Book Review: The Art of Eating In-How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway

A few years ago Cathy Erway made a decision — for two years she would not eat out in any of New York’s 41oh732dmhl-_sx330_bo1204203200_five boroughs. Instead, she would discover the pleasures of cooking and eating at home, and she’d keep a blog called Not Eating Out in New York, tracking her culinary adventures.

Her foray back into the kitchen is now chronicled in the book The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove.

I can’t imagine never eating out in New York, one of the best restaurant cities in the world. I was intrigued on how Erway was going to accomplish this monumental task. Cooking can be a lot of fun, and there is something very satisfying about eating a meal you made yourself. At the same time, cooking large meals with lots of ingredients can be time-consuming and costly, and constantly trying new recipes that are both delicious and nutritious can be a challenge.

The Art of Eating In started out strong. In the beginning, Erway gives a brief history of restaurants — the first of which began in the Middle East during the late tenth century. The first known restaurants appeared in the Western world in Paris (where else?) in 1766. Today, we have our pick of everything from fast food joints to high-end eateries anywhere in the world. Needless to say, this is having a huge impact on both our wallets and our waistlines.

Dollars and pounds aside, what Erway really wanted to do was start a blog about her project (ah yes, the blogging-your-way-to-fame tactic). She tried her hand at freeganism, dumpster diving for food restaurants and shops just throw out. She was appalled by the amount of food she found, many of it still safe to eat. Erway also foraged for edible plants at a local park.

Eventually, she got involved with New York’s supper clubs, underground clubs where people share all kinds of meals. Before long, she became semi-famous in these circles, both for her blog and for her dishes, even winning an award for her no-knead bread.

But as the book went on I found myself getting irritated, not inspired. Rarely does Erway mention a mishap in the kitchen or a recipe gone awry. Even the most seasoned gourmands make a mistake. Furthermore, despite being just out of school and nebulously employed, she seems to have oodles of money for supper club fees, exotic and expensive ingredients and fancy cookware. Never does she really break down a budget for her two-year experiment, so there’s little commentary on the economic side of the project, which would have been helpful.

Plus, every one of Erway’s friends seems to be a hipster “foodie” and completely bowled over by every single dish. This seemed highly unrealistic to me. Surely someone must have turned their noses up at something.

Furthermore, it doesn’t help that Erway’s writing is rather dry and not very engaging. After a while, I just didn’t care about her little experiment, and ordered Chinese food in protest. I would have liked to read some of her initial blog posts to compare to the actual book. Even the recipes interspersed throughout left me rather cold.

In the end, The Art of Eating In is like fast food meal — you feel stuffed, but you won’t feel satisfied.

Meaty by Samantha Irby

MeatyIf Samantha Irby didn’t exist we’d have to invent her. Ms. Irby is a Chicago-based writer and performer who writes a blog called “Bitches Gotta Eat.” She’s hosted Chicago’s “Sunday Night Sex Show” and performed at various shows throughout the Windy City. She also opened up for comedian Baratunde Thurston on his “How to Be Black” tour and wrote an advice blog with her writing partner Ian Belknap. Oh, and with all of that on her plate, Irby also works regular job.

Irby is funny, profane, opinionated and brutally honest about herself and life in general. And now she’s sharing more of her wit and wisdom in a collection of essays in her debut book Meaty.

Meaty is a hodge-podge of opinions, advice, rants, observations, recipes and personal memoir. Irby writes of bad dates and even worse sex, white people she likes, her love of tacos, her struggles with body image, and her epic battle with Crohn’s disease.

She’s also not shy about talking about her less than ideal childhood where she grew up poor and black in an upper middle class mostly white Chicago suburb with two parents who died when she was very young.

