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The First Glimmer

Word of Gourmet folding is last week's news, I know, but I came home today from a reading in Chicago to find my new issue here and it just reminded me of the whole depressing thing. If S.I. Newhouse had asked me, I would have told him to lose Bon Appétit and keep GourmetIf S.I. Newhouse had asked me, I would have told him to lose Bon Appétit and keep Gourmet, but I must admit to a little nostalgia for Bon Appétit. One of the first times I became interested in cooking and food was thanks to an old pile of Bon Appétit issues at a friend's house. One of them contained a recipe for pasta with shitakes, saffron, butter, scallion, and crab. It sounds very '80s now, but then again it was the '80s. I was about fifteen at this point. I remember the photo of it, which caught my eye — the ivory and mahogany mushroom slices, the bright green rings of scallion, the golden tangle of noodles and soft white shreds of crab — but mostly what grabbed me was that I did not have the slightest idea how it would taste. I didn't know how to cook, but I decided to cook it anyway, just to find out. I told my mother I would make dinner some weeknight if she would buy the ingredients — cunningly, I didn't specify the ingredients until she had agreed. I suspected saffron did not come cheap.

I didn't even know how to pronounce shitake but I found them in a little package next to pearl onions, sun dried tomatoes, shallots, basil, and other things that had been deemed high end in the '80s and grouped together and fenced off in a tiny, elite-produce ghetto. I unearthed a small vial of saffron threads in a little-used shelf of the spice section at the grocery store, and because crab was dicey, we substituted shrimp. The methods were simple (chopping, boiling, melting, tossing); it was the ingredients that intrigued me. I thought it was delicious, sort of musky and savory and rich and buttery. To be honest, I don't really want to make it now, but at the time I was extremely impressed by it all: by saffron, by shitakes, by Bon Appétit, by myself for assembling it without flames, illness, or bloodletting.

That was how I learned to cook, and why I learned to cook: because I read about dishes I wanted to taste.That was how I learned to cook, and why I learned to cook: because I read about dishes I wanted to taste. I enjoy a mouthwatering description of a familiar dish as much as anything, but what always grabbed me was the unfamiliar ingredient or combination. Later, I read Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which described a pasta dish combining room temp tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and basil with hot pasta — there, it was the combination of temperatures that intrigued me. It was delicious, of course, a simple classic that by now the whole world probably knows, but I was delighted to make its acquaintance. I began leaving high school early and coming home to make this dish for lunch.

Any devoted cook or eater loves a great cookbook, but I have an endless love of the great novel or memoir that is just as appetizing. John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure tells the story of a murderer who is also a divine cook, and for some time as I read, I wondered if it might not be worth the risk of poison to meet a man who could make a mushroom dish as he described. I argue that it is. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books are all about food, the endless rounds of butchering, curdling, curing, baking, and I went crazy for this book as a child too, trying to enlist my mother in figuring out how to make a vanity cake based on the description in On the Banks of Plum Creek. She maintained that the book's brief mention didn't give her enough to go on, but I felt my mother was being faint-hearted and regarded her over the nightly casserole with acute disillusionment for the better part of a week.

And then there were English children's books — do they exist in order to do anything but torture American children with tantalizing mentions of cream teas and jam buns and scones?And then there were English children's books — do they exist in order to do anything but torture American children with tantalizing mentions of cream teas and jam buns and scones? Well, yes, and I have my loves in that subgenre too (do people realize how crisp-tongued and vain and fantastic Mary Poppins is in P L Travers's novels? She's a lot closer to Naomi Campbell than Julie Andrews would have you believe) but much of it was because the British, the excellent, excellent British, seemed to eat Devon cream by the bucketful.

Laurie Colwin's characters sat down to old fashioned faintly English food — lamb chops, salmon, ham steak in cream sauce, rice pudding — that I rarely wanted to eat but loved reading about. Hemingway wrote about a whole village in ecstasy over the catching of a large fish, about a different preparation of eggs each morning and the interplay of eggs and mustard, eggs with pepper, eggs and coffee. I came to love any number of authors for their willingness to apply their skills to the table, but it's been a long time since I read about a dish I'd never had, and couldn't imagine, and just had to learn to cook it so that I would know what saffron was, what this mushroom was. I wouldn't say writing about food has replaced the person-to-person learning and teaching, by any means. But for me, anyway, it was the first glimmer, the first push at the door.

That's all for me this week. Thanks, Powell's!

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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. You're Not You: A Novel New Trade Paper $20.00
  2. Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast Used Trade Paper $7.50
  3. Heartburn
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  4. The debt to pleasure :a novel Used Hardcover $4.50
  5. On the Banks of Plum Creek (Little...
    Used Book Club Paperback $2.95

Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long

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