Book review: With Pat Conroy, every flavor, every recipe is a story
The smell of crispy baked chicken with rosemary, butter and lemon is skipping back home after an afternoon of adventures outdoors as a child. The tear-inducing spice of Indian curry wrapped in tangy garlic naan is lunches with my father as a teenager. The cool tartness of borsch soup is my host family in Russia greeting me after a long day. The scent of coffee on a crisp fall morning is long bookish afternoons with my friend Beth in Boston.
Food is often at the heart of our memories. It shapes our personal history as much as the cities we live in and the people we love.
In "The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life," we meet the people that are important in Conroy's life through the memories and food he shares with us.
Whenever someone asks me why I love Pat Conroy's books, I tell them to look at Ivan Aivazovsky's paintings of storms at sea. They, like Conroy's writing, are filled with competing light and dark. But everything, even tragedy, is rendered beautifully. Though this book is a cookbook, it is no different. Every chapter is great storytelling. There is as much sweet as there is bitter.
His first cooking teacher, Natalie Dupree, is described as a charming Southern woman with a big personality, hectic kitchen and flavorful concoctions. With her chapter is recipes for white chocolate pistachio cookies, baked fish daufuskie and melon ring with mint and honey-lime dressing.
Conroy's father, a military man, moved them from town to town growing up. The town Conroy considers home and an intrinsic part of his identity is Beaufort, S.C. "I carry its taste in my mouth, and I have smelled its fragrant marshes when I walked on a cobbled road in Ephesus where St. Paul preached a sermon or when I studied a pyramid near Cairo or when I contemplated the haunches of a statue of Buddha in Thailand." In Beaufort's honor, he gives us a recipe for soft-shell crab with shallots, garlic, black pepper and salt. We can see Beaufort reflected in the recipe, simple yet timeless.
In Conroy's book, every flavor reflects the people and places he has loved, learned from and grown with. Through these recipes, we can taste everything from a carefree childhood afternoon to the sudden sharp grief of losing a loved one. His whole life is presented to us in creations we can cook ourselves.
If only every cookbook could be written with such heart, each chapter sharing something more than ingredients. And, like a perfectly balanced dish, each element combines to make one, completely unforgettable whole.