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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bittersweet: Book Review

Bittersweet:Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen

It's Mother's Day and I can't think of a more fitting tribute than Bittersweet:Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen. Lots of "memoirs with food" are about discovery and love and various happy episodes in life, but Bittersweet is not that kind of memoir. A seasoned war correspondent and Pulitzer prize-winning author, Matt McAllester begins his tale with the death of his mother, a woman who struggled for years with mental illness and alcoholism. He is someone who knows how to write about pain, but this is another kind of pain altogether. It is personal.

Just as food is a way to explore pleasure, it is also a way to explore grief and healing. McAllester tries to find the mother he has lost and that the world lost to madness, through her recipes and his recollection of meals she prepared for him in happier times. His writing is masterful and deeply confessional. The recipes, and the sense of discovery and understanding that come from this journey are bittersweet indeed, but beautiful, at times funny, and always very moving.

Although Bittersweet is not a happy-go-lucky kind of story, it is absolutely compelling. Tastes of British, Italian and French cooking, and the wisdom and influence of Elizabeth David are woven into the story of his mother and his road back from grief. There are recipes for scones from Scotland, an improvised cassoulet and an almost mythical strawberry ice cream. Even without the recipes, Bittersweet would be haunting and lovely. The book made me care deeply about the author and the sad story of someone brilliant who slipped through the cracks and most of all, it reminded me that food is sometimes the thing that gets us through the most difficult times as well as the happiest ones.