I was about ten or eleven when I fried my first salmon cake. In a kitchen, under the auspices of my paternal grandmother, I deboned canned salmon, cracked eggs, peppered the fish, made the patty, battered it in flour, and tossed it in the pan to fry. Salmon cakes are a multi-purpose food source in my grandmother’s household. Breakfast: salmon cakes and grits. Lunch: salmon cakes and salad. Dinner: salmon cakes and creamed corn.
After my first batch was finished, a little browner than desired, my grandmother said to me: you’ll always be able to find an egg, a can of salmon, and flour. If you can fry a decent cake, you’ll never go hungry. It is not the most profound advice my grandmother has ever given me, but it is certainly the most practical. When family or neighbors or friends find themselves at my grandmother’s kitchen table, they are often welcomed with her signature salmon cake. To feed someone and feed them well is a form of care, of love to which Southerners like myself (from Virginia), like my grandmother (from Georgia), hold fast.
Our worlds, no matter where we are from, revolve around food and are deeply shaped by our relationship to it. My grandmother’s salmon cake recipe is valuable certainly because it satisfies hunger, but also because it brings me back to a particular moment in time. And so, these days, in my own kitchen in Crown Heights, I often turn to this meal as an homage of sorts, as a way of remaining connected to my history and, of course, to my grandmother.
In her anthology, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, writer and artist Natalie Eve Garrett has gathered together 76 essays and accompanying recipes from—you guessed it—artists and writers for whom food equals intimacy. Taking its inspiration from a 1961 book of the same title, Garrett’s collection is anything but a traditional cookbook. Instead, it’s a gustatory diary. Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Doerr’s opening essay and breakfast recipe for Huckleberry Muffins leads readers through a episode of berry picking in the west-central mountains of Idaho as it revels in the serenity of a morning, the stillness of summer afternoon. The sun. The breeze. Happiness.
Joyce Carol Oates’s morning meal is a meditation on love, friendship, and grief. Its brevity is its potency, as the author remembers the dish she most frequently shared with her late husband—scrambled eggs, onions, and smoked salmon. Photographer An-My Lé’s essay, “Bá Mính’s Pho,” is a beautiful reflection on migration and identity, set against the backdrop of the 1968 Tet Offensive, as well as an ode to her grandmother, whose pho has nourished Lé in many different ways throughout the years. I thought of my own grandmother and her salmon cakes and all the women who gathered in their kitchens to cook and care for others during that tumultuous time.
Edwidge Danticat’s Soup Joumou, affirms food’s connection to ritual as the MacArthur Fellowship recipient traces the origins of this New Year’s day Haitian meal to its roots in the painful realities of the transatlantic slave trade. We eat to remember. We eat to remind ourselves of our beginnings. We eat to celebrate that which has been overcome.
Garrett’s collection traverses an emotional spectrum that uses the personal to consistently point outwards. From the necessary inventiveness of Nelson Demille’s Army-standard spam and beans to the ceremonial payesh marking Bharati Mukherjee’s infant son’s readiness for solid food, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook embodies a spirit of comfort and familiarity. We have all loved. We have all mourned. We have all found ourselves with a plate of food, around a table or rug, on a stoop or porch, pondering all that life has given us.
The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes © 2016, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, published by powerHouse Books.