Sharon Boorstin examines the ties that bind in 'Let Us Eat Cake'
By Sara Bir
Light and pleasing as angel's food, Sharon Boorstin's Let Us Eat Cake is a food memoir that's shorter on meaty substance than it is on heartfelt sweetness. Former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Tribune, food writer Boorstin's album of recollections, recipes, and reconnections with close friends of bygone days is remarkable for its utter lack of remarkability. Boorstin's own journey through baby-boomer life has a nostalgic, Everywoman gleam whose details are easy to cozy up to: the huge freezer her parents kept in their kitchen with almost everything, from marshmallows to salmon, inside; the fancy French dinner parties she fumbled through to impress dates as a young co-ed.
Even though Let Us Eat Cake is a book about food, it's more about friendship. The food forms links in the chain of friends Boorstin fuses together. Even though Boorstin and the women she's become close with over the years have moved through career changes, decaying relationships, and growing children, the food they've cooked together has remained a touch point.
Boorstin begins with her middle-class childhood in Seattle, growing up in a close family that loved food but who were far from gourmets--her mother fed them a steady stream of ground beef casseroles.
She then recounts becoming a woman just before the cusp of women's lib and flower power, in that generation of women who still adhered to the pre-WWII ideals of their parents though were willing to cautiously explore the newly relaxed cultural atmosphere. After marrying, elaborate red-meat-oriented dinner parties with Liebframilch and Chianti came to be the prevailing social activities.
Throughout this all, Boorstin recalls her best friends at the time, from giggling girls in the go-go '60s to affluent, educated couples in the '70s. Once Boorstin wraps up covering the more pivotal moments of her life, she switches the focus from herself to her close friends, and their own personal--and diverse--experiences and associations with food.
The second half of the book loses its momentum once Boorstin begins straying from the path of her life story and relating the tales of other women on the periphery of her story in short, choppy chapters that have the breezy tone of a magazine article. (Let Us Eat Cake, in fact, sprouted from a series of articles Boorstin wrote for More magazine.) Even though it's fun to flutter through anecdotes of such big names as Julia Child, Nancy Silverton, and the Food Network's Too Hot Tamales, Boorstin writes most convincingly when she focuses on tales of her own old friends and how their paths come to intersect through the years, the bonds only growing stronger as they face life's challenges.
The recipes at the end of the chapters drive home the women's connection through food; it's sort of like meeting someone after you've heard so many good things about them. Even though many of the recipes offer a retro appeal (Moonshadow chicken, Grandma's blintzes, and a very '50s Canlis salad), Boorstin wisely includes only dishes that can still whet the appetites of cooks in 2002 (she shrewdly omits Aunt Myra's pickled salmon).
However, the recipes tacked on to the chapters profiling famous women who never figured prominently into Boorstin's life somehow don't ring as true, even if they do sound tasty. Which just goes to prove the whole point of the book: when you really examine the stories and trials that bind a friendship together--including the foods shared--it transforms a recipe from a mere list of ingredients to an album of memories come to life.
One of the book's pluses is that even though Boorstin was a restaurant critic and avid cook, she's no kitchen professional--just as the rest of us aren't. Like most home cooks, she's simply enthusiastic about exploring new foods and reminiscing about classic ones. Let Us Eat Cake offers no voyeuristic thrills of life on a frantic, demanding line in a high-profile restaurant. Instead, Boorstin assembles a casual gallery of kitchen follies that many of us have gone through ourselves: foiled batches of brownies, dinner-party pheasants that refused to brown. It's what infuses the book with the breezy yet affirming tone that makes it an amiable quasi memoir.
Boorstin's writing may not be as elegant as M. F. K. Fisher's or as enchanting as Ruth Reichl's, but Let Us Eat Cake infuses just enough warmth and reflection into its chatty reminiscences to make it a worthwhile read.
From the July 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.