Arts & Culture

Cooking Up a Memoir

Would you like a croissant? I seem to have 26 lying about in assorted sizes and stages of staleness. I also have tomatoes. Lots of them. You’d think I grew them, actually. You’d be wrong, for the last thing you … Read More

By / December 3, 2008

Would you like a croissant? I seem to have 26 lying about in assorted sizes and stages of staleness. I also have tomatoes. Lots of them. You’d think I grew them, actually. You’d be wrong, for the last thing you should expect from me is horticulture, but it’s nice of you to give me the benefit of the doubt. The only other logical conclusion one could draw is that my kitchen has turned into a living diorama devoted to the food life cycle. All that’s missing is someone to consume it. That’s why you should come to dinner! Yes! Have some of my just-ripened tomatoes and my freshest croissants. Perhaps I can also braise some chicken and sauté some string beans? Don’t worry; it’s all organic and free range. My tomatoes spend every day going exactly where they’d like, and my croissants willingly jumped into the container. I’m sure I can find a recipe you’d like. After all I do have, conservatively, 50 different cookbooks. You can hardly see my fancy new knives and skillets for the cookbook mountain.

I started cooking – I mean actual cooking, not just making cereal – earlier this year when I adopted my dog, Baron. I used to write exclusively at Starbucks, but I always had this fantasy of working at home with a loving dog, a clean study to work in, and a home that perpetually smelled like roasted chicken or chocolate chip cookies. Well, now I’ve got the dog, the study is still a work in progress, and on most days my house does, indeed, smell like heaven.

But cooking is more than just a manifestation of my idealized self. I never thought about it until recently, but I cook my way through writing complications. Given the kind of work that I do, you wouldn’t think that I’d have writing complications. What’s so complicated about repeating your own life experiences? That’s like asking what’s so complicated about running. All you do is put one foot in front of the other and move, yet somehow most of us find ways to talk ourselves out of it. The same can often be said for me and writing.

In order to make a memoir interesting, a writer has to re-experience all of the events he or she writes about. That’s the only way it works, otherwise the bones of the story are there but it’s missing flesh and blood. While writing Dumbfounded, I tried to pretend my childhood happened to someone else, but I couldn’t get inside that guy’s head. Finally I told myself, "Look, if this is going to work you have to back in time and be that seven or ten year old you."

That was far easier said than done, and often cooking became a refuge when things got too heavy. I peeled apples for the crock pot apple cobbler through re-experiencing my mother saying she never meant to have me, sautéed onions and garlic for a casserole through humiliating myself in front of my entire fifth grade class with my a capella rendition of a Judy Garland ballad, and beat chicken cutlets flat for schnitzel through losing my grandparents. Eventually, when the food was ready, and I calmed down, I would go back to that messy study and channel the little boy with the big hair. Sometimes I’d bring ten year old me a plate of food, that always made him feel better.

Needless to say, the more I write the more I need to cook, and now look where it’s gotten me. I’ve got 26 croissants to make chocolate croissant pudding, and tomatoes to make-what the hell am I supposed to be doing with these tomatoes again? And let me tell you what else! I have been making these large, elaborate dinners-for me and Baron! Roasted chicken (remind me to tell you how I figured out what a "giblet" was), rack of lamb, beef rib roast,and that’s just in the oven. I can make the slow cooker sing out in joy from cobblers, stews, and Korean barbeque dishes. I’m like the closet gourmet. I have a very large table and everything just waiting. Do you need to bring anything? No, I’ve got it under control, but if you’d like to bring your newly purchased copy of Dumbfounded, I’ll sign it for you after dinner.

Matt Rothschild, author of Dumbfounded, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.