Saturday, March 24, 2012

Food Memories by Lesa Holstine

Lesa Holstine blogs at Lesa's Book Critiques, where she reviews a little of everything, emphasizing mysteries. She's a library manager who was awarded the Arizona Library Association's 2011 Outstanding Library Service Award.

Food Memories

Lesa Holstine

As I write this, I'm about to start a memoir by Donia Bijan called Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen. And, I'm starting to see a pattern here. On my blog, Lesa's Book Critiques, I say I specialize in mysteries. However, in the last year alone, I've reviewed three "novels with food," as author Brian O'Reilly calls them, three food memoirs, and eight mysteries involving food. I've hosted quarterly brown bag luncheons in which I talk about books and the attendees bring their lunch. We do monthly brown bag luncheons and an annual potluck for the library staff, in which we bring our lunches and talk about books. Next week, I'm hosting a tea for Jacqueline Winspear to celebrate the release of her new book, Elegy for Eddie. And, I'm even attending a release party for Kevin Hearne's new book, Tricked, at an Irish pub where dinner will be served. Atticus, the Iron Druid, hangs out at a pub called Rula Bula in Tempe, Arizona. So, the release party for Tricked will be held at Rula Bula.

Do you find that food and books go hand-in-hand? I could say it's all about comfort food. But, I think it's not just comfort food. I think it's memory food. I think food brings back memories. And, sharing food, just like sharing good books, is a way of sharing memories. A couple of my favorite authors, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O'Neal, write magical realism novels that involve food. Their books, along with books I read in the last year, Angelina's Bachelors by Brian O'Reilly and The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry, involve loss and memory and food.

These books all evoke memories for me, even if I've never eaten the foods discussed in the stories. But, they take me home to my grandmother and my mother, to shared laughter with my sisters. Food, whether it's preparation or meals, gives us the opportunity to spend time with people we love. When I first went to my doctor after Jim died two years ago, I'd put on a few pounds. My doctor is younger than me, but very wise in some ways. He said he'd rather see that I had put on weight than lost it. He said people who lose weight after a death are often isolating themselves. Those who put on weight are spending time with people, eating with them, talking with them, moving on. (Maybe I've been spending TOO much time with people.)

I could probably write my own story about food and family. In fact, I've shared family recipes on Janet Rudolph's Dying for Chocolate and Mystery Lover's Kitchen. I could tell you about my grandmother's simple sloppy joe recipe. There's a certain way to eat the gumdrop bars my mother sends me every Christmas. I close my eyes when I take the first bite, to savor the smell and taste. Those gumdrop bars are the smell of Christmas for me. There's the frozen lemon pudding that has induced family rivalry over the years. I'm the oldest of three, and my sisters used to complain my mother only made frozen lemon pudding when I came home from college. Now, at holiday time, my youngest sister will still tease, guess what we had for dessert, and you weren't here. When I went home this last Christmas, one sister brought wine and her husband's quiche at the start of the visit, and my youngest sister brought springerles to bake at the house, a recipe she learned from her mother-in-law. Food is so connected with memories in my family that we even have a recipe known only as Funeral Rice because someone brought it to the house after my grandfather died.


There's something magical about food books, something that makes me nostalgic for those foods and people I love. The book might be Barbara O'Neal's The Secret of Everything or Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells. I don't read these books just because the recipes are enticing and they make me drool. Food brings us together, gives us a chance to share. And, the books take me back to the people I love, memories and times I want to share.

So, do you want to share? What food takes you home? What book evokes memories for you?



Bobbi Mumm said...

Lesa, what a lovely post. Any book about bread baking brings me back to my childhood images of my Mom baking bread and buns. I can see her, with her short, strong arms kneading that yeasty smelling dough. Also, the mystery by Katherine Hall Page that takes place in Norway brings back memories of the Norwegian foods we ate (and still eat) at holiday meals.

Lesa said...

Isn't it wonderful, Bobbi, to be able to read books that evoke those memories for us? And, often, they really have no relation to our actual life, but there is something in those books involving food that touch our lives.

Janet Rudolph said...

What a lovely post.Yes, food takes us home. I love books with food, too. Joanne Harris' Chocolat and some other chocolate books, of course, but also the books that mention foods I've never heard of.. but now make. I love to read about food, I think, even more than make it!

caryn said...

Hi Lesa,
There are a couple of book series that I have continued to read more for the recipes in the stories than the actual mystery!Lefsa at Christmas "takes mehome" as does nessleroad pie and date pies (which are actually a cookie). And my mom made our bread-so anytime I smell bread baking or even that yeasty smell of dough rising I get the warm fuzzies.

Unknown said...

I love this post. What you say is so true. I often take hints and recipes from the mysteries I read. My most-used cooking tip came from one of Barbara D'Amato's Cat Marsala mysteries. It was just an off-hand tip from a character in the book, but it has saved many a scrambled egg in my kitchen.
We are a large family of foodies and bookworms. My recipes long occupied a green looseleaf binder known as the Green Book. The day came when I had to replace the binder, and only a black one was available. Doesn't matter. When one of my kids asks about a recipe, the question always goes "Is it in the Green Book?"

Lesa said...

Janet, I agree with you. I'd much rather read about food than actually make it! Why doesn't it surprise me that you mentioned chocolate? (smile)

Caryn, One of my favorite tips came from a mystery, but it wasn't really a cooking tip. Did you know club soda gets stains out of carpet? Works better for cat accidents than any cleaning supply I ever bought. Straight from a mystery.

Oh, Robin. That's a great memory your kids will always have. Years from now, they'll still refer to "The Green Book." I think that's a wonderful family memory.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Lesa, Hello and Welcome!!!!
and thank you for sharing your family with us. Your sisters both have the same wonderful smile you do.

You mentioned two of my very favorite authors - Barbara O'Neal and Sarah Addison Allen (why am I not surprised?!). While reading their stories I always feel a little magic spinning around me.

Lesa said...

Thank you for inviting me, Kaye! It doesn't surprise me at all that you and I appreciate the same authors, connected with magic and food, and just beauty in their books. We don't always read the same books, but we both appreciate the people who write with love and give us their souls. I'm thinking of Louise Penny. And, even her books have wonderful connections with food. Hugs, Kaye!

jenny milchman said...

HEIDI will always say toasted cheese to me, and FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS pointed out how precious a raisin can make a piece of bread. I would say food and books definitely go together, although lush descriptions don't tend to people the crime fiction I read.

Lesa said...


I love it that those childhood favorites bring back memories of food. I read a lot of food mysteries. Of course, Robert B. Parker's Spenser was always enjoying wonderful food. Then, there's Avery Aames, Jenn McKinlay, Cleo Coyle. I already mentioned Louise Penny's books set in Three Pines and the food at the bistro. I could go on and on.