Earlier this month my friend Cherrie and I visited the CIA-Greystone (the Culinary Institute of America) in St. Helena, in the Napa Valley. It's an imposing and impressive building and contains a restaurant open to the public for some meals. There were no classes offered that day, but guess what? The CIA store was OPEN. We must have spent at least an hour wandering all the little nooks and crannies, and left a hefty amount of money in their coffers. But stuck back in a corner was a discount/sale table of cookbooks. I leafed through a few that I don't have, saw some that already reside on my own shelves, but this book just jumped out in my hands. Ever had that happen?
I've read most of Pat Conroy's fiction - Beach Music, The Water is Wide, The Prince of Tides and others. Most are set in various places in the South and conjure up scenes of towns and harbors that, at the time I read them, I'd never been. He calls Beaufort, South Carolina his home, although now he lives near Atlanta most of the year. He's had several wives, but seems to care about all of them (surprising). Thumbing through this cookbook/memoir I saw lots of recipes, typical Southern fare (shrimp salad, beaten biscuits, grits, etc.) but I also saw stories. Here's the Amazon link for the book. It's only available in hardback, but used copies through Amazon start at $2.92. If you're a Pat Conroy fan - and you love to cook - you'll thoroughly enjoy this read.
Conroy is a lyrical writer - he's generous with the adjectives and adverbs wrapping every thought. I admire his choice of phrases sprinkled throughout. Each chapter is about a food subject - like oysters, Vidalia onions or a mentor in his life, of which there were many. Conroy was an Army brat, and has very few words for his fighter-pilot father, who wasn't much of a parent to him. It's surprising that he became such an avid cook since his mother didn't really enjoy cooking, but he does credit her with his love of writing. She encouraged him every inch of the way. He'd never had fish (except fish sticks on Friday nights) until he was an older teen because it was never served at home. But an accomplished cook he did become, and he obviously thoroughly enjoys sharing recipes and the unique flavors of the Low Country.
He writes, in effect, his autobiography through the course of the book. Each chapter begins with a very descriptive section about food, or how a specific person opened his mind and palate to new experiences. Then he follows up each chapter with a series of recipes relating to the story. You follow him through his junior high and high school years, college, then early marriage, and so forth. And he gives lots of praise to those people who steered him down a particular path.
I just loved reading this cookbook. His stories are magical, in a way. Several of the chapters brought tears to my eyes as he described some of the loving, giving people who helped him chisel a life for himself. He failed, so the speak, as a teacher, but finally began to write when there seemed nothing else he could do, with no source of income and a wife and several hungry children at home. Thank goodness he did take the risk, because he writes a very entertaining story, whether it be fiction or cookbooks.
I read on somebody else's blog that there probably should be a 12-step program for people like me who have a cookbook obsession. Ever heard of one in your neighborhood? If so let me know when and where it meets, 'cuz I probably ought to be attending.