Sunday, November 8, 2009

An Ode to Grocery Shopping and Julia Child

About every two weeks, invariably on a Sunday morning, I make the trek to the grocery store, with cart in tow. If you have ever lived with me, or know me pretty well, then you know that I love grocery shopping more than almost anything. In fact, I completely revel in it. Every two weeks, I get to go through the number of carefully clipped coupons that I store in a worn envelope, plan what I'll be eating for two weeks so I can make a list of what I need, and take a relaxing Sunday morning walk with my cart to 15 minutes to the grocery store. I think that my love for grocery shopping was begun when I was little and my mom took all of us to the store, where we invariably fought over who would get to stand at the end of the car (when Mom would let us). The grocery store always unleashed wonderful possibilities! There were always free cookies at the bakery, a free slice of hard salami at the deli, and we would always leave with animal crackers that came in the red box that looked like a circus truck. Not only that, but we would leave with the raw ingredients for what would turn into wonderful meals around the table. How could I not love it?

When I went to college and lived without a meal plan my senior year, that love persisted and grew. I loved the thrill of looking up sales, planning meals for the week, and the challenge to maintain some semblance of a budget. Not only that, but I think that is when I began to see grocery stores as the great human equalizer and the proof that there is humanity out there somewhere. Think about it--everyone has to go grocery shopping, no matter where you live or what you look like or who you are. There are no rules--no dress code, no membership requirements, no time limit. The second you enter any grocery store, all you bring with you is yourself and your list, and no one can stop you. And, you can be assured that wherever you live, a grocery store will be there, and even though it isn't quite the same as your childhood store, you smell that meaty, vegetably, cakey, yeasty, beautiful air that fills grocery stores, and comfort arrives. Usually, too, you can get around pretty easily too, as most stores are set up to be arranged about the same. What better feeling than being in a place surrounded by possibility--the possibility of meals, gatherings, experiments. And I always leave with this sense of calm and accomplishment that usually stays with me all day--even when I'm crossing the street with my cart and all of my produce falls out (of course it wouldn't be something in a box). But see, a nice couple helped me pick it all off the street, and my grocery-shopping high stayed with me for the next few hours.

In fact, one of my favorite days of the year is the day before Thanksgiving. My mom goes to the grocery store early around 6:00AM to beat the crowd to get everything she needs for a long weekend of feeding us. Usually, there are some people with the same idea, but not many, and the people who are there are of the same mindset, it always seems. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I always have this sense of peace around that time. Grocery stores further that. People don't have to say anything to you, but the congenial nod or slight smile of someone who reaches for the same thing I am always makes me feel connected in some way. I very rarely meet an angry person in the grocery store--maybe it's because I am always so relaxed and happy that I don't realize it, but I find people more apt to say hello. I think I wrote a poem once about the day before Thanksgiving--it's awful and I wrote it for a class, but still--proof of my love for grocery shopping and the day before Thanksgiving.

The thing is, though, that I'm not a really a varied shopper--especially here. I seem to buy the same things every two weeks because I know I can afford them and I know that they'll taste good. I think that other people do this as well, and part of me loves it because I love routine. But I so want to learn to cook. Unfortunately, when you cook for one, you are usually stuck with a ton of leftovers. I think that this longing for coking has bolstered by interest in Julia Child, thus leading me to read My Life in France, which I have almost finished. Over this past week, I have devoured Child's book and loved every moment--I found myself smiling like a fool on the Metro until I noticed a woman staring at me, probably thinking that I was one of those crazies you find so often on the Metro. But really, you can't help but smile and find grocery-store-type solace in My Life in France. It is everything we look for when we pick up a book: adventures in far off places (obviously France, but also Germany and Norway), a purpose (discovering her love of cooking and everything French and wanting to educate others about it), words that you can really sink into and trust (her writing, with the help of Alex Prud'homme, is home and honest--she doesn't bullshit, but tells it like it is adding humor and tenderness), and a love story (Julia and Paul are so perfect for each other, it almost seems unreal). The book is easy to read and hilarious, as you can imagine if you've ever seen an episode of The French Chef. But beyond all that, Julia Child's story is heartening--here is a woman who didn't figure out what she really wanted to do with her life until her late 30's, but immersed herself in French cooking and loved her life. She soldiered on and even though her life was not perfect, she took it by the horns and gave it a what for. And for that, she is admirable.

