Book: Review of Compromise Cake

Nancy Spiller Writes About Recipes and Regrets

Great food writing, from M.F.K. Fisher on, often veers into the erotic. Full of ecstasies and vivid details, it reads like poetry, settled in its sensuousness yet concerned with chance metaphors, too. We like our food-show chefs to stop, sniff the air, lick their fingers, or just exclaim “How delicious!” You might guess from the title this isn’t what Nancy Spiller is up to in her slim Compromise Cake. Instead of oohs and ahhs, readers get regrets and complaints as often as they might get helpful hints for recreating homey 1960s food that moms made. The problem derives from the ingenious premise. Spiller inherited her mother’s recipe box, along with her legacy of depression and worldly dismay. Being a UCLA professor of memoir writing, Spiller, also a journalist, turns the experience of cooking from the box into a measured blend of Proustian memory and stand-up-comic resentment — hardly the stuff of ecstasy. She bakes sugar cookies and then rails against the white powder’s insalubrious effects on American nutrition. Who wants a lecture from their drug dealer? On the other hand, this is a unique kind of my mother, my self-edible history drawn from scratchy script on food-stained paper from in a box: family history with gravy. (Compromise Cake by Nancy Spiller, Counterpoint Press, $22

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