In the opening essay “At 30” Irby takes assessment of herself at this milestone birthday and like a lot of people, finds herself lacking. She doesn’t have a career; she has a job. She’s sans husband and kids. She doesn’t own a house, is behind on her electric bill, owns a busted laptop and her fridge shows off her lack of grocery shopping skills. She claims she needs to work out and work on her unfinished novel. She’s in need of a therapist and nutritionist. She also desires some half-naked hot dudes, a decent parking space in her Rogers Park neighborhood and for people to declare her “the funniest person they know.” Well, if Irby keeps expressing herself she just might get the last one.

In “Forest Whitaker’s Neck,” Irby gives a full description of her naked body from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. And from the graphic description of her private parts I am now more familiar with Irby’s vagina than I am with my own. Reading this essay might be a good idea for any of her future bed partners or doctors so they’re not too shocked.

“I fucking love white people” Irby claims in the essay “Milk and Oreos.” However, Irby does have certain standards. She likes white people who shop at farmer’s markets and eat the free samples at Whole Foods. She’s not fond of white teen moms who smoke Newports and are named “Destiny” with 19 Es. In other words, she likes white people like me—farmers’ markets and free samples at Whole Foods? I am so there!

In the essay “I Want to Put a Fat Bitch on Television”, Irby describes her idea for a sitcom featuring a character oddly similar to herself called “Nell in a Hand Basket.” After reading about her idea for a sitcom I want Hollywood to make this happen. NBC just cancelled “Community” (sniff), and now they have a space to fill on Thursday nights. “Nell in a Hand Basket” would make great “must-see TV.”

And speaking of black women on TV, Irby doesn’t take Lena Dunham to task for not having a whole lot of black folks on her HBO show “Girls” in the essay “Elena Tyler. AKA Why I Can’t Be Mad at Lena Dunham.” She fears the show just might make the black character a token or a stereotype. And she also thinks we should appreciate a very young woman making a ground-breaking television show. And just so you know Elena Tyler was Felicity’s roommate on the late 1990s early 2000s TV show “Felicity.” Was Elena Tyler a token? Perhaps. Personally, I was too busy drooling over dreamy Ben Covington.

But interspersed with Irby’s hilarious rants and observations are moments of pathos. In her essay, “My Mother, My Daughter” Irby describes how her own mother pretty needed her care when Irby was still a child. Irby’s mother suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, a disease of which there is no cure. When Irby was around nine, her mother was in an awful car accident, which just exacerbated her MS. Irby betrays no detail in describing that horrific day and its aftermath and how it altered both their lives completely.

And in the essay “Skillet” Irby explains her relationship with a mostly absent alcoholic father (who suffered from both alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder) through a dirty skillet she accidentally washed in soapy water. Just reading about the pain—physically, emotionally and mentally—inflicted on a young Irby made me want to invent a time machine and go back to give girl child Irby a huge hug and tell her nobody will ever hurt her again.

Then there is Irby’s battle with Crohn’s disease. Irby tells the brave readers that Crohn’s disease is a harsh mistress that can flare up at any time. She may shit in your car and she may crap all over some poor guy’s dick. Sure, it’s gross, but it’s Irby’s reality. Deal with it.

Meaty is probably not for everyone. If you are uptight, not comfortable with graphic descriptions of sex and shit or just lack a sense of humor, you probably won’t like Meaty. However, I found myself laughing, nodding in agreement with Irby, cringing on her behalf (or in recognition) and at times, feeling nothing but compassion and good will towards her.

Ultimately, Irby’s attitude seems to be “take me or leave me.” I’ll definitely take Irby and I hope she has enough material to write a sequel to Meaty, especially if it includes more recipes.

Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman

Behind the Kitchen DoorWe are a nation of foodies. We are concerned that the food we consume is sustainable, organic and locally-grown. We post photographs of our meals on Instagram. We revere well-known chefs like they are rock stars. And we make countless trips to restaurants, whether they are greasy spoon diners or high-end white tablecloth establishments.

I admit to being a foodie, too. Though I eat plenty of homemade meals, I consider it to be a blessing to live in such a great restaurant town. My own neighborhood boasts of great eateries featuring all kinds of food-Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Greek, French, Ethiopian and so on. There is even a restaurant in my neighborhood that makes gourmet, artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches.

