A good recipe most often comes with a back story, and in one new cookbook the storytelling is so essential to the cookery that the title would be equally at home displayed on a kitchen counter or atop a stack of novels on a nightstand. With “The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories With Recipes,” editor Natalie Eve Garrett has compiled a collection of cross-genre literary recipes from more than 70 of today’s most celebrated writers and artists, including Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Marina Abramović and L.A.’s own Ed Ruscha.
Garrett, who is an artist and writer herself, was moved to create the book after encountering an obscure 1961 cookbook of the same title, which featured contributions from artists and writers such as Marcel Duchamp and Harper Lee. In Garrett’s contemporary iteration, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr shares an evocative guide to huckleberry hunting that leads to a recipe for his quintessential summer muffin. Cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider carefully describes the steps for baking a foolproof pie crust, interspersed within the chronological account of a tortuous love affair, in his “Recipe for Heartbreak.” The street artist known as Swoon recounts the recipe for a ratatouille that she once found solace in after surviving a fierce storm during a Mississippi River crossing.
Among the handful of arguably fictional recipes, Los Angeles writers prove particularly inventive. Aimee Bender’s bleak recipe for stone soup is presented by way of a short story wherein a mother teaches her famished children to cook imaginatively. And if you’ve ever cringed at the mention of turducken — Thanksgiving’s trendy bird-within-a-bird dish — T.C. Boyle’s take on the historically eyebrow-raising “Baked Camel (Stuffed)” is likely to provoke a full gasp.
Although the book contains a number of standout recipes, to say nothing of the old standbys (James Franco’s contribution is a homage to the all-American PB&J), when presented on culinary merits alone the recipe index doesn’t really tell a cohesive story. Despite tidy categorization into six meal genres — breakfast, soups and salads, sandwiches and pizza, main dishes, snacks, sweets — the recipes vary wildly in levels of difficulty, culinary creativity and even whimsy.
But what makes this book unique is also what makes it a success. The recipes are intimately connected to each artist’s or writer’s short story, poem or essay, and as a result the book tells a collective story about more than just how to prepare food. It tells the story of what it sometimes means to be human: hungry, heartbroken and hopeful. Love can feel as bright as a yellow egg yolk or as fragile and empty as a discarded shell. Fear can sound like bacon sizzling on a hot grill. Memory often feels ethereal, like steam rising from a bowl of pho.
In its own way, an evocative story has as much ability to nourish us as does a hearty meal; with “The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook” we’re given the opportunity to be fed in both ways.
Cookbook of the Week: “The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories With Recipes,” edited by Natalie Eve Garrett (PowerHouse books, $30)