Over the summer, I read Julie Powell's book Julie and Julia which I also adored for its wit and hilarity, and if you read My Life in France I recommend reading Powell's memoir afterwards, and possibly seeing the movie Julie and Julia which I enjoyed (and Meryl Streep is genius. But what's new?). If you're looking for an easy, engaging read, My Life in France is the one for you.

Do you agree with me on grocery shopping? Am I crazy? Maybe so, but it gives me peace of mind. Next time you head to the grocery store, think about it. Leave a comment telling me about your own grocery feelings. :)

Next on the pile: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

As Julia would say: Bon Appetit!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"What Else But Home" and Other Readings

My mom is usually great at picking out wonderful books for me. Seeing as she works in the library in technical services and sees most of what is new that gets put on the shelves, and she knows me pretty well, she is usually able to come up with some wonderful book that was not otherwise on my radar. I thought that this would be the case with the latest of her suggestions What Else But Home by Michael Rosen. Everything considered, I should have loved it--the book is about a group of inner-city boys living in the New York projects who are taken in by the author and his family as a kind of adopted family. I am a sucker for stories where the underprivileged are given a chance at a decent life, and through trials and tribulations, they are able to live the life that they deserve, so at first glance, I expected to love What Else But Home, but I couldn't stand it. First of all, I didn't find Rosen to be that great of a writer--there were a ton of grammatical errors in the book and his prose is sometimes hard to follow. It makes for distracted reading when every few pages, you have to re-read a sentence numerous times in order to understand what it says (and it's maddening when you still can't understand what he is trying to say). The concept is great--Rosen and his family are very wealthy, living in a penthouse in Manhattan. A park separates their lavish home from the projects, and the park is where the family meets a group of boys who live in the projects over a game of baseball, a theme which is constant throughout the book. For reasons unknown really except for the fact that the boys seem to take a liking to Rosen's oldest son, the family incorporates these boys into their lives and eventually some of them come to live with them. I'm not going to get all political or philosophical on my own beliefs, but I really did have a problem with Rosen's methods. I also had an issue in connecting with the book at all. I wish that I had gotten some idea of why the seven boys from the projects were great people or why Rosen took such a liking to them and invested a ton of money in their futures (which some of them took advantage of, but not all), but the image that I kept getting from the writing was that these were just seven boys who were basically identified by their race (Black and Latino) and were becoming part of the family for that reason alone, really. I don't want to say that what Rosen and his family did was not extraordinary--not many people would take in seven boys whom they had never met into their home, feed them, clothe them, send them to school, and help them find jobs. It is really an amazing thing that they did. But I feel like the book approaches the whole experience from a kind of experimental point of view rather than a story of humanity. And in all honesty, what I did like about the book was the way that Rosen was very up front with these boys were human, and they weren't all responsive to help and that they were not perfect, and that he himself was not perfect. While that did add an element of human-ness to the book, I found it overall disappointing. I personally would not recommend it, although it certainly made me think about my own moral beliefs and instincts.

If you are like me and are a sucker for feel-good books about the ways that people help others, here are some other books to consider:
-The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers--This is the book that the movie is based on, and it is really a story of triumph and a good read.
-Amazing Grace by Jonathon Kozol--I think that Kozol is amazing and his way of studying the life of people living in the projects is spectacular. I have put this on many a booklist, and would love for someone to read it!

In other news, my DC book club has just chosen Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway for our next meeting. Although it was not my vote, I do love Mrs. Dalloway (I read it twice last year alone because I wrote my English symposium paper on it), and I'm excited to read it again. I feel like fall is a great time for Virginia Woolf. I've also been absorbed into another smaller book club with one of my roommates, and I suggested reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett for next month! Some of you should know that as what I hailed to be the best book I read all summer, and I think some of you would agree! I'm so excited to be able to read it with other people and discuss it!

Last weekend, at the National Gallery of Art (where I work part-time), Toni Morrison came to read for the opening of the new exhibition of Robert Bergman's photographs (which I'm really excited to see!). Morrison wrote the introduction for Bergman's book called A Kind of Rapture, and it's an essay called The Fisherwoman. I was not able to go see her live, but did see the video they showed staff, and was bowled away by the story and her reading of it. It was truly wonderful, and was able to capture the feeling that I get when looking at a Robert Frank photograph. I will post it on here when they release the video, because it is something to hear. It really made me want to read Sula again.

The fall is really starting to settle in here--I barely see the light of day because it gets dark so early, which has always made me feel cozy for some reason. I'm looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving and being able to listen to Christmas music without feeling silly!

I hope that your readings are more successful than my last one! More to come soon!

Next on the pile: My Life in France by Julia Child