JULY 25, 2012
FOR WORKING PARENTS, even those who are gifted, intuitive cooks, getting a wholesome dinner on the table regularly is a heavy lift, what with the shopping, the dirty dishes and recycling, the lactose intolerance and high cholesterol to be mitigated, not to mention the perils of Big Corn looming over them. Even more acutely, they feel a relentless time squeeze. Family dinner is a middle-class, first-world challenge, to be sure, but it’s a pervasive one that deserves a full-length book. With great facility and charm, Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: A Love Story, based on her popular blog of the same name, recounts the author’s progression from self-doubt to mastery, both at work and at home.
For many members of Rosenstrach’s demographic, who came of age with the assumption that they’d become high-powered professionals (or at least writers), homemaking skills were anathema. Domestic training was retrograde and sexist and took time away from academic striving. Rosenstrach learned much of what she knows about the kitchen not as a girl but in the workplace, as an editor at Real Simple and Cookie, and through trial and error in her own kitchen. She provides members of her cohort not just with a how-to book but, more importantly, with a central philosophical text.
Rosenstrach’s big idea is that once dinner is solved, the more profound concerns of family life will coalesce around it: Conversation, shared responsibility, pleasure, and health, she argues, can all be fostered at the table. “The simple act of carving out the ritual – a delicious homemade ritual,” she writes — has given “every day purpose and meaning, no matter what else was going on in our lives.” The book, which, like the blog, has a work-in-progress, vérité aura, is a working mother’s manifesto with crowd-pleasing dishes, family recipes, and domestic solutions scattered among reflections on parenting, the cocktail hour, marriage, and careers.
Dinner: A Love Story, or DALS, as Rosenstrach dubs this central project of her professional and personal life, evolved from a dinner diary that she has kept faithfully for 14 years. “On Sunday, February 22, 1998, the very first date on the very first page of my dinner diary,” she writes, “I had one thing on my mind when I opened up the blank green book that Andy bought me for the previous Christmas: How do I make dinner happen?” Possessing the “sad, deluded” belief “that the mere act of writing something down will give me some sense of control over it,” she began logging every dinner she ate as well as compiling recipes, planning meals, and memorializing sublime dishes.
Rosenstrach is an excessive — arguably pathological — record keeper. But the diary, in addition to being an organizational tool, included here to inform and inspire readers, is a revelatory reflection of the author’s life and times and of her character — including her own oddly appealing obsessiveness. A typical page, reproduced in the book, contains scrawled notes from a 1999 family holiday party broken down into lists of what she and her husband made or bought for the event, what guests brought with them, and what was left after the party. (All the cookies and kielbasa and most of the vodka were devoured; nobody touched the gin.)
In a less child-centered era, the great M.F.K. Fisher entwined food history, family life, romance, and licentious eating in her many essays and books. But Fisher was never as invested in her children’s dining pleasure as she was in her own. True, like Rosenstrach, Fisher was eager to initiate her children into what she hoped would be “a lifetime of enjoyment of the pleasures of the table.” But nursery feeding is depicted as a vexing trial in Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets; the writer was “depressed” to see “a thorough, bone-shaking, flesh-creeping shudder flash” through her daughter’s “wee frame” when pureed green beans touched her tongue.
Rosenstrach struggled to get her younger daughter, a “tiny table terrorist,” to eat at all. She was so panicked about her proto-anorexic toddler that it became “impossible not to chase her around the house with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.” Now that that crisis has passed, Rosenstrach writes about it with mock defensiveness: “I dare you to just hang back and relax when your kid eats just one raisin over the course of an entire month.”
The author’s stated goal, once her two children were old enough to sit at the table, was to get everyone eating nutritious, modestly adventurous dinners together most nights. She believes that planning ahead, prioritizing, and mastering small tasks free us up to be emotionally present at the meal. Her goal-setting is mainly confined to her own home and doesn’t extend quite as wholeheartedly to the urgent global concerns of writers like Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules. Rosenstrach just wants to make it to her kids’ bedtime with her soul intact, not to the next millennium with the planet saved. She aims for the “real,” not just in the Pollan sense but also in the sense that all the recipes are for actual meals that she has made and eaten in her home.
