Thursday, May 14, 2009

Make Your Own Star and Cast It into the Sky

Molly Wizenberg makes everything look so easy. It’s difficult not to be jealous of her, between her superstar status among bloggers, her impossibly romantic story of finding love through food and words, and the debut of her very first book. I admit it: I am jealous! But I’m also deeply inspired because I think that her path is not so different from my own. She’s a trailblazer for many of us, leading the way toward a life of good eating and good loving, of working hard and playing hard. And she’s terribly generous, sharing so much of herself and her life with us. Most of us are perfect strangers, but Molly opens her heart to us every week. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read an Orangette post and felt like I could just burst at the seams with happiness.

I finished reading Molly’s first book, A Homemade Life, a while ago. Her memoir left me so filled up with emotions and thoughts that I just couldn’t write about it. I had to let everything marinate for a few weeks. In the meantime, I read it again, and again, and again. It was just so soothing, so lovely, so very happy and so very sad. It resonated powerfully with me and with the way I want to live my life. Unlike Molly, I did not grow up eating dinner with a happy family. We would gather together for holiday meals, but that was about it for eating together. My mother cooked dinner every night, but rarely did we all eat it together. In fact, when I was in high school, my parents taught night classes, so they weren’t even home for dinner. My younger siblings and I were on our own for dinner, which in some ways was nice—we ate a lot of pizza rolls!—but I’ve always loved the idea of eating with loved ones. It’s probably one of the reasons I love it when Matt and I are together: we cook, eat, and clean up together. When he’s around, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s simply part of our routine.

But cooking for one can be wonderful, too. I found it endearing that Molly has such fond memories of cooking for herself while living in Paris, and even to this day, her solo culinary rituals continue. Cooking for one is my default setting. I’m constantly perplexed by this idea that cooking for one is ridiculously indulgent or a waste of time. So taking care of myself is indulgent? Enjoying my own kitchen and my own company is a waste of time? I think these attitudes are weird. I have no plans to cease my fun, with or without a partner in crime.

As a graduate student, I’ve spent plenty of time wondering if the career path I’m following will lead to happiness and success for me. I’m also deeply in love with food and cooking, to the point where I devote large swaths of time to my belly. So I get it when Molly realizes that she no longer wants to earn a PhD in anthropology. No one understands the anguish of a graduate student like a graduate student. The hope that has kept me in graduate school is that eventually, I will have more autonomy in my career. As the daughter of teachers, I have always felt that learning is a gift and a good teacher is a treasure. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that I want to put my scientific training to work in the classroom.

I am happy that things have worked out so well for Molly after she stepped off the well-worn paths of academia. It’s easy to romanticize quitting graduate school; perhaps it’s just as easy to romanticize the choice to finish one’s degree. In the end, it’s a crap-shoot. For me, it was a war of attrition: if I just kept my nose to the grindstone long enough, eventually my efforts would pay off in the form of three little letters. But I don’t know: if I had gone to Paris to do research, I too may have found myself more interested in gastronomy than anthropology! Either way, the nice thing about cooking is that everyone has to eat, PhDs included.

One of the things I love most about Molly’s writing is that her words create a sense of place. There’s magic to be found in A Homemade Life, and she gives you everything you need to conjure up some magic of your own. Take, for example, a simple story of breakfast in New York with her then-new boyfriend, Brandon. Molly writes,

“In New York, we had no schedule. He only had classes two days a week, so we had plenty of time, albeit not much money. He lived on West 123rd Street, not far from the enormous Fairway Market, and sometimes we would wake up late and walk to get a jug of orange juice, a bunch of radishes, a baguette, and some butter. Back at home, we ate lazily at the wobbly table with the window open, the box fan blowing, and my bare feet on his lap.”

That’s one of my very favorite passages from the book. I was so inspired by it, in fact, that I had to treat myself to a baguette, some butter, and a bunch of radishes. I can tell you now that the combination is superb—much better, even, than the sum of its parts.

I’ve had enough time now to try a handful of recipes from A Homemade Life, and with one, maybe two, exceptions, everything I’ve cooked has been marvelous. I’m particularly smitten with the Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger and the Slow-Roasted Tomatoes with Coriander. The latter makes the best grilled-cheese sandwich addition, and if you’ve been following along, you know that I take my grilled cheese seriously. I did try Molly’s Tomato Soup with Two Fennels. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I also tried the Butternut Soup with Pear, Cider, and Vanilla Bean, and I think something went wrong when I made it. It was okay, but mine seemed a bit too sweet, cloying even. So if you make that soup, make sure that your cider isn’t too sweet. I used apple juice because it’s all I could find, and that was definitely too sweet. I also added too much of it, so there you go. I could even go so far as to suggest that you just use water in place of the cider—I might do that next time because I think this soup has real potential. Then there are all the recipes from Orangette that Molly included in the book—the Bouchons au Thon and the Chana Masala are particularly tempting. I love my Bouchon-inspired Egg and Cheese Muffins. I made the Chana Masala so many times that I wore the recipe out. I plan to cook from A Homemade Life for a long, long time.

Because cooking is what I do. At the end of the day, it all comes back to food: food in my hands, food in my head. I think Molly said it best when she wrote,

“That’s why this book is called A Homemade Life. Because, in a sense, that’s what we’re building—you, me, all of us who like to stir and whisk—in the kitchen and at the table. In the simple acts of cooking and eating, we are creating and continuing the stories that are our lives.”

I could waste more time being jealous of Molly. We could all wish for ourselves the kind of success she’s experienced since she starting writing Orangette. Or we could take a step back and appreciate what she’s done. Molly isn’t just following her own star. She has made her own star and cast it into the sky. And when she follows it, she blazes a trail lined with radishes and tomatoes and cakes, all of which she invites us to eat. So no, I don’t want to spend any more time being jealous of her. I’m going to make my own star, and I invite you to do the same. I think Molly would approve.

* * *

Speaking of stars, I’m taking a vacation next week! Matt and I are meeting in California for some good eating and drinking in wine country, so you won’t hear from me on our regularly scheduled day. I am thrilled to pieces about this trip and about seeing Matt, so you can be sure that I’ll have lots to tell you when I return. As an extra treat when I return, Molly Wizenberg was gracious enough to do an interview with me. It was a lot of fun, and I even learned something new about cooking. So I invite you to join us next week for more discussion about A Homemade Life and the woman who wrote it. Until then, happy cooking and happy eating!


Delightfully Healthy said...

Thanks for the wonderful tip - I've just been enjoying her blog. Have a marvelous vacation!

Rosiecat said...

Delightfully Healthy, Molly's blog is wonderful! I enjoy it a lot, too. Thanks for the well wishes--that's kind of you!

Happy reading!

Laurie said...

Have a yummy-scrummy, well-deserved holiday.

ttfn300 said...

her book has been on my to-read list!! the way you write about molly is the way I feel every time i come to your kitchen :)

i've got an email of THANKS coming your way! have a fabulous vacation!!!

Rosiecat said...

Hello, all! I have returned from the West Coast. Fortunately, it feels rather California-like in Chicago today.

Thank you, Laurie! Yummy-scrummy indeed ;-)

ttfn, I think you'll really enjoy Molly's book. It was so easy to sink into her prose and start bookmarking recipes to make. The food is mostly indulgent, celebratory food (lots of cakes and pies), but there are also some real workhorse gems, like the Chana Masala. But more than anything, I think Molly's story really inspires me to just sink my teeth into life, to savor every last bite and slurp. I never get tired of that kind of inspiration.