When it comes to the food memoir genre, Ruth Reichl leads the pack as one of the best authors, my book club recently concluded.
We all agreed the former New York Times restaurant critic’s 1998 book, “Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table,” remains a favorite read. A club member still makes Reichl’s “show-off salad” recipe (it’s her version of Caesar salad) that’s included among the pages.
The food memoir field now sometimes feels too crowded. And some of us had grown weary of the genre by the time Reichl penned her third memoir “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.”
But a good writer can breathe life into a tired subject. The food writer A.J. Liebling once said, “The primary requisite for writing about food is a good appetite.”
And Emily Nunn has that, and more.
In her new book, “The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart” (Atria Books, 2017), Nunn writes about a long quest to heal herself with favorite foods after the suicide of her brother, a failed romance and a stint in the Betty Ford Center for alcohol addiction.
The former New Yorker editor – she started the magazine’s “Tables for Two” column – and Chicago Tribune food writer travels back to her Southern roots, staying with friends and family along the way, to help find hope for her future. She revisits dishes and foods from her past.
Her journey, especially when trying to mend fraying family relationships with her sister and her father, is at turns heartbreakingly sad as well as heartwarmingly endearing. But Nunn also knows a good recipe and dish when she sees and tastes one. The book has more than 50 recipes.
I’ve been a longtime Facebook “friend” of Nunn, and well remember her wonderful writing from the Chicago Tribune. But it’s been some of her recipes, sometimes featured on the Food52 website and her old blog, that first began earning my affection.
One of my favorite recipes, featured in the book, is a lovely dessert known as Aunt Mariah’s Lemon Sponge Cups. Nunn goes through the recipe boxes of her Aunt Mariah who still lives in her old hometown of Galax, Virginia, and sifts through the index cards in the wooden boxes.
She writes, “It was like going on an archaeological dig, back into a past where my mother still spoke to everyone in the family and all of her Galax friends she’d parted ways with, and even gave them recipes, had parties with them and held luncheons. When women still had to write everything down and they saw one another in person –just dropped by. They needed lots of recipes for the kind of food you served at garden club meetings.”
Aunt Mariah’s Lemon Sponge Cups are humble, yet delicious, and easy to make. They come out of the oven with puffy-brown tops and a bottom layer of lemon custard. “The very thing after a lunch of chicken salad (served in a tomato) and sweet iced tea with mint,” Nunn writes.
My book club buddy Dawn said she recently made Nunn’s Spicy Beans with Coconut Milk – it’s a dish, adapted from “Southern Living,” that the author shares with her cousin – and it earned rave reviews from her family. Dawn’s husband claimed it was the best dish she’s ever made. It’s now in the dinner rotation.
Nunn says it’s a zesty dish using canned foods, “the kind of things you might overlook in your cupboard when you think you have absolutely nothing left to cook, nothing left to give to people you love, nothing left for yourself. It’s is absolutely delicious.”
Who could ask for anything more?
Contact Patricia Talorico at (302) 324-2861 or email@example.com and on Twitter @pattytalorico
Aunt Mariah’s Lemon Sponge Cups
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 lemon, zested and juiced
3 large eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, cream the butter. Add the sugar, flour, salt, lemon zest, and juice. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks; stir in the milk. Slowly add egg mixture to the butter mixture. Beat the egg whites until stiff; gently fold into the mixture. Pour into 4 to 6 ramekins or individual souffle dishes (depending on size; Nunn uses four 12-ounce dishes) and place in a pan of hot water. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. You will have a layer of lemon custard, with a gorgeous, lightly browned sponge on top. Let cool a bit. Turn out and serve with whipped cream, or serve still in the dish. You can also bake this in one large souffle dish; you’ll know it’s done when the puffed dome is browned and firm. Garnish, if you want, with a thin slice of lemon. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Spicy Beans with Coconut Milk
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (the kind in a can is more potent than jarred)
2 (15-ounce) cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoe, preferably San Marzano, with their juice, crushed with your hands over the pan
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk (you can juse light, but it’s better with the real thing)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Zest and juice of 1 large lime
4 cups hot cooked basmati or long grain rice
4 scallions, chopped (optional)
A handful chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
Saute the onion in a Dutch oven with the oil over medium-high heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic; saute for 1 minute. Add the curry paste, saute for 1 minute. Stir in the beans, tomatoes, coconut milk, salt, and maple syrup. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the lime zest and juice. Served over rice and sprinkle with toppings, if using. Makes 4 servings.