Dinner: A Love Story appeals directly to readers who have been made to feel inadequate by an overload of media messengers: health and parenting gurus, apron-clad temptresses named Nigella and Padma, perky regular gal Rachael, serious chefs who have stepped out of their dining temples and into the TV studios. In the time since Rosenstrach’s first child was born, she notes, it became “mainstream to question everything on our plates — what was in it and how it got there.”
Rosenstrach’s readers are busy with careers outside the home, and many of her generation are paralyzed by anything you can’t ace on a standardized test, including the intuitive rhythms of keeping house. She proposes an unglamorous cure for this paralysis: one thing at a time, take small steps, make a shopping list, plan a meal, assign tasks, eat together.
Rosenstrach’s lifestyle-enhancement game plan shares some elements with Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, The Happiness Project. Rubin is similarly devoted to sweating the small stuff — clean closets, manners — that contribute to the big picture of contentment. She has devised a “scoring chart — a kind of calendar on which I could record all my resolutions and give myself a daily ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mark for each resolution.” But The Happiness Project is a fairly standard-issue self-help book. Rosenstrach’s writing, by contrast, exudes warmth and manic eccentricity. Her book is an engaging memoir first, a lifestyle primer second. She has written a work of popular nonfiction that would stand on its own as literature with or without the recipes and domestic survival tips. Her tone is less Gretchen Rubin than Nora Ephron, whose biting 1983 breakup roman à clef, Heartburn, offers a recipe for the lovelorn that prescribes “getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful.”
Rosenstrach’s book is a reassuring primer for stretched parents. But it strikes a chord for another reason: It’s transparently not about perfecting convoluted recipes, Earth saving, or connoisseurship but about Rosenstrach’s literary ambition and how she managed to sustain it while her children were little. This is a book about professional identity, and one woman’s path to preserving it.
To this end, Rosenstrach doesn’t so much write about cooking as cook about writing — she has constructed a culinary and domestic cottage industry around her blogging-writing-editing identity, instead of the other way around, as food personalities like Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain, and former caterers like Martha Stewart, have done.
Whether or not Rosenstrach intended it as such, blogging can be an empowering feminist tool, especially when it can be made to succeed commercially. Take that, fluorescent-lit office tower where men still get paid more than women for the same work! Rosenstrach’s book puts on inspiring display how she improvised a journalism career of sorts out of the thing that pre-Internet journalist-moms did after work. After all, back in the 1980s, contriving to get home in time to make dinner invited a Mommy Track stigmatization that hindered professional advancement. By merging their “second shift” with their work lives, Rosenstrach and other food bloggers have minted a new career strategy, one that can be practiced via laptop from the kitchens where the recipes are being tested and the spouses and children fed.
At the same time, food has moved up in the newsroom triage and closer to the center of our intellectual lives. DDT, famines abroad, and the like have been page-one material forever, of course, as has fine dining of the Michelin-star variety. But in recent decades, serious publications have started to give more space to the work of food philosophers like Pollan and Eric Schlosser (whose Fast Food Nation was published in 2001) and to workaday food issues: the absence of fresh produce in poor urban neighborhoods, obesity, rooftop farming, fair-trade grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning responsibly, and simply eating well, and multiculturally, without servants or expense accounts.
Gradually, news sections and book reviews have started looking more like home sections. The Slow Food movement has given a worthy, eco-political sheen to subjects once considered trivial and ghettoized in the “women’s” pages. Rosenstrach is attuned to all this, as she mixes in some whole-wheat flour for the pizza dough (she weans her family off the white flour crack incrementally, but she’s not a fanatic).
