Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness

by Sasha Martin
National Geographic     2015
336 Pages     Memoir/Cookbook

"We come with all kinds of 'baggage' and almost none of it fits in our suitcases." 

After a hardscrabble, sometimes tragic, childhood, Sasha Martin settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places. She married and had a baby girl but felt lost as a stay-at-home mother. With a flash of ingenuity, she decided that she would begin a blog in which she cooked a meal from one country of the world each week until she had cooked her way around the world. 195 weeks later, she completed her list, had a giant community party, and signed a book contract with National Geographic. That in a nutshell (no pun intended) is the synopsis of Life from Scratch. The memoir, however, is much more than that. It is a meditation on family and on finding a passion as a way of finding self. 

Life from Scratch is basically divided into two parts. The first part includes Martin's childhood, teen years, and marriage. The second part of the book is about her world cooking adventure and the creation of her blog, Global Table Adventure. Martin is still a young woman, so there is much more to come, we can hope.

Martin's childhood was brutal. Among her memories of that childhood were the foods that her mother cooked. As she remembers the things her mother cooked, she fills in the recreated recipes. Although an eccentric, her mother was/is extremely creative, and she did her best to offer her children some of the advantages of families that had more—she did this primarily through food. For instance, a favorite treat was a German Tree Cake, which was so expensive to make that the family had to save money for weeks in order to create it. Those childhood recipes are in the first part of the book.

Martin lived her teenage years with her mother's friend and her family. The husband of the family worked in Europe, so her teenage years were spent in Europe. Tragedy ultimately separates this source of continuity for Martin just as she begins her college years back in the United States. Some time spent in culinary school leads her to a job in Tulsa where she finally is able to settle down and establish a family of her own. The next batch of recipes come from her European experiences.

And then comes a more peaceful life. Martin is a resilient woman, and when she marries and has a baby, she finds ways to resolve the tragedies of her childhood and youth. She realizes that she had lived an insular life as a way of protecting herself, and now what she wants to do was to create community. This she does through cooking and creating her blog. Having completed her first blog journey around the world, she is currently celebrating holidays from around the world. In some ways, Martin's memoir is The Glass Castle meets Julie and Julia. The story is not new, in other words, but it is written in a very appealing way. I found myself compulsively returning to it.

It could be that the reason I enjoyed the memoir was that no one was eating much except roasted rabbit and deer in the magnetic Station Eleven, which I was reading at the same time. I wonder what people eat in Dystopia. (Oh, I forgot, there are a lot of feasts at the capital in The Hunger Games. Now there would be an interesting cookbook: The Food of the Capital.)

One of my students recently gave me a container of Kebsa seasonings, ground by her mother, and I have been trying to figure out how much to use to flavor rice and chicken. (Kebsa, by the way, is the national dish of Saudi Arabia.) I haven't gotten the balance right yet. Kebsa is as adventurous as my cooking has gotten lately. However, on Saturday night, the family is coming over for Grandpa's spaghetti. Now there's an adventure in eating for you! Several years ago, he put kumquats in the spaghetti and the family has never let him forget it! 

By the way, Global Table Adventure is an outstanding blog, and the recipes are intriguing. I read Life from Scratch on a Kindle, and I have discovered that it isn't very exciting to read recipes on a Kindle. I guess I want the security of the nice tidy format that comes from a standard recipe format. However, if you look at the website, the colorful pictures and explicit directions make all the recipes look very appealing. My guess is that when the book appears in March, it will be gorgeous. I would recommend that you buy the hardcover.

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