I’ve just read the most inspiring book: Cherries in Winter, by Suzan Colón. And no, it’s not inspiring only because it has to do with food (my usual source of inspiration, of course). It’s a memoir about a family that really had the right idea.
From the jacket cover:
When Suzan Colón was laid off from her dream job at a magazine during the economic downturn of 2008, she needed to cut her budget way, way back, and that meant home cooking. Her mother suggested, “Why don’t you look in Nana’s recipe folder?” In the basement, Suzan found the tattered treasure, full of handwritten and meticulously typed recipes, peppered with her grandmother Matilda’s commentary in the margins. Reading it, Suzan realized she had found something more than a collection of recipes—she had found the key to her family’s survival through hard times.
Suzan began re-creating Matilda’s “sturdy food” recipes for baked pork chops and beef stew, and Aunt Nettie’s clam chowder made with clams dug up by Suzan’s grandfather Charlie in Long Island Sound. And she began uncovering the stories of her resilient family’s past. Taking inspiration from stylish, indomitable Matilda, who was the sole support of her family as a teenager during the Great Depression (and who always answered “How are you?” with “Fabulous, never better!”), and from dashing, twice-widowed Charlie, Suzan starts to approach her own crisis with a sense of wonder and gratitude. It turns out that the gift to survive and thrive through hard times had been bred in her bones all along.
Cherries in Winter is an irresistible gem of a book. It makes you want to cook, it makes you want to know your own family’s stories, and, above all, it makes you feel rich no matter what.
This book appealed to my major soft spots in its nostalgia for the past coupled with hope for the future, all salt-and-peppered with a sense of humor.
When I started reading the author’s family stories, I half-expected a detailed account of the evolution of each recipe included in each chapter. With that in mind, I chuckled to myself when I read that many of Nana’s recipes were obtained in exchange for beauty lessons! As a well-groomed city girl accustomed to performing secretarial duties in an office, she was ill-equipped to run her household when she found herself living on the farm her husband later bought. Faced with the rural community’s ladies recipe exchange, what was she to do but barter what skills she did have? So it was that each recipe was neatly typed and preserved in her archives; and so it was that “the farm women of Saratoga Springs began to look a little prettier that winter.”
Something about that anecdote really impressed me. I think it struck me that I might not have dealt with the situation in the same way. I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to do what Nana did. In fact, I imagine I would have been on the phone (or email, rather, though that doesn’t apply in the 1940s) with my mom and dad, asking for detailed instructions on how to make our family spaghetti sauce.
Mom and Dad still make spaghetti sauce for me when we’re together (we dined on it in Tokyo, in fact!). But one day, I will be a big girl and attempt it for the first time myself. I will probably end up modifying it to suit the ingredients I like, the ingredients available to me, the people I am cooking for, etc. And I will have my reasons for doing so. I guess that’s how recipes evolve in the first place, though, just as they evolved from the Saratoga Springs recipe exchange to the live cooking lessons the author recounts sharing with her own mother. When you realize how that process stretched this family through the hardest of times, it becomes really fascinating, and that is why I devoured (pun intended) this little book in two days flat.
If you’re short on ideas for a New Year’s resolution, I suggest devoting a couple hours to Cherries in Winter—no arbitrary promises necessary.