After winning the 2012 James Beard Award for Individual Food Blog, Elissa Altman evolved her blog www.poormansfeast.com into the book Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking (Chronicle Books, 2013, $31.95). From childhood, Elissa remembers pining for cordial family dinners happily sharing food, like “fake families sitting around their own fake tables eating fake dinners” as seen on The Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch. Her memories of the dinner table more often include silent meals of plain food with television game shows in the background like uninvited dinner guests. Except holiday meals which, in contrast, were extraordinarily fancy affairs. But between over-the-top holiday celebrations and mundane nuclear family meals, she wanted the familial warmth of a close-knit meal on a daily basis around a loving table.
Elissa craved conviviality and ultimately found it as an adult, oddly enough, through a long-distance romance after sending a plea through an on-line dating service for a same-sex relationship with someone who loved food as much as she did. That someone was Susan, who admitted her favourite way of falling asleep was the foodie’s equivalent of counting sheep – reading alphabetical entries in Larousse Gastronomique. Elissa was intrigued by Susan through their on-line chats, but also sceptical when Susan admitted to cooking roast beef for Thanksgiving, thwarting all tradition in favour of red meat. But then they discovered their corresponding love of strong, pungent cheeses, and their on-line talks led to a first date.
Elissa gained her reputation as a die-hard foodie with hip jobs at the upscale Dean & DeLuca grocery stores in SoHo, and food editor positions for New York web-based magazines. Susan is from small-town Connecticut, unfamiliar with the urban lifestyle that Elissa enjoys. As a couple, it turns out they have differing outlooks on food, but are both willing to learn from each other. Elissa is schooled in culinary basics, but enjoys Susan’s philosophy that “toast is the saving grace of otherwise humdrum food everywhere.” Susan admits to not taking care of her kitchen knives, which is hard to take for Elissa who can be fanatical about her own knife roll, and who writes, “All of them were kept in pristine condition: the moment I saw a ding in one of them, I hurried it to a specialty sharpener on the Lower East Side, like an hysterical mother who rushes her baby to the emergency room after a sniffle.”
The book bounces between her current relationship with Susan and the past influence of her parents. Although she missed out on the Norman Rockwell family dinners, Elissa did grow up going to fine dining establishments in Manhattan with her father, secretly being introduced to gourmet specialties without her weight-obsessed mother overseeing. Elissa writes: “Manhattan’s hushed halls of haute cuisine were my father’s temples of peace and reason, where he went to shake the detritus of disappointment.” Her relationship with her mother was more strained by their polar opposite interests in food. About her mother, she writes: “Constantly dieting from the day she turned fifteen, her staunch enemy has been the food on her plate. She takes no comfort or joy in that food; it’s an adversary meant to be manipulated and manoeuvred. Restaurants are places not to eat but to be seen.”
But the food she shared with her father at those restaurants was all the more comforting, Elissa reveals, after her parents divorced when she was a teenager. Even amid her efforts to throw a surprise anniversary party, the marriage was on the brink of ending, unable to be saved even by the solace of a platter of her parents’ favourite deli sandwiches that 16-year-old Elissa paid for with her own savings.
Similarly, addressing the future of her long-distance relationship with Susan takes on a level of seriousness when Elissa discusses the kind of time it will take to grow a vegetable garden in Susan’s backyard. It takes three years after planting asparagus before it can be harvested – did they have that kind of commitment? Plus, being a New Yorker, foraging for food was not in Elissa’s repertoire – she shopped at grocers and ate at restaurants. Making a transition from refined to rustic would be breaking new ground, testing her relationship as well as her culinary skills.
The book is full of these juxtapositions between sophisticated, New York restaurants and rural, Connecticut cooking. But the story is mostly about how food has been a constant presence and a source of comfort for Elissa’s human connections, and her opening line in the book puts it beautifully: “There is poetry in food, kindness in the act of preparing it, and peace in sharing it.”