On page 239 of his cookbook, Pat Conroy writes that book critics are “mostly bulimic, rail-thin – no great appetites there.” I laughed uproariously (laughing uproariously is a very Conroyvian thing to do) when I read this statement: clearly Conroy has never met THIS book critic. I am the kind of eater to whom the staff members in Japanese restaurants routinely give five or six sets of chopsticks when I come in to pick up my to-go order, thinking that I have ordered enough sushi to feed a family. Invariably I hand all but one set back, indicating with my shaking head and condescending smile that I am planning to eat the entire order myself. In the parking lot. In five minutes, tops.
So in other words, I am a good reader for Conroy’s cookbook. I love both stories and food, and I approve of Conroy’s definition of a recipe as “a good story that ends with a good meal.” I believe that the salubrious effects of good food extend far beyond the nourishment of the body, and I believe that the connection between food and “communion” is far more than just a religious or literary device. (I state these beliefs in spite of the fact that I have eaten far more than my fair share of meals in the parking lots of sushi restaurants and other similar places, because even sitting at a table for one in a restaurant sometimes feels too communal for my solitary tastes. But I believe these things nonetheless – what, you always live out your beliefs to the letter?)
My standards when I started reading this book were high – and they were only partially satisfied. There are recipes in this book that made me want to race out of the house immediately to buy the ingredients and try them out – examples: Barbequed Shrimp with Rosemary Biscuits (263-5), Cured Pork Crostini with Sweet Potato Brandade (254-5), Italian Sausage with Crispy Sweet Potatoes and Wilted Broccoli Rabe (136-7), Scottiglia (127-8) – and others, like Roast Suckling Pig (229) that I thoroughly enjoyed reading even though I doubt I will ever actually attempt them. However, as I thumb through the book to review the recipes, I notice that I marked almost nothing in the first half of the book. There is a simple explanation for why I spent the first half of the book in a constant state of mild nausea not at all conducive to wanting to cook and eat things – and that explanation consists of the single most unappetizing word in the English language.
Let me just say a few things about mayonnaise. With one or two possible competitors, it’s the most disgusting substance that I have ever heard of anyone eating. I have hated it since I was old enough to hate things, and I have often gone hungry if my only choice was to eat something with mayonnaise on it (well-meaning hostesses and restaurant waitstaff have sometimes tried to “help” by wiping the mayonnaise off the offending food with a napkin. Just so you know, this does not help. The mayonnaise is still there; once mayonnaise has touched a food item, that food item is corrupted forever – plus, the visual experience of seeing the mayonnaise smeared around is usually enough to ensure that I won’t eat for at least the rest of the day, if not longer). In college I briefly worked in a deli and used to plead with customers not to order mayonnaise on their sandwiches so I wouldn’t have to run the risk of touching it of catching a whiff of its noxious odor. It would be one thing if mayonnaise were either a) a naturally-occurring substance or b) extremely good for you; in either case, I still don’t think I would like it but I would understand why some people ate it and might be convinced to TRY to develop a taste for it. But the fact that people go out of their way to make this product that is NOT healthy, that goes rancid easily and causes food poisoning, and that, oh yeah, is DISGUSTING is simply a sign to me that not all human beings have evolved at the same rate.
(Side note: If my friend Alison is reading this right now, she is remembering something. And I hope she is laughing her ass off.)
All of this is a long way of telling you that the vast majority of the recipes in the first half of this cookbook contain mayonnaise – and, not only that, that Conroy makes a point of rhapsodizing about mayonnaise. And for those of you who have read any of Pat Conroy’s work, you know that this man deserves a Nobel Prize in rhapsodizing. And if the object of his paeans happens not to be something that makes one vomit, I have no complaint. This tendency to rhapsodize is part of who Pat Conroy is as a writer, and most of the time I enjoy it. But discovering that he worships mayonnaise to the degree he does was disappointing – like finding out that he is a chronic nose-picker or one of those people who saves his own urine or something.
Fortunately, though, things improve once Conroy’s focus shifts to the two major themes of the cookbook’s second half: Italy and bacon. Italy – and its culture of food – has my approval 100%; I am somewhat less excited by bacon but at least am not repulsed by it, and I do admit that it can do a lot to add flavor to a dish when included as one of many other ingredients.
Of course, the primary reason to read this cookbook is to revel in Conroy’s stories. Unfortunately, for those of us who have read My Reading Life, many of the stories in this book are familiar – but whatever. I tell good stories over and over again too; that’s what you are supposed to do with good stories. Most of the stories in this book are about the friends with whom Conroy has shared good food, either in private homes or in restaurants, and about the friends who have helped teach him how to cook. If we take his account for the literal truth, Conroy has an uncanny knack for befriending (or for making enemies with) future celebrity chefs in their pre-celebrity years – and his story about his long-ago encounter with Emeril Lagasse is one of the funniest in the book.
Conroy often writes about his literary heroes – Thomas Wolfe usually foremost among them, although I don’t think he is mentioned in this book at all – but until this book I don’t think I have ever known Conroy to comment upon the powerful effect that John Irving’s The World According to Garp had upon his writing – and, specifically, upon his writing of The Prince of Tides. According to Conroy, both Garp and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude “freed” something about the way he wrote and allowed for the breakthrough that he perceives in his writing in between The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides. Never mind that I know any number of people (possibly myself included, although I’m biased) who would state that the reverse is true: that Conroy’s writing is at its best in his earliest books – in The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline – what really struck me about this revelation is my own memory of discovering BOTH John Irving (in the form of Garp, The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, and A Prayer for Owen Meany) AND Pat Conroy (in the form of The Lords of Discipline) within the space of about two months in the summer of 1991. It was both of these writers put together (both of them outstanding storytellers, and both also strikingly inconsistent as writers and capable of highly flawed work) that, in the matter of a couple of months, absolutely changed the way I look at the world – gave me an awareness of absurdity and pathos and irony and a willingness to look beneath surfaces that I identify with beginning to think like a writer, and even though it has taken me an awfully long time to really do something about it, I credit that summer of 1991 and the confluence of the work of those two larger-than-life novelists with making that subtle but transformative brain-shift happen, and it makes me happy to think of Irving once having a similar effect on Pat Conroy.
But finally, this book is worth reading if only for the story of how Conroy’s father helped him to finish The Great Santini. I had read this story several times before – I think it is in both My Reading Life and My Losing Season – and I might have read it in an interview somewhere. This is among the best stories – fictional or “true,” and, like all good stories, it is, of course, both – I have ever read or heard anywhere. It’s not my place to reproduce the story in detail here; I’ll just say that this story is one of many that I thought of when my students used to insist that irony doesn’t appear in real life as it does in literature. The idea that irony is something that is created by authors (or that, if it happens in real life, it is only in the form of cruel jokes; “irony is when the fire station burns down” is something that students seem often to arrive in high school already knowing – do they teach that on some stupid 21st-century version of Schoolhouse Rock or something?) is an adolescent tendency that I always found hard to fight – but I wish I had remembered this story of Conroy’s sooner – because it has everything: sadness, vindication, the triumph of coming of age, the recognition that we are all limited by our identities – and yes, irony.
And the irony is beautiful. And the recipes (the ones without mayonnaise, anyway) aren’t bad either.