Food is life

Light and pleasing as angel’s food, Sharon Boorstin’s Let Us Eat Cake is a food memoir that’s short on meaty substance and long on heartfelt sweetness. A former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Tribune, Boorstin has written a book full of recollections, recipes and reconnections with close friends of bygone days. The author’s own journey through baby-boomer life has a nostalgic, Everywoman gleam. The details are easy to cozy up to: the huge freezer her parents kept in the kitchen with almost everything, from marshmallows to salmon, inside; the fancy French dinner parties she fumbled through to impress dates as a young co-ed.

Let Us Eat Cake is a book about food, but it’s more about friendship. The food forms links in the chain of friends Boorstin fuses together. Even though Boorstin and the women she’s become close with over the years have moved through career changes, decaying relationships and growing children, the food they’ve cooked together has remained a touch point.

Boorstin writes of her middle-class childhood in Seattle, of growing up in a family that loved food—but not the gourmet kind. (The author’s mother, in fact, fed the family a steady stream of ground-beef casseroles.) In the first half of the book, she recounts coming into maturity just before women’s lib and flower power, in that generation of women who still adhered to the pre-WWII ideals of their parents. Boorstin then recalls her best friends—from giggling girls in the go-go ’60s to affluent educated couples in the ’70s—and their own experiences and associations with food.

The second half of the book loses its momentum when Boorstin strays from the path of her own story and her friends. She relates the tales of other women in short, choppy chapters that have the breezy tone of a magazine article. (Let Us Eat Cake, in fact, sprouted from a series of articles Boorstin wrote for More magazine.) Even though it’s fun to flutter through anecdotes of such big names in cooking as Julia Child and Nancy Silverton, Boorstin writes most convincingly when she focuses on tales of her own old friends and how their paths come to intersect through the years, the bonds only growing stronger as they face life’s challenges.

The recipes at the end of the chapters drive home the women’s connection through food; it’s sort of like meeting someone after you’ve heard so many good things about them. Even though many of the recipes offer a retro appeal (Moonshadow chicken, Grandma’s blintzes, and a very ’50s Canlis salad), Boorstin wisely includes only dishes that can still whet the appetites of cooks in 2002 (she shrewdly omits Aunt Myra’s pickled salmon).

Even though Boorstin was a restaurant critic and avid cook, she’s no kitchen professional—just as the rest of us aren’t. Like most home cooks, she’s simply enthusiastic about exploring new foods and reminiscing about classic ones. Let Us Eat Cake offers no voyeuristic thrills of life on a frantic, demanding line in a high-profile restaurant. Instead, Boorstin assembles a casual gallery of kitchen follies that many of us have experienced ourselves: foiled batches of brownies, dinner-party pheasants that refused to brown. It’s what infuses the book with the breezy yet affirming tone that makes it an amiable quasi memoir.

Boorstin’s writing may not be as elegant as M.F.K. Fisher’s or as enchanting as Ruth Reichl’s, but Let Us Eat Cake infuses just enough warmth and reflection into its chatty reminiscences to make it a worthwhile read.