and taste. Editor Amanda Hesser, long-time New York Times food writer and author of The Cook and the Gardener and Cooking for Mr. Latte (as well as co-creator of the acclaimed blog food52), culls an eclectic collection of place-steeped and tasteful essays written by novelists, journalists, playwrights, poets, chefs, restaurateurs and teachers—eaters all. Some essays are quick blips in restaurants, as in poet Billy Collins’ verse consideration of the fish he consumes. Some linger longer and cross continents, as in R.W. Apple Jr.’s accounts of meals taken as a journalist covering conflict in Lagos, Moscow and Saigon. In many essays, the food—ice cream or garlic, Tang or B&M Baked Beans—is the star; in others, it plays scenery.
Paris performs as spectacular scenery. Ann Patchett writes of a relationship that almost didn’t survive the damask draperies of the famous Taillevant. When the bill for $350 arrives, the argument, not the exquisite French food, is best remembered. Julia Child recalls her failed exam at le Cordon Bleu, while John Burnham Schwartz details the Sunday dinners hosted by a friend who couldn’t handle the drudgery of restaurant cooking, yet concocted masterpieces in his tiny, two-burner rue du Temple kitchen.
Taste, texture, and questions of consistency feature prominently in the essays. For Yiyun Lee, Tang becomes the symbol of status and courtship in Beijing, only to be relegated to a humble astronaut-approved, orange-flavored convenience food in the U.S. Tom Perrotta must reconcile a squeamishness for eggs and espionage, and Allen Shawn recalls how small variations to the repetitive birthday menu for his mentally retarded sister alter and enrich his family. All of these writers demonstrate agility with text that, in other hands, might be overly, achingly sweet.
“Nothing sentimental,” instructed Hesser as she invited writers to contribute to her column. As a rule, the authors comply. Food as fact helps to assuage sentiment, as Bordeaux helps to cut the fat in Brie. The sentimental caveats in Eat, Memory are, curiously, the section titles: “Illusions,” “Discoveries,” “Struggles,” “Loss.” The essays gain no more from being so clustered. And save for a few cleverly penned inclusions (Patricia’s Marx’s obsessive-compulsive Caramelized Bacon, and George Saunders Light-as-Air Brunch), recipes tacked on as endnotes to many essays add little to them. But if anyone wants to tackle the twelve-hour Boston Baked Beans in order to replace the molasses-thick taste of the industrial version in Tucker Carlson’s essay, be my guest.
Me, I’ll be choosing between flavors at a little place called Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream: Nietzsche's Chocolate Ascension or Sex on the Beach sorbet (no jimmies, thanks), and checking out Colson Whitehead’s blog to see where he’s not eating ice cream these days.