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Lost & Found: Michelle Wildgen

Today’s Lost & Found takes on two essentials of Thanksgiving revelry: food and argument over it.  Here is Michelle Wildgen on Lillian Hellman and Peter Feibleman’s lovingly combative cookbook, Eating Together: Recollections & Recipes.

All cookbooks should include Lillian Hellman.  Her more pugnacious culinary declarations would make nice chapter titles for someone with the guts to use them, but I would settle for a miniature photo of her here and there in some Betty Crocker cookbook, smoking a cigarette near the mayonnaise or hacking up a turtle.  It would spark a useful fire in the tentative cook to keep in mind Hellman’s image as she appears on her own cookbook: eyes disappearing into a feral grin, great-nosed, sun-hatted, skinny but unbelievably tough, like a jerkied Diana Vreeland.  The title is cozy, but the photo gives you the feeling that you and she could have had a satisfying brawl over where to buy the bluefish.

Eating Together, which Hellman co-authored with fellow writer Peter Feibleman, proves that a good argument is central to Hellman’s way of cooking.  The two sections, “Her Way” and “His Way,” detail a vast range of recipes.  It is frequently summery, beach-house food, appropriate to Hellman’s home on Martha’s Vineyard, but there’s also a heavy emphasis on food from Spain, where Feibleman lived for a time, and from New Orleans, the birthplace of both writers.  (Gumbo is a fighting word.)  Calves’ liver, tartar steak, and braised quail on toast were already unfashionable in 1984, when the book was written, but they are included without apology and I just might down a martini and give them a shot.  Nevertheless, Eating Together is not a retro item—it also offers salt cod and fava bean tapas, biryani, oyster pie, hamantaschen, roast capon with new potatoes, and chocolate pecan pie.  Feibleman and Hellman give me food I would never have thought to make, food I already know how to make a different way, food I have always meant to try—and, put together, these recipes suddenly seem both new and familiar, previously out of my realm but appetizing now.  It is food not just from a life, but from the life of someone very specific, who likes oysters but detests turkey, who prefers gumbo thickened with okra rather than filé.  To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor’s neighbor, this is just how some people would cook.

If I call it “personal,” and I can see I am about to, I do not mean it in the sense of the celebrity cookbook in which the author’s personal touch consists of a few wan headnotes. Hellman and Feibleman do not fall into the trap of promising more than even a delicious dish can give (at one point Hellman grudgingly suggests “Decent Scrambled Eggs”).  Nor, as so many bland celebrity cookbooks tend to do, do they trumpet their deep connection to dishes that have no context: These two know that mesclun has no story.  There is no longer anything personal about a goat cheese salad.

Recipes are grouped in idiosyncratically titled clusters.  “Food to Fight Over” turns out to be vegetable soup, “Food to Make Up a Fight,” sorrel soup.  “Food For Snobbish Foreigners” is turtle soup and various oyster preparations, and frog’s legs are “Food for the Self-Involved.”  Feibleman also gives us shrimp and lobster salad as “Food to Leave Outside a Door” for the working writer, though he implies that stopping for lunch is pure foolishness.  (It is instructive to see where one’s taste lands in these categories: it turns out that I am self-involved and possibly a snobbish foreigner as well.  I would stop for lunch midsentence—midword—if only someone would leave shrimp and lobster salad outside my door.)

I have a long list of recipes I’d like to try, but in the end what I really love is the text.  I learned a bit from Hellman including the proper way to open a baked potato (basically: wrap your hand in a towel and bash it good), but her recollections of playing mentor to Feibleman are the best parts of her section.  Feibleman’s half is much funnier.  After all, he gets to describe Lillian Hellman.  She was no one to argue with, Feibleman says he thought when he met her, but we know that she is really the very best kind of person to argue with, and he is a good straight man.

Obsessively planning a dinner party for Mike Nichols, Hellman informs Feibleman:

“We can’t have mussels and spaghetti with basil.  That’s two first courses.”

“So have the mussels,” I said.

“Don’t answer before you think,” Lillian said.  “If we have mussels, what am I going to do about all the basil in the garden?—what about that?”

I swallowed another half cup of coffee and said she could have them both if she put them together.

“You see?” Lilly said, brightening, “if you’d just try thinking once in a while your whole life would be different.”

[…] When Saturday came she sat down in the same chair at five o’clock, dressed for the party, and said: “I don’t see why all those people are coming to my house expecting me to feed them.  It’s your fault,” she said to Mike, who was coming downstairs with Annabel.  “I’m only doing this for you.”

“I didn’t want a party,” Mike said gently; “I came to rest.”

“That’s no excuse and you know it,” Lillian said […]

“They should all be honored you invited them,” Annabel said loyally.

“Fuck all of them,” Lillian said, “except the Herseys.  Let’s have a drink.”

And the whole book is a bit like that: an extended, affectionate culinary argument. We have food to thank for innumerable moments of community, and that’s all very nice, but it’s also worth a good skirmish.

Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House and the author of the novels You’re Not You and But Not For Long.

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Comments: 6

(6) Comments

  1. John says:

    Eating together is a great book!

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