“LET US EAT CAKE” by Sharon Boorstin, published in 2002 by ReganBooks, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, is the kind of non-cookbook food-related memoir type of book that I find myself reading more and more often. For one thing, they’re “comfort reading”, like comfort food. You can read and relax, drifting back in time with the author.
For another, it’s really interesting to discover how women, often very close to my own age, grew up in different parts of the country, and in which ways our lives were similar and in which ways they were completely diverse. It always intrigues me, as well, how all these food writers, (and I include myself with the lot), developed an interest in food and cooking at a very young age. We all have childhood memories of our earliest experiences in the kitchen. That appears to be a common thread that runs through so many of these books.
(Indeed, even famed-author Jean Anderson, in her book “JEAN ANDERSON COOKS”, relates how her love affair with food began at the age of five and her disastrous experience when, left to her own devices, she began to improvise. She added nuts and raisins to the ginger cake batter; she decided to bake it as cupcakes in muffin pans, and turned the oven heat up so they would bake faster—and in her burst of creativity, she forgot to add baking powder and shortening. She also overfilled the pans, which she neglected to grease…slid the cupcakes into the searing-hot oven and went outside to play. Jean says it’s a wonder she didn’t burn the house down – she did destroy two muffin pans and wrecked an oven). But I digress!
Initially, as I began “LET US EAT CAKE”, I was reminded of “Close To The Bone”, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of her life growing up in New York City – however, as I began to read Sharon Boorstin’s “LET US EAT CAKE”, I realized that the only real similarity is that they have both worked as restaurant critics. Sharon, for one thing, grew up in the state of Washington.
Sharon Boorstin’s “LET US EAT CAKE” was inspired, she says, by a long-lost recipe notebook. She explains that she is the opposite of a pack rat—when things are no longer useful, she gets rid of them. The exception to this is a desk in her house that she has never cleaned out. She describes it as a burnished antique Federal desk with dusty cubbyholes and worn drawer pulls, the first major purchase she and her husband, Paul, made when they got married thirty-three years ago.
“It was under the thank-you notes in the bottom drawer of the Federal desk,” Sharon explains, “that I discovered the inspiration for this book—a loose-leaf notebook of recipes I had gathered from girlfriends and relatives when I was a newlywed.”
Sharon says that among the recipes were “Irma’s Tandoori chicken, Aunt Hannah’s Chocolate Cheesecake, Mary Ann’s Grapes Brulee, and Mom’s Egg-Bread Stuffing.” She says that each recipe brought back memories of the woman who gave it to her, “of the occasions when we made and enjoyed the dish, and of the friendship we shared….”
Sharon wrote an article about the discovery of the notebook—and the old times and old friends it brought to mind—for MORE magazine. “In doing so,” she says, “I realized just how important food, recipes, and cooking are in connecting women of different generations in a family and in connecting friends….”
Sharon also realized how much her friendships had changed over the years. She says that when she was a newlywed, she devoted so much emotional energy to her husband that she gave “short shrift” to her childhood and college girlfriends. Her husband became her best friend and together they had “couples” friends. Later, when her children were toddlers, she became friends with their playmates’ mothers. Sharon says she did not develop any new female friendships that existed apart from her husband and children. Eventually, of course, her children grew up; Sharon gave up screenwriting with her husband to concentrate on food writing and journalism. She discovered it was now easier to have time for girlfriends. (on a personal note, I have to say, I have never been without girlfriends. My two oldest friends are Carol and Patty, whose families both lived on our street when I was a little girl—I don’t see them very often anymore because they’re in Ohio and I’m in California – but we stay in touch, more often now that we have the Internet. I’ve always had girlfriends and realized the importance of having them in my life. But I digress (again) and this is Sharon’s story, not mine).
Sharon writes that she also realized that now, even more so than when we were younger, my friends and I share an interest in food—cooking, recipes, dining out. Unlike our mothers, we don’t cook just because it is expected of us as wives and mothers. And unlike our former unliberated single selves, we don’t find comfort in food when we can’t find a man, or use cooking to find one. When we entertain now, we do it with less effort, and we cook—and savor food—because we find it enjoyable, nurturing, and creative…”
It was while Sharon was writing the article for MORE that she connected with a girlfriend, whose recipe for Tandoori Chicken she discovered in her old recipe notebook. This was a girlfriend she hadn’t seen or heard from in over twenty years.
The two friends reconnected and now remain in close touch. They talk about their children, their work and their lives. Rediscovering her friend made Sharon realize what a treasured gift she had lost and inspired her to reconnect with other long-lost friends. “In each case,” she says, “my friends and I shared the joyous—and painful—experiences we’ve gone through since we last met. We also discussed our delicious shared food memories: what we ate (sometimes with guilt for pigging out), what we cooked, and what was going on in our lives at the time. Girlfriends, I discovered, never forget these things…”
Sharon learned, “Food is one way all women connect, and I have included not just my own food memories but those of others as well. Some are family or friends; others are food professionals I have met through the years…”
Travel back in time with Sharon Boorstin, as she recalls her childhood with two sisters, growing up in the fifties in Washington. Her mother had only one cookbook, says Sharon (no, it wasn’t Ida Bailey Allen’s Service Cookbook!) – it was a copy of “THE SETTLEMENT COOKBOOK” which Sharon says only collected dust on the shelf. She says her mother was a self-described shiterein cook—that’s Yiddish for “she just threw stuff in”.
