Book Review - "A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table" by Molly Wizenberg

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I can’t say I know Molly personally at all. In fact I believe our entire communication history has simply been one or two e-mails about book publishing long, long ago. However, I believe I know her now, at least in a sort of separated, distanced way similar to the way I used to know a pen-pal I had in D.C. back in fourth grade (I still can’t recall her name after all these years). Molly has become a confidant, telling me her secrets, and recounting snippets of her life. Indeed I feel we even have things in common, and though I never had a smoky eye makeup phase we both had a penchant for wearing a dog collar in college.

The reason for the familiarity is due to her new book, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table. Molly Wizenberg, the prolific writer of Orangette, one of the gods of the food blog pantheon, puts to paper rather than the publish screen on blogger, the various events that shaped her food focused life. And just like her blog, the stories are artful, poetic, and vivid, capturing in each single sentence the emotions of the moment and their meaning. So sirenesque is her song that I found myself shirking all responsibility to put away all three hundred some pages in a two days.

My only slight complaint, if you can even call it that, is that each chapter is only about 2-5 pages followed by a recipe. It reads much like her blog. This then purports the question, “Why should I pay $25 when I can just read her blog?” As for me, I only read Orangette every so often. Once a month or so and usually just the most recent post. If you’re like me then the book is a fabulous introduction into her prosy and pithy writing style. Her words carry you in and embrace you to sit down in your most favorite chair, sip some tea and just ahh… relax. Each little vignette is what an old professor of mine would call “As long as a piece of string.” The stories convey the emotion, people, and points in the right amount of words. Still, I found myself wanting more simply because it was all composed so well.

Still, while this is a memoir, I would call it a cookbook. While many food memoirs have recipes in them, oftentimes they seemed crammed in there with little introduction or relevance to what was being discussed. Rather Molly uses her experiences and people and defines them through a particular dish. She doesn’t simply say, “We made this,” but details the recipe’s history and emotional significance. Take for example the chapter "Like Wildflowers" where she describs her interactions with a close friend named Keaton and uses it to introduce the recipe for cranberry chutney with crystallized ginger and dried cherries:

For six months we palled around Paris, teaming up for research projects and sharing packets of Peanut M&M's from the metro vending machines. She was with me when I met Guillaume, and when he disappeared, and when we came back to the States, we drew together in the campus housing lottery and wound up sharing an apartment. It was a dark, gloomy building on the edge of campus, but we did our best to make light of the brown shag carpet and the mold on the bathroom ceiling. I taught her how to sear tuna in a cast-iron skillet, how to roast Brussels sprouts and potatoes, and how to make my family's favorite cranberry chutney with crystallized ginger and dried cherries. She shared her formula for spinach salad with green apples, toasted walnuts, and blue cheese and made me giggle every night when she put in her mouth guard (she grinds her teeth when she sleeps) by saying "I love biscuits," which came out as "I love bis-CUSTH." I love that girl. (208)

Furthermore, the recipes are simple, clever, and engaging. I rarely find a cookbook that I flag so many pages of with the direct intention of making the recipes. The recipes are diverse, offering something for everyone from lemon yogurt cake to an intriguing salad (via husband Brandon) of arugula, pistachios, and chocolate; and a simple French snack of bread with butter and radishes, which when made was met with resounding approval from the roommate and me.

Molly does seem to wax on about marriage and love and whatnot (this is not a book to read right after a nasty break-up, you'll just end up bitter), and, depending on your point of view, it’s either chick lit. or cleverly written appreciation for all that life and the people in it have given to her. I find it to be the latter.

Molly’s writing has been called reminiscent of MFK Fisher. I love Fisher, I do, but to compare them is silly. Molly’s prose possesses a different air, a sort of witty frankness to it that reminds me of those people in college I envied because they were so humorous and poignant in everything they said. Sure both Fisher and Wizenberg spent time in Paris and found love in their marriages and food, but its apples and oranges. Out of all the food memoirs out there, Molly stands out with the greats like Fisher, Bourdain, and Steingarten. It’s a memoir and cookbook that will be read and re-read for years to come as part of the great and ever growing canon of food memoirs.


  1. Thanks for the review. I, too, only read Orangette intermittently and was questioning the idea of actually buying the book.

  2. I can vouch for the French-style Lemon Yogurt cake. I made it and it was amazing. :)

    I must admit...I bought the book. Yes I can read the blog, but I can take the book anywhere with me...I can curl up in bed with it. Plus I read it in about two days when I was at my boyfriend's parents' house while he fixed the computer. lol So... I had to do SOMETHING. ;)

  3. Have you ever considered writing reviews for some cooking magazines or even going into that business? If you already have, pardon my intrusion. If not, I found your review entertaining even if it was just that, a review.

    It makes me feel like I want to at least go check the book out even though I`ve never heard of the author or her blog. I will, at the very least, go read Orangette since I'm still pretty new to thie food blogging.

    I usually hate reading reviews because most of the time they seem long and boring but sometimes there's something like this that comes up and you read it like a story from beginning to end. You've added your personal touch in it which I think is great.

    Anyhow, told you I would comment (also, your sausage post had me laughing) soon enough. :p

  4. You and Molly are two of my favorite writers in the "blogosphere," even though your styles are very different. I take your endorsement very seriously, and I am now considering buying the book.

  5. I'm glad to read a critique of "her highness!"

    No insult intended; she is a truly inspiring example of what a food blog can be, but the amount of reverence the foodblogosphere holds for Orangette needs to be prodded a bit. Her writing is literary and her recipes original and delicious, but her book is now navigating the treacherous strait between being a successful blogger and author.

    Someone who has been written up as much as yourself should take note of the content and reception of her book.


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