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A Cookbook Refracted Through a Memoir
Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table, by Jenny Rosenstrach ’93 (Ecco)
Reviewed by Catherine Newman ’90
[Nonfiction] Full disclosure: Jenny Rosenstrach and I are the same person! We’re both raising a pair of school-aged kids; we both blog, cook and blog about cooking; we both love nothing more than sitting down to dinner at the end of the day; and at Amherst we both majored in English, were advised by Judith Frank, dated our future husbands and ate mostly in West. It’s true that Rosenstrach loved the scrambled eggs in Valentine (“They put parmesan and chives in them! They were so good.”) and I went to breakfast about as often as I went to TAP (i.e., never). It’s also true that Rosenstrach just published this delightfully warm and wonderful book that I totally wish I’d written myself and I, uh, didn’t. But then, the book’s so great and she’s so nice that, annoyingly, I couldn’t even stay mad.
Dinner: A Love Story is kind of a cookbook refracted through kind of a memoir, and it mixes personal stories with 120 drool-over recipes and inspiring strategies for everything from feeding picky kids (“How to Triumph Over a Tiny Table Terrorist”), to establishing existential priorities (e.g., try to eat dinner with your family every night), to keeping milk from curdling when you add it to a hot sauce (whisk the milk with a little flour first—who knew?). The book grew out of Rosenstrach’s insanely popular blog of the same name, where she began posting her family dinners and beautifully photographed recipes in 2009. Or maybe the book really started with her now-famous “Dinner Diary,” in which she has documented every dinner she’s cooked and eaten for the past 15 years. That’s more than 4,000 dinners—a pretty hefty archaeological record of an otherwise-fleeting thing—and there are pages from this artifact delightfully interspersed throughout the book.
Over the phone, Rosenstrach described Dinner as “a collection of my family dinners from the past 15 years—recipes that have survived every phase of my family’s life, from right after we got married, to the picky-toddlers phase, to now, with older kids, when it’s a little bit saner.” If you have little kids in the house, you’ll feel like the first part should be subtitled, “I Have an Hour to Stand Here and Stir Risotto and You Don’t, Ha Ha,” and you’ll consider skipping ahead to the second, in which she shares her brilliant, optimistic strategies for feeding the kind of people who crawl around under the table in weeping pursuit of Cheerios. Deconstruct is one great strategy, and not in the Derrida way, don’t worry: If you’re making her beautiful salmon salad, for example, you can toss the fish, veggies and dressing together for the “normal people”—after first separating out a few unfrightening components for scared children (and hey—at least we’re talking salmon separated from green beans, not mac separated from cheese).
The book is not called Dinner: A Battleground or Dinner: A Manifesto. It’s a romance about eating well and happily and teaching your kids to do the same. The idea is that, eventually, dinner with kids becomes a whole lot like dinner without kids, only with kids, if you see what I’m saying. “You will not hear me claim that family dinner is the magic bullet, the answer to your prayers, the only way to raise happy children,” Rosenstrach writes in the introduction. “But I will say that it has done more to foster togetherness and impart meaning and joy into my family life on a daily basis than just about anything else I can think of.”
Amen. She’s inspiring in every direction, and there are just so many things to love: the fact that she calls the divine-looking pork shoulder ragu “a dinner party in a pot”; the advice that “When I have no idea what I’m going to make for dinner, I start caramelizing an onion and then assume a meal will fall into place from there”; the suggestion that you picture your family’s dinner plates like a Venn diagram—as long as each person likes two out of three things on the plate, “that’s a solid dinner that does not need to be served with a side of peanut butter sandwich.” The photo of chicken cutlets topped with arugula and summer tomatoes filled me with longing, and her parenthetical note about frying them made me laugh out loud: “(I usually do two at a time, but I’ve been known to cram all of them in at once and then spend the entire meal wishing I had just sucked it up and waited the six extra minutes.)” In sum, the recipes are great (the “Thai-ish Salmon” is a new family favorite around here), and Rosenstrach is funny and fun, warm and real.
But there’s a deeper current in the book—a kind of philosophy about what makes a good life. “The thing is, Andy and I have always excelled at celebrating,” she writes in passing, and maybe it’s as simple as that: a celebratory approach to the everyday. Andy himself (that’s Andrew Ward ’94) recently wrote a funny guest post on the blog, warning that the book is “full of lies”: his wife secretly hates quinoa, even though it’s cheerfully included in the book, she doesn’t grill and her portion sizes run toward the Thumbelina. Whatever. And anyway, Ward can’t keep from gushing: “I’ve read this book about seventeen times and I love it, but I’m biased.”
Dinner notwithstanding, that’s a pretty sweet love story.
Newman wrote the memoir Waiting for Birdy. She blogs at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.