BookloverCook Reviews: Slices of Life by Leah Eskin

One of my favorite kinds of books, there have been so many of them over recent years that they might constitute a genre by now, is the food memoir. A book that explores, pokes, prods, and marinates in the connection between food and our internal lives. Because sure, food nourishes our physical bodies, but it also nourishes our souls – or at least it should – and thus the experience of it can be emotional, memorable, important.

Slices of Life by Leah Eskin, published in early April, has this connection at its heart. A compilation of her Chicago Tribune column, “Home on the Range,” this book packs a decade of such exploration into a single volume that can be enjoyed in quick bites or as long, leisurely meals. And speaking of meals, each column includes a recipe – 200 overall. These recipes are, for the most part, very accessible to the home cook. They aren’t fancy or complicated; they are the dependable, comforting fare that you cook for your family, which is, of course, what Eskin was doing during the years she was also writing the column.

Slices of Life

I have to admit that upon first receiving the advance copy of this book to review, I thought I wasn’t going to like it. The idea of a whole book of newspaper columns just didn’t sound like it would be up my alley. As much as I like to read about food, I need a story. Fortunately, Eskin is much more adept with her form than I gave her credit for and this book has a definite story – one that is funny, relatable, and touching.

In a creative and masterful way, Eskin arranges her columns – supplemented here and there by sections of new writing to provide necessary linkages – in a way that I like to think of as a mosaic. Through each essay you get a close-up, intimate view of individual moments and events in her life both big and small: a summer beach trip with her family, the death of her grandmother, a bad haircut, a move across the country, a storm that knocks the power out. And then through reading them all you can pull back and see the big picture of her life with all her identities: as a mother, wife, daughter, friend, pet owner, professional writer, and more. I loved reading one at a time when I could, finding pockets of reading time here and there to read one or two, but I also spent a few multi-hour sessions devouring scores of them.

Another aspect of this book that I admire, as a person who writes and adapts recipes, is Eskin’s recipe writing style. The only thing that can make a recipe “yours” (both figuratively and legally) is unique writing, especially in the method/instructions section. Eskin has this type of unique recipe writing down to a science. Take this recipe for Sparkling Salad, a celebratory dish Eskin includes after a poignant column about a breast cancer scare:

Serves any number (count about two pieces of fruit per person). Scrutinize the fruit drawer; gather all your citrus options. Lots of oranges, plenty of tangerines, some clementines, a grapefruit, a lemon, a lime. Relying on your sharpest knife, cut away the peel and pith of each. Slice into translucently thin rounds. Arrange the circles in a shallow bowl (glass would be traditional). Scatter with a handful of pomegranate seeds, if the arrangement is lacking color. Douse with Champagne. Chill until stunningly cold (if your fridge isn’t up to the task, consider a few minutes in the freezer). This recipe is a descendant of that culinary classic, Orange Ambrosia, also called, endearingly, Bride’s Dessert. In other words, exquisitely simple. Also bracingly delicious. And full of early-morning optimism.

Slices of Life speaks to precisely what I love about food writing and what makes food so important in all our lives. “I write about food,” she says in the Introduction, “so I write about home, about family, and about love. It’s not always Strife or Injustice; it’s rarely Paris. But it is, I’d say, Important.”

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