However, at a time when most families had just a small freezer compartment at the top of their refrigerator, Sharon’s parents had a twenty-cubic foot Sears chest freezer in which her mother froze virtually everything. Her father was also vice president of a fish company and brought home canned tuna, salmon, and crab by the case. (I can’t help but think, just imagine how many recipes her mother could have created with just those canned items!) – but no, Sharon says her mother’s dinner repertoire revolved around the following dishes:
Chicken baked with Lipton’s dry onion soup mix
Tina-noodle casserole made with her father’s canned tuna fish
Salmon loaf made with her father’s canned salmon
Top round steak tenderized with Accent
All of these, says Sharon, were served with ketchup.
It was from Sharon’s Grandma Ann that she learned to make blintzes, even though her grandmother spoke very little English and Sharon didn’t understand Yiddish.
Sharon takes us with her as she grows up, moves away from home and headed for college. One early experience which obviously influenced Sharon very much was meeting Dorothy, the mother of one of her boyfriends. Dorothy was a journalist and the first person Sharon ever met who loved to cook. She describes Dorothy as a patient, upbeat teacher. Sharon was thrilled to find herself learning from a gourmet cook.
“I helped Dorothy prepare steak tartar,” Sharon recalls, “who ate raw chopped beef in Seattle?—and duck (and who ate duck?) that she roasted on a rotisserie until the skin was crisp, the meat succulent. She made French fries in a big cast iron pot—she knew the oil was hot enough when she threw in a piece of bread and it cooked. On Sunday mornings she whipped up puffy soufflelike German pancakes and served them dusted with powdered sugar. Dorothy loved the color purple, and she garnished her dishes with candied violets and purple grapes that she coated with sugar. She always smelled like Estee Lauder’s classic perfume and she always wore pearls—even when she was cooking…”
After graduating from Berkeley in 1966 with teaching credentials, Sharon accepted a job with the Los Angeles Unified Schools. Before that, however, and she three of her childhood friends spent a summer traveling throughout Europe. It was there that Sharon began to really learn about food.
“Everywhere we went,” she recalls, “we savored tastes we didn’t know existed. I learned the profound difference between real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and the powdery stuff in the green Kraft container that my mother sprinkled on spaghetti casseroles, and between a salade Nicoise and my mother’s tuna fish salad….”
Although “LET US EAT CAKE” is not a cookbook in the strictest sense, like other memoirs of this genre, it does contain some recipes. You’ll find Grandma Ann’s recipe for making blintzes, Sharon’s updated version of the 50s Canlis Salad, girlfriend Mary Ann’s Fresh Fruit Brulee, and her girlfriend Irma’s Tandoori Chicken, Sharon’s mother’s Egg-Bread Stuffing recipe and a few others, including some celebrity recipes: James Michener’s Favorite Gazpacho and Paul Newman’s Favorite Angel Food Cake. And, I think that even though Sharon Boorstin’s book is about food, it’s really more about friendships and relationships.
I’ve really just touched lightly on Sharon Boorstin’s experiences which cover decades, as she relates them in “LET US EAT CAKE”. I don’t want to tell you too much; I want all of you to get a copy and read it. Mystery writer Faye Kellerman describes it as “a captivating memoir built around the kitchen, where the great dishes as well as the bonds of amity are created and nurtured side by side…”
And in case you are wondering (as did I) what a Canlis salad is – Paul Canlis is the creator, who was taught how to make it by his Lebanese mother.
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried thyme
4 slices country white bread,
cut into 1⁄2″ cubes
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper,
1 egg, at room temperature
1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 lb. slab bacon, cut into 1⁄2″ cubes
1 cup grated pecorino
1 cup mixed red and yellow
grape tomatoes, halved
1⁄2 cup torn mint leaves
3 tbsp. oregano leaves
5 scallions, chopped
2 heads romaine, cored and cut
crosswise into 1″ strips
1. Heat oven to 325°. Toss butter, oregano, thyme, bread, and garlic together in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and bake, stirring frequently, until croutons are golden, about 15 minutes. Set croutons aside to let cool.
2. Whisk together egg and lemon juice in a medium bowl. Slowly drizzle in oil, whisking constantly to make a smooth vinaigrette. Season with pepper; set aside.
3. In a 10″ skillet, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until water evaporates, 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and cook until bacon crisps, about 5 minutes; let cool. Toss bacon, reserved croutons, vinaigrette, and remaining ingredients in a large salad bowl and season with salt and pepper.
“LET US EAT CAKE” by Sharon Boorstin sold originally for $24.95. It is available on Amazon.com for one cent and up for preowned copies and for 99c on Alibris.com.
Sharon Boorstin was the restaurant critic for the LOS ANGELES HERALD-EXAMINER and her writing has appeared in BON APPETIT, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, PLAYBOY, MORE, FOOD ARTS, CONDE NAST TRAVELER, UK and PORTHOLE. She and her husband, Paul, have two children and live in Beverly Hills, California.