Consuming Passions by Michael Lee West

consuming passion   West, Michael Lee. Consuming Passions. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

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A Southerner — did I ever mention I was born and raised in North Carolina? — writes about food and includes recipes. What’s not to like? Add the fact that Michael Lee West is often laugh-out-loud funny, and well, you have a little gem of a book. Yet again, I have my colleague Ruth Ann to thank for pointing me in its direction. She told me about the cabbage-eating ghost who appears in one of the chapters. The ghost was brought into West’s Aunt Lilly’s house when she came home from a dusty antique store with a Flow Blue (whatever that is. Despite having grown up surrounded by them and having a mother in the museum field, I know nothing about antiques) chamber pot and a ruffled apricot umbrella. It’s a great, convincing little ghost story.

West’s other stories are great, too: Sunday dinner gatherings at her grandparents house when she was a young girl will make you laugh and your stomach growl. West’s early culinary attempts are comfortably familiar to those of us who are self-taught chefs, well remembering days when rice didn’t cook; chickens that, after spending plenty of time in the oven, didn’t roast; and pea soups that insisted on being as easy to chew and swallow as dental floss (yes, I made just such a soup way back when Bob and I were first married). Her Aunt Dell is the member of the family every Southerner knows well. We all have at least one — if not more — eccentric aunts and cousins (and it’s fitting here that Dell is really a cousin and not an aunt. Southerners aren’t always pickily exact when it comes to identifying relations. Well, except my father, who can tell you exactly who your first cousin twice removed on your great granddaddy’s side was — but he’s a Virginian and a historian, a breed unto themselves). Finally, she makes you long to get into a car with her to take a leisurely road trip through all the Southern states, in search of sublime versions of barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, and key lime pie. Or, you could just stay home with her and let her cook all these things for you — just don’t distract her so much that she forgets she’s cooking and catches something on fire.

The book made me wish I put more time into cooking and less time into thankless tasks (cleaning toilets and dusting spring to mind). Such tasks aren’t nearly as much fun and don’t provide such wonderful results. It also made me realize that if one has made New Year’s resolutions having anything to do with weight loss and diet, this is not a book you want to pick up and read before the new year is even two months old. Now that we’re about to enter the third month, though (New Year’s resolutions becoming ancient history), one can safely check it out and read it. I’ve already made her roast pork recipe, which was delicious. I think I’ll try her macaroni and cheese  next. Interestingly, it doesn’t start with a white sauce. This version is all cheese, milk, and eggs. If I can get it to work, I’ll let you know how it is.