I eat at these restaurants, enjoy my meals with relish, treat the staff with respect and always leave a good tip. But I truly know what it’s like to work at a restaurant? Well, I thought I had some idea, but Saru Jayaraman’s book Behind the Kitchen Door really opened up my eyes and my mind.

Behind the Kitchen Door takes a very thorough look at how those who make our food and deliver it to our tables are treated by the restaurant industry, an industry that can treat its workers quite cruelly. And this doesn’t just happen at fast food joints or national chains like the Olive Garden or Denny’s. Fancy, high-end restaurants are also guilty of treating their employees poorly.

Jayaraman first became aware of restaurant workers’ plight when she was contacted by some people who used to work at the restaurant Windows on the World. Windows on the World was located at the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2011 73 of Windows’ workers perished when the WTC was attacked and over 200 of its workers were displaced. Windows’ owner promised his surviving workers he would hire them for another restaurant in uptown Manhattan. He broke his promise prompting several workers, most notably Fekkah Mamdouh, to work together along with Jayaraman and protest this initial development. Windows’ owner recanted and offered these employees work at the new restaurant. Thusly, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) was created, and it is working incredibly hard making sure restaurants workers are treated with respect and dignity and are rewarded properly for their hard work.

Reading this book really confirmed why ROC is so necessary. Behind the Kitchen Door relayed story after story of despicable low wages, no decent benefits including sick leave or health insurance, stolen tips, sexual harassment and blatant racism and sexism. And much of this doesn’t just happen to bussers or wait staff; workers we assume aren’t skilled or educated. Even highly-trained cooks and chefs deal with these issues. In one profile, Jayaraman tells the story of pastry chef Alicia. Alicia graduated from a well-regarded culinary school. She’s a talented and creative pastry chef at a good restaurant who is often praised for her amazing creations. Yet, she is making barely over minimum wage. For some odd reason her bosses don’t see her education, talent and skills as a pastry chef worthy of a sustainable wage.

Other profiles discuss anger-inducing stories of women being sexually-harassed and denied promotions. Minorities tell of tales of whites given better positions or promotions even if they don’t have the skills or experience. Many of the workers profiled told Jayaraman of coming in sick because they aren’t given any type of sick leave and are worried they might lose a job if they do call in sick. I don’t know about you, but I really want the people handling my food to be healthy.
Why are these things allowed to happen? Well, the other NRA-the National Restaurant Association-has enough money and clout, especially with politicians, to work against the plight of restaurant workers. And some restaurant owners are just not ethical employers.

But Behind the Kitchen Door reminds us that not all is lost. Yes, ROC is doing great work and its influence is spreading throughout the country. But Jayaraman also gives us positive tales of restaurant owners who treat their staff with common decency and fair wages. LA’s Good Girl Dinette offers its workers good pay and is figuring out how to get them better benefits. Its owner, a young woman named Diep, also is open-minded to her staff’s ideas and concerns. And Jason and Ben who own Russell Street Deli in Detroit also offer good pay and hope to offer good benefits like health insurance. Russell Street Deli also boasts of a very diverse staff.

But what can we do as restaurant patrons do make sure the industry’s workers are treated fairly. Behind the Kitchen Door offers many options. We can ask restaurant managers about their labor practices, we can encourage our politicians to focus on raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, we can boycott restaurants that are known for treating staff poorly and we can also join ROC’s campaign support all restaurant workers and check out its ROC National Diner’s Guide, which rates how various restaurants treat their employees. Not all of these things will be easy (I’d be a bit nervous confronting a restaurant manager about his or her labor practices). And just picking up Behind the Kitchen door and being open to the plight of restaurant workers is a positive step in the right direction. Behind the Kitchen Door isn’t always a comfortable read-many of the stories will truly make you lose your appetite-but it is definitely important food for thought.