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Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother's Kitchenby Matt McAllester
Synopses & Reviews
My mother sat in her armchair by the window and asked me if I thought I was a good cook.
"Yeah," I said. "Not bad."
"Do you always leave the book open?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then you can't cook." She laughed, but she wasn't joking. "If you need to keep the book open, you're not really cooking."
We had had this conversation before. It had a companion piece that went like this:
"Have you read Elizabeth David yet?"
"If you want to know how to cook, read Elizabeth David. She'll tell you everything. Read French Provincial Cooking. They're marvelous books. We all learned to cook from Elizabeth David."
This conversation I had with my mother was our shared doorway into talking about food. There was so little we could share, so few topics I could introduce without risking her anger and delusions-my father, certain former friends, certain relatives, places we had lived, most of the past, politics, foreign affairs-or without wading into the oceans of forgetfulness and obliviousness that had built up around things she once cared about and I still did—books, movies, the news. But if I told her what I was cooking for friends over the weekend, we would fall into a safe place together, one where past, present, and future were full of afternoons in the kitchen with the radio on and with chocolate smeared mixing bowls in the sink, desserts cooling in the refrigerator, sauces simmering on the stove, a slowly crisping, caramelizing roast in the oven, and the house full of mingling, delicious smells.
It was the lovely afternoon of May 4, 2005. The pink bunched flowers of the horse chestnut tree outside her window in Swiss Cottage swayed gently in a spring breeze. She had not cooked for a long time, having moved from a studio apartment where she would at best fry some bacon, to a locked mental ward in an industrial corner of Northwest London, and then to this charming, sunlit room on the top floor of an old folks' home (called Rathmore House), where she was a teenager compared to the dying bodies who sat immobile in the hallway. She was closer in age to some of the staff than to the other residents, and she didn't socialize with the bent over old ladies who stared into their ever dimming memories. Unlike them, she would walk along the street to the local stores and cafes, sitting with a cup of coffee and making friends with the local misfits who also spent their days over coffee. She kept to her room when in the home. She read the occasional novel, watched television, and waited for phone calls and visits from my sister and me.
She hated the food there, that was the only thing, and loved to be taken out. A few days earlier, on a walk to the shops of nearby Primrose Hill with my sister, she had bought me a present. It was a zester, and she handed it to me now without wrapping paper or reason. She knew I would like it. I had another zester already, but immediately I liked this one more. It had a solid ball of steel for a handle. She had bought an identical one for my sister.
She stood up from her armchair and we kissed and I hugged her, smiling. It was an unplanned visit, an hour snatched because I happened to be at home in London rather than in a war zone and I was passing by. It had been an hour
The author cooks his mother's favorite recipes as he tries to remember what she was like before she became mentally ill and to come to terms with her death.
Matt McAllester lost his mother, Ann, long before she died, as mental illness snatched the once-elegant woman away and destroyed his childhood. In this beautifully written memoir, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist chronicles the journey he took to forgiveness, which brought him straight to the place that evoked his happiest memories of his mother: the kitchen. Recounting the pleasures of his early days, culinary and otherwise, McAllester weaves an unforgettable tale of family, food, and love.
BITTERSWEET: LESSONS FROM MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN
At first, Matt McAllester’s childhood was idyllic, a time when his mother placed heavenly, delicious food at the center of a family life brimming with fun and laughter. Then came the terrible years, years when he had to watch helplessly as his warm, quick-witted mother succumbed to an illness that was never properly diagnosed or understood. Desperate to escape, he eventually found work as a foreign correspondent, hiding in the terrors and tragedies of other people as he traveled to the most dangerous places in the world, from Beirut to Baghdad. But nothing he saw on the battlefield prepared him for his mother’s death—and his own overwhelming grief.
In the weeks and months that followed, Matt found himself poring over old family photos and letters, trying to reach out for the beautiful, caring woman who had now vanished for the second time. But as he looked anew at her long-cherished collection of cookbooks, it occurred to him that the best way to find her was through something they both loved: the food she had once lovingly prepared for him, food that introduced him to a thousand sources of joy—from spare ribs to the homemade strawberry ice cream that seemed in memory the very essence of happy times.
With a reporter’s precision and a storyteller’s grace, McAllester guides us through a long season of grief—cooking, eating, and remembering—at the same time describing his and his wife’s efforts to conceive and nourish a child of their own.
Complete with recipes to delight body and soul, Bittersweet is a memoir of extraordinary power, at once a moving tribute to his mother and a dazzling feast for the senses.
About the Author
Matt McAllester is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for Newsday before returning to London, where he now lives with his wife, Pernilla. Winner of a number of other awards, including the Osborn Elliott Award for Excellence for his coverage of Nepal in 2006 and several overseas Press Club citations for his international reporting, he is currently a contributing editor at Details.
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