Home cooking has been legitimized. The fact that today Rosenstrach and many others are getting paid to write about the things that once interfered with getting paid — grocery shopping, kids’ birthday parties — is a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say. Not just good for Rosenstrach but for all of us. After all, don’t we fight wars and elect politicians and start businesses so that we can enjoy dinner with our families? Why shouldn’t we read pieces about domestic life on page one now and then?
Of course, to make an admirable career of writing about dinner, you first must be able to write. This Rosenstrach does with abundant ease and authority. She knows how to win us over, using her faultless comic timing to back away from Rosenstrach the Overachiever, just when we were starting to resent her OCD energy level. We recognize ourselves in her when she asks, “What happens when it’s time for a bona fide party, the kind of event where you consider peeling the price tags off the bottom of your wedding registry stemware (but in our case just consider)?”
And her timing is good in another sense. Her own work-life dilemma has dovetailed with the ascendance of the food blog, a phenomenon that, if she and her peers are any indication, has grown so fast that it’s now circling around and consuming itself from behind. Bloggers write cookbooks. Authors start blogs. There are national food blogger conferences. In Los Angeles alone there are enough food bloggers to form organizations like the FBLA, Food Bloggers of Los Angeles, whose Facebook page states its mission as “to stake our claim in the world of professional food journalism and recipe creation” and build “personal brands.”
On the haute end of the food-blogger spectrum are bloggers like Food Snob (foodsnobblog.wordpress.com), who, according to The Wall Street Journal, is “well known in foodie circles to be a Turkish investment banker based in London.” But many popular food bloggers, like Rosenstrach, embrace the casual immediacy of the kitchen counter.
It’s hard to imagine the sensualist M.F.K. Fisher interrupting her cheese course to blog or tweet about it. By contrast, many of today’s food writers are neither snobs nor sybarites but a new class of literary lifestyle expert: pragmatic home-cooking entrepreneurs who can help us get dinner on the table now.
The My Daddy Cooks blog has won a book contract for an unemployed, stay-at-home father in Britain who joins the blogger-authors of The Homesick Texan Cookbook, Eat Like a Girl, Scandalicious, and a steadily swelling list. One of the few who are in Rosenstrach’s league as an author is Molly Wizenberg, whose popular food blog Orangette spilled forth after she had earned degrees in biology, French, and anthropology but still couldn’t get food off her mind. “All along, something kept calling me back to the table,” she writes in her book, A Homemade Life. “Every time I opened my mouth, a story about food came out. In July of 2004, I decided that I had to listen. I left my PhD program with a master’s degree instead. In an effort to make something of my madness, I started a blog called Orangette, a space where I could store all my recipes and the long-winded tales that spun from them.”
Rosenstrach is a living example of professional symbiosis (or, as Real Simple’s parent company, Time Warner, once dubbed it, synergy). Her book is about starting the blog, and the blog is about the book, in that it serves as a marketing platform. She began blogging because of her husband and kids, who themselves provide fodder for the blog. And the book.
When Rosenstrach needs to “decontaminate” a dinner component by separating it from anything green on the plate of a finicky child, or cries because she misses her daughter’s ballet recital, or stops at the greatest little takeout place during a family road trip, she has material for another blog post, another chapter. This trick of making something creative out of things that most mothers do reflexively and without record is not annoying, in this case, because it’s delivered in Rosenstrach’s unpretentious, confident authorial voice. That voice is like the chicken stock her husband makes and keeps in the freezer for her to use for all kinds of dishes — it’s the medium for every topic Rosenstrach touches on.
There’s little doubt that this author could write just as persuasively about wars or famines or politics as she does about polenta. Perhaps it’s this quality that sets her writing apart from the kind of columns that used to appear in “Women’s Lives” or other condescendingly segregated sections. Even as she reports on her effortful domestic routine, her dispatches appear effortless. She reassures us, disarmingly, that she’s not a domestic robot but a bundle of stress with appetites like the rest of us, one who is longing to eat with her children at the end of the day, yes, but longing even more keenly for a cocktail. “I used to be such a nice Jewish girl and now […] I find myself getting the Bombay Sapphire out at 5:56, the highball glass out at 5:57[…] waiting, waiting, waiting….”
