Several people who know me well, including my dear ex-husband, said: “You wrote a book about cooking?” There was one “Really?” A few raised eyebrows. And the ex-husband cackled.
I’m not a cook. I come from a long line of not-cooks.
But when food--Italian food with its inherent romance and mystery--and hand-scrawled recipes with essential ingredients of fervent wishes and bittersweet memories began forming in my mind last year, I didn’t say, Forget all this--you can’t write a book about food and cooking and hand-scrawled recipes! Instead, I did what I always do when an idea has gripped me, heart, mind and soul: I waited for the “What’s this really about?” to present itself, to explain to me where all this was coming from. A novel about cooking? About a heartbroken woman who inherits her mysterious grandmother’s home-based business and must teach an Italian cooking class when she can barely make a decent marinara sauce? About her four students, seeking much more than just how to cook chicken alla Milanese and risotto?
In those months before I started writing a word of my upcoming novel THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, I realized I was thinking a lot about my childhood-- particularly about a long, narrow kitchen in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens, four flights up on a busy street. I could not stop thinking about that kitchen--how, despite its dirty beige walls and short window with the fire escape and burglar bars, it was my favorite place to be.
The summer I turned eight, my mother very permanently split from my father and moved us from our apartment building in the Bronx, New York to that apartment in Flushing, Queens (another borough of New York City). She worked full-time as a clerk in Korvettes department store (anyone remember Korvettes?), and by the time she picked up her three close-in-age children from daycare at the Y at 6:00pm, she was exhausted. So she smartly taught us how to help her cook. My older sister was on stove duty. I was an assembler. And my younger brother was a masher. And in that narrow kitchen, we’d spend a magnificent hour or two together, sharing funny, serious, mundane, interesting, scary, happy, not-happy tidbits about our day, about ourselves--sharing, period--as we cooked together.
My mother, one of the people I admire most, was no gourmet. Her rotation consisted of five meals: tuna fish in the shape of a smiley face with lettuce eyebrows, raw carrot nose, and onion-slice mouth; lightly fried flounder (the smell of which still fills me with joy); plain meat balls the size of baseballs (sans spaghetti or sauce, for some reason); fried liver and onions, and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. On liver and onions night (her favorite), she’d heat up Swanson’s turkey TV diners for the kids, which of course we loved (you would too, given the alternative).
To this day, tuna fish sandwiches with wilted lettuce, the kind that comes from four hours in a lunchbox, lightly fried flounder, and those giant meatballs, are my favorites, my comfort food. I shared my worries as I lay egg-coated flounder in the plate of breadcrumbs, listened to my sister’s hopes and fears as she placed meatballs in the big pot of water-ketchup broth, assured my brother, whether about long-division or bullies or the curious lack of relatives in our lives except for our maternal grandparents, as he mashed tuna and splattered mayonnaise. We talked in that kitchen. And a few subway stops away, in my grandmother’s similar kitchen in a similar apartment building, there was much of the same talking, the same food, the same comfort. My grandmother didn’t like to talk about herself or her past unless she was busy doing something--like scrubbing baking potatoes. And so I got a precious earful at the sink. She did too.
Now, four hundred miles away from both kitchens, I try my best at cooking, but I am my mother’s daughter and my grandma’s bubeleh--i.e., no foodie. (Although, I must say that my chicken alla Milanese, lasagna, and Bolognese sauce, after months of research-practice, are deliziosa.) So when asked where on earth I got the idea for THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, how I could write a novel about food and cooking and a main character teaching anyone to make classic Italian dishes, I often talk about my love of Italy, of the cooking memoirs I read, the research, the months of recipe testing I did--my dear son as taster. Because it’s almost impossible to explain how the essence of the book, what it’s really about, comes from those cramped kitchens of my childhood (and, much later, two very special trips to Italy), from beautiful, painful, very dear mish-mashes of memory--the kind you can’t necessarily conjure, but which forms you, stays with you, provokes in you questions big and small . . . and only hints at answers.
My ideas have always come from that place, the place in between the tuna fish smiley faces and secrets, where family and memory, love and loss, connection and lack thereof--and perhaps most of all, questions to which I have no answers, are always at work. It’s one of the things that makes “So where did you get the idea for this book?” so difficult to put into words. Except 90,000 of them, of course.
I would love to know your version of my smiley-face tuna-fish--those special meals from childhood you still love. For my son, now eight-years-old, I know it’ll be black bean tacos topped with a particular kind of shredded cheese, and the spaghetti Bolognese my heroine and I learned to make together. Giveaway Alert: One commenter (U.S./Canada only) will win an advance review copy of THE LOVE GODDESS' COOKING SCHOOL, so share away!
A bit of bio: I’m the author of nine previous novels, including my 2001 debut, SEE JANE DATE, which was made into a cute TV movie, two YAs, and my most recent women’s fiction title, THE SECRET OF JOY. My next novel, THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL, will be published by Simon & Schuster in late October! For more info, please visit my website. You can also find me on Twitter and Facebook. A former New Yorker, I now live on the lovely coast of Maine with my son.