The Austin Chronicle

A Knead To Read

Sit down with a book when it's too hot to cook

Reviewed by Rachel Feit, May 27, 2011, Food

Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We've Been

edited by Linda Murray Berzok
Praeger, 176 pp., $34.95

Every family recipe has a story. Here, food historian Linda Murray Berzok has collected dozens of recipes, along with the stories that make them meaningful. The recipes and their stories come from many parts of the globe, from women young and old, and they collectively demonstrate how much we rely on foodways and food memories to tie past to present, connect to distant places, and bind families together.

Berzok has taken family recipe tales and organized them around major themes. Nostalgic tales about mothers and grandmothers long gone, and also about loss and hardship, are predictably represented. But so too are stories about friendship and bonding, restoring emotional balance, learning life lessons, and coming into one's own as a cook and a keeper of family traditions. The recipes at the end of each narrative are raw and unmediated (some could use further editing), allowing the reader to appreciate the diversity of culinary backgrounds represented in the book.

Not surprisingly, all of these recipe stories are written by women about other women. For that reason, Storied Dishes is more than just a recipe book with engaging narratives; it is also a glimpse into the chronically underreported world of women and their roles in shaping domestic spaces and everyday life. There is the story of Bitsy, a free-thinking woman who, after rejecting scores of suitors in Jackson, Miss., ran off to Nicaragua with a Australian mine engineer in 1916, where she learned to bake the memorable family bread recipe that her granddaughter now treasures. Or the story of a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina whose recipes were lost in the 2005 flood. Each year since, they have desperately tried to recreate their favorite Doberge cake, but somehow it never tastes the same. In a story called "Our Lady, Queen of Pierogi," we read about a gay woman who comes out and bonds with her Polish grandmother over a batch of potato dumplings.

This is a volume that can be picked up and consumed in small bites. Skipping and skimming is just as satisfying as reading from beginning to end, making this an engaging book to turn to on a lazy afternoon or just for inspiration.

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