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.
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.”