Inspired by M.F.K. Fisher’s classic “How to Cook a Wolf,” Christensen focuses on the meals she cooks and consumes in her snug new life in Maine. But while Fisher devoted her primer to getting by during wartime, Christensen mainly celebrates her own good fortune in moving to a place where everyone is resourceful and unpretentious, at least as long as they make and eat the kind of food the author prefers. Maple syrup harvesters, oyster farmers and hipster doughnut-makers fill this memoir-with-recipes. Invariably down-to-earth, they offer intriguing insights into local foodways, but they’re cast with such determined romanticism, and juxtaposed so insistently against the shriveled New Yorkers Christensen left behind, that they never quite rise to the level of characters. What leaps off the page instead is a certain smug entitlement. Intolerant of gluten, Christensen condemns a Manhattan waiter for removing the bread from atop her beef tartare rather than remaking the entire dish, but a few chapters later she happily recalls eating a piece of bread because, well, she’s in France. Like her recipe for dog food — which comes a paragraph after a spasm of environmentalist angst but calls for very un-nose-to-tail boneless, skinless chicken breasts — these moments could be evidence of the charming contradictions of human taste. Instead Christensen comes across as a shrill arbiter of that notoriously slippery concept, authenticity.
COOKING AS FAST AS I CANA Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and ForgivenessBy Cat Cora with Karen Karbo241 pp. Scribner, $25.
This autobiography traces the celebrity chef’s trajectory from Mississippi childhood to Food Network stardom, with stops along the way to embrace her sexuality, go to culinary school, earn a spot as the first female regular on “Iron Chef” and become, in her own proud words, a brand. That the last is a goal Cora actively strives to attain may explain why there’s so little food in this book. With the exception of a few Greek dishes like kota kapama that make comforting reference to her family’s immigrant roots and a few recounted menus, there’s no sense of how dishes taste or are prepared, let alone what they mean to her. But this isn’t a book intended for foodies. Instead, Cora tells a rags-to-riches story long on girl power but diluted by her reluctance to do much more than chronicle events. As a teenager, she worries about coming out to her parents, then does so to no apparent negative effect. She apprentices in the kitchen of an old-school French restaurant where violence is the norm, but she is never the object of it. The motivations behind the more self-destructive aspects of her behavior — from excessive drinking to the decision she and her wife make to have four children within five years while she’s opening a restaurant at Walt Disney World and maintaining her television schedule — are never really explored, nor is her own role in the failure of several personal and professional relationships.
VORACIOUSA Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great BooksBy Cara Nicoletti283 pp. Little, Brown, $28.Newsletter Sign Up Continue reading the main story Book Review Newsletter
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Holden Caulfield had his malted milk, Ishmael his clam chowder and Hannibal Lecter his infamous fava beans. Nicoletti, a butcher, finds a release for her two chief passions — a love of cooking and a love of reading — in the food scenes of favorite novels. To commune with their characters, she devises and cooks recipes for dishes that appear in those books (the crab-stuffed avocado in Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”) or are loosely inspired by them (the pig’s head in “Lord of the Flies” becomes Porchetta di Testa). If that sounds like a great idea for a blog, there’s good reason: “Voracious” springs from Nicoletti’s appealing (if unfortunately named) blog, Yummy Books. Between hard covers, however, the formula doesn’t quite hold up. Her recipes, although heavy on the desserts (Nicoletti once worked as a pastry chef), are enticing. And many of the individual essays, like one on a character in “Mrs. Dalloway” whose repression is expressed through her avaricious relationship with a chocolate éclair, are charming, if somewhat light on literary insights. But both the books and the recipes seem randomly ordered, yielding no real sense of momentum or cohesion: the hot cheese sandwich from “American Pastoral” comes after the grilled peaches inspired by Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” but before a soft boiled egg found in “Emma.” In the end, reading “Voracious” feels a bit like eating at a small-plate restaurant: It’s a collection of random bites that, while tasty, don’t quite add up to a meal.
SLICE HARVESTERA Memoir in PizzaBy Colin Atrophy Hagendorf209 pp. Simon & Schuster, $23.
A sometime bike messenger and self-proclaimed punk rocker, Hagendorf belongs to that curious 21st-century cohort of single-minded bloggers who, say, cook their way through Escoffier or write only about bacon. In Hagendorf’s case, the obsession is pizza, and his blog, Slice Harvester, documents his efforts to eat a plain slice from every pizzeria in Manhattan. The amazing thing isn’t that he claims to have accomplished this goal — though it took him 27 months — but that the blog, with its star system and unlikely metaphors, made for such good reading. It makes an even better book. His sauce-stained slog is no longer just about finding good slices but also (though the anti-establishment Hagendorf would surely hate the phrase) about finding himself. In the time it takes him to eat his way from Inwood to Water Street, he succumbs to and tries to recover from alcoholism, starts and promptly screws up a relationship with a woman he loves and finds meaningful work as a writer. The pizza joints become potent way stations along the journey and, thanks to a neat surprise involving the origins of one shop, acquire a strong narrative arc. Hagendorf’s trenchant wit is a welcome alternative to the gauzy, “fields drenched in sunlight” style that permeates so much food writing today, and his self-awareness is bracing. For a book ostensibly about pizza, “Slice Harvester” turns out, affectingly, to earn the title of memoir.