Book Notes: Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

Molly Wizenberg’s first memoir, A Homemade Life, was a revelation to me. I’d been reading Orangette for quite some time, so when the book came out, I gobbled it up like a slice of cake on cheat day. I found her depth of emotion and authenticity utterly breathtaking, and was so pleased to be able to meet her at BlogHer Food 2010, mere hours after finishing the book on the plane that got me there. She was very kind and approachable and let me pepper her with questions about food blogging and memoir writing (I was in the thick of dissertation research at the time) when she could have been socializing and enjoying cocktails with her cohort of famous food bloggers.


So, when Delancey came out earlier this year, Wizenberg’s account of opening a restaurant with her husband, I was eager to read it. I was intrigued by the language about how the process inspired “the first crisis of her young marriage.” While I was a little worried that it would be another Cleaving, I knew that the details would be far less salacious, and was confident that this would be another meaty, satisfying peek into the life of a gifted writer-turned-restaurateur.

You know how sometimes you make your coffee in the morning and even though you haven’t done anything differently — you scoop the same amount of beans in the grinder, smash ’em up, dump ’em into the coffeemaker, add the same amount of water you always do into the chamber — you somehow wind up with a thin, transparent brew that barely breaches the blood-brain barrier? You’ll choke it down but all the while you’re plotting your route to the nearest coffee shop after you drop off the kids at school? I felt that same frustration and disappointment when reading this book. It’s about 256 pages long and by page 100 I was wondering when it was going to get interesting.

It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly why this book left me cold. Maybe my expectations were too high. So much of what she shared in Homemade resonated so profoundly with me — the midwestern upbringing, losing a parent to cancer, an abiding love of Paris, a deep commitment to home cooking — it was practically genetically engineered to hit all of my identification receptors. But Delancey just didn’t sing for me. Maybe it’s because I have never opened a restaurant from scratch before and so I couldn’t identify. But I also feel like Wizenberg was holding back this time around. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read the first book, but I remember it being more open and genuine. In Delancey, she seems to be somewhat disconnected from the experience, holding it at arm’s length, perhaps to protect her family from the gory details?

Here’s an example of what I mean. Late in the book, her husband finally cracks under the pressure of midwifing a new restaurant into existence.

He didn’t get the privilege of saying that he didn’t want to do it anymore. I told him this, or something like it. I screamed. I remember him asking me over and over why I couldn’t understand, why I couldn’t just comfort him. (189)

Here is a critical moment in this couple’s relationship and the way it’s portrayed here is just … meh. Beige. We are told, not shown, and it’s like this for most of the book. It’s thin coffee with too much cream. On top of that, most of the recipes at the end of each “chapter” (many of the interludes barely qualify as chapters) don’t really reflect, amplify, or comment upon what has just transpired in the narrative. They’re merely ornamental, as though Wizenberg felt some imperative to include recipes because she’s a food blogger. (And we won’t even discuss the cameos by a certain food blogger and her husband; I’ll save my feelings about that for my book group discussion.)

For me, Delancey is maybe indicative of a tipping point for blogs-to-books, in that I wonder whether the blog-as-commodity is waning. (A good thing, in my opinion.) I feel like publishers are hoping to trade on a big name (as in the case with Delicious!) and a built-in fan base (as in this case) and are sacrificing depth in the process. Along the same lines, I really enjoy Mallory Ortberg’s Dirtbag Teddy Roosevelt and Dirtbag Zeus, but I don’t see myself buying Texts from Jane Eyre. In short, I don’t think it’s necessary to monetize every blog post on the internet. I think that there is really brilliant, moving work living on the internet and I think that, in the case of Delancey, it loses some of its color and life in the movement from online to print.

I’ve got lots of books on my To Read list. I’m currently reading My Brilliant Friend; what have you read recently that we can discuss here?

Book Notes: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Earlier this year, I swore to read a book a week over the course of 2014, a plan that failed spectacularly because, duh, I’m a slow reader who picks impossibly long books that couldn’t be finished inside of a week absent any semblance of a life or need for sleep. That said, I have read a LOT of books over the summer, including This Is Where I Leave You (LOVE — can’t wait for the movie!), Broken Harbor (LOVE), The Leftovers (ALSO LOVE), the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (LOVE, even though the author got a little up her own you-know-what in the final book), The Carriage House (DID NOT LOVE), Vampires in the Lemon Grove (MEHHHH, I am disappoint).



On our recent vacation to New Mexico, I devoured (to be clear: when I say “devour” as concerns this book, think of it as the literary equivalent of hate-f**king the fraternity brother who lives in your apartment building) Delicious! by Ruth Reichl. This is not a book that had been on my radar before a food-writing friend of mine alerted me (along with some other local food-writing women) to its existence and suggested that we get together and discuss it. So, I checked it out from the library and packed it along for the long drive to Santa Fe.

Let’s start with the good. We won’t be here long. I really like the way that Reichl drew a direct line from World War 2-era subsistence agriculture and foraging to contemporary notions of homesteading. Just like in Portlandia (“the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland“), the dream of the 1940s is alive in Ohio … and Brooklyn, and Austin, and Omaha and so on. I also really appreciated when Reichl would demonstrate her deep knowledge of food, from the difference between winter and spring parmigiano to the various histories and uses of particular foods. That’s when her writing really sang in this novel; sadly, she would drop those lovely moments like hot potatoes in service to her hot mess of a narrative.

There is a LOT going on in this book. We’ve got the letters from a mysterious young woman to James Beard during WW2. We’ve got the death of an iconic food magazine (*cough*) and the obvious emotional trauma Reichl is working through via her surrogate(s) at said magazine. We’ve got the Underground Railroad, xenophobia against Italian-Americans, the post-WW2 “lavender scare,” and a mysterious back story and an obligatory love plot for Billie Breslin, the heroine. Reichl has embedded her novel with so many moving parts that she ends up under developing every single one of them, relying instead on tired tropes and stereotypes, down to the ugly-duckling-gets-a-makeover scene. Some people have suggested that Delicious! reads like a YA novel, but that would be an insult to YA fiction, much of which doesn’t insult its readership by telegraphing every plot development and tying up every single crappy narrative thread with an overwrought bow. 

Where was Reichl’s editor? Who was there to say, “Have you considered narrowing your focus a bit?” Or perhaps, “Have you considered fleshing out your characters a bit?” The love interest is so underwritten that Reichl might as well have just marched a cardboard cutout of Mr. Darcy into the scene for all the charisma he has.

And I’m not even mentioning the continuity and basic copyediting errors!

When my friends and I got together to discuss the book, we wondered whether it would have been published if it hadn’t had Reichl’s name on it. I seriously doubt it. I’m shocked it was published, period.

Next up: Delancey. I loved A Homemade Life, so Molly Wizenberg better not let me down!


Tansy #1 is complete!

Welp, it took me WAY longer than I’d anticipated (such is the way of the world when you’re teaching yourself graphic design AND a new program), but the first issue of TANSY is complete and ready to be shared with the world!!! This issue, based loosely on the theme of strawberries, contains some cool recipes (including a medieval recipe for stewed strawberries), flash fiction by my friend Jessi Cape, and ruminations on Strawberry Shortcake. Plus purity pictures, like this one: 


Photo by Lauren Walz

Photo by Lauren Walz

The zine is available in PDF ($2) and hard copy ($3.50). Leave a comment here if you’d like a copy and I’ll email you privately. Yay!