I don't read many books in the strict "food writing" category these days. It wasn't always like this. In my "formative" years, I went through a faze where I consumed every Laurie Colwin book, breathlessly waxed on about MFK Fisher and combed through the writings of James Beard. But now that I write about food myself all day, it's had the effect of making me want to read anything but when I'm off duty. I'm like my friend the jazz musician who never listens to anything but talk radio when he's not working.
So, when Deborah Madison's latest book—What We Eat When We Eat Alone (Gibbs Smith), written in collaboration with her husband, artist Patrict McFarlin—landed on my desk, I put it aside. Until the other night when, looking for something to read in the bath, I picked it back up. And now I can't put it down. Madison's breezy writing has sent me back to my Laurie Colwin days. I think I want to be a food writer when I grow up.
The premise is basic: Madison and her husband spent years asking people about what they eat when they're flying solo. As Madison discovers, people eat all sorts of quirky things: leftover spaghetti sandwiches, frozen pound cake shaved into thin slices, saltines in milk. They eat on the couch, in bed, over the sink, with their cat. They trend towards canned sardines and tuna, cottage cheese, food laden with a number of chilies that only they can stand, extra cheese, only cheese. Some spend hours cooking elaborate feasts, some make the most of a toaster. Madison talks about men's propensity for huge, greasy slabs of meat that their wives have banned and women that sit down to a dinner of ice cream and nothing else. It's a book that makes you want to call Madison and confess the time you ate tuna pasta … in the bathtub … at midnight.
I think I love this book right now in particular. It speaks to the opposite of what America's food renaissance has evolved into, thanks to the media: Food today is about celebrity chefs, Iron Chefs, over-sexed and snarky judges; perfect dinner parties constructed by glossy food magazines (Gourmet's anonymous, beautiful poeple (i.e. hired talent) toasting over their perfect farm picnics is one of my current rants), guilt-ridden tomes on sustainability that make dinner a fretful event. It's anything but quiet and personal. (And of course, as a magazine writer, I often play right into it.)
But the act of eating alone is about just the opposite. No one can see what you're doing, where you're eating or what you're eating it with. Tom Colicchio isn't there and thank god, neither is Padma in a low-cut referee outfit. Madison's book offers such a wonderful glimpse into these private moments. It brings the pleasure of food back down to earth and into focus.
Madison will be here in June promoting the book. I recommend stopping by. Here's the schedule.
June 3 – Borders #57 in San Francisco 7:30 p.m.
June 4 – The Gardener, Ferry Building Marketplace, 4 to 6 p.m.
June 5 – Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley, 7:30 p.m.
June 6 – West Coast Live, 9:30 to noon, location TBD
June 6 – Omnivore Books, 3 p.m.
June 6 – Pt. Reyes Bookstore, 7 p.m.
June 7 – Pt. Reyes event in Bolinas, Day long