Under the heading “Medicine,” she offers some nice cocktail recipes, including her husband’s go-to salve, Andy’s Manhattan, which includes angostura bitters, and bourbon suggestions like Buffalo Trace and Maker’s. Speaking of lapsed nice Jewish girls, Rosenstrach also leans heavily on the flesh of the swine, notably her husband’s slow-cooked pork. He’s also an editor and cooks for the family as often as she does. She’s not a martyr.
But she’s harder on herself than most of us are on ourselves, and learning from her to relax already about family dinner is sort of like having a crazy psychiatrist. Incorporated into the book are her contractual notes to herself, such as one from the days when she commuted to the city, committing her to planning meals, defrosting and marinating flesh before leaving for work. Having done that, she swore she would “close the FAMILY DINNER deal” when she got home.
Spelling things out, making lists, setting goals are coping strategies for Rosenstrach. She seems to have been born with a clipboard in her hand. But for some of her readers, as for readers of The Happiness Project, there will be a master-of-the-obvious quality to some of the advice. Rosenstrach has now confirmed for me empirically what I would have known instinctively: bad idea to buy 150 pounds of knishes for a holiday party. “Picture Your Dinner Plates as Venn diagrams,” she suggests, so that this 6-year-old and that spouse can both eat the elements of a meal that they like but be spared the ones that make them gag or raise their cholesterol. The venerable practice of separating the peas from the meat on a child’s plate is rendered by Rosenstrach as “Deconstructed Dinner.”
Rosenstrach is a driven professional and parent first, a food lover second. It wasn’t until 2003 that she learned (from an office colleague) that Parmesan cheese was from one region in Italy and was “not the powdery stuff that came in the green cans.” Most of her recipes are tried and true — breaded chicken cutlets with arugula; grandma’s meatballs; chicken with apricot and mustard. Many are newlywed fare with a trendy ingredient or two thrown in — pork and cabbage, but with pomegranate — familiar because they’ve stood the test of time and are easy to prepare, economical, delicious. But Rosenstrach does surprise us now and then, as with kale, avocado, and pickled onion, or an easy route to dahl-filled rotis, a South Asian crepe filled with lentils that she picked up from her nanny. She keeps pushing herself.
In the early 1990s, Rosenstrach joined a vast aggregation of young adults — some of them parents, some married, some single — who faced the conundrum of work-life balance. This book and her blog were her solution, and it’s satisfying to see her succeed at it. Even those who don’t really need Rosenstrach to teach them how to cook or what to cook might very well need her as a professional role model. She’s keeping her foot in the door while she raises her kids, writing about what she knows, making a name for herself. She makes no apology for the fact that she’s focused on homemaking rather than North Korea or presidential politics.
In her book, she shares an episode in which Rosenstrach the Writer introduces her 3-year-old daughter not to a new ingredient but to a new word: ominous. “Just because the world of institutionalized learning tells kids they need to know the words sunny, cloudy and windy doesn’t mean they are not also capable of learning the words ominous, blustery and scorching,” she writes. “It’s the grown-ups who inject the shroud of grown-up-ness around ‘big words’ by not using those words.” Such detours in the narrative make DALS so much more than a cookbook.
Rosenstrach might well move onto other topics when her children are grown. Maybe one of her daughters will come home from college and declare that she’s a vegan, and the other will become observant and say she’d rather starve than eat Andy’s slow-cooked pork. Or maybe after doing Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Hindu Festival of Diwali, and Passover every year for a decade, Rosenstrach will have had enough of the kitchen and never want to scrape another pork ragu off the bottom of her Le Creuset again. Or, possibly, the success of her writing — of her career — will mean that she can enjoy the cooking and hire someone else to do the scraping. She’ll have earned it.