Dawn Drzal may not be a household name, though that could soon change. Her new food memoir, “The Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites” checks all the right boxes: It offers great storytelling, memorable foods and essential life lessons imparted from the kitchen. A seasoned food writer and former cookbook editor, Drzal (pronounced Drizz-ELL) is an adventurer at heart: No food craving is too small to incite travel. Case in point: Having discovered white borscht with kielbasa at her local coffee shop, Drzal later went to Kracow, in hopes of eating it twice daily at the source. Back home in New York City, her sense of adventure plays out differently. A frequent host of dinner parties, she refuses to make the same recipe twice.

The book, whose chapters unfold alphabetically by theme, is a chronicle of the author’s life seen through the metaphor of food. With Drzal as narrator, we meet a recurring cast of characters that includes her parents, who divorced when the author was young; a dodgy stepfather who surprises with his inventiveness; Drzal’s two (now former) husbands; and her old-world Italian grandparents, who supply backbone and nourishment to a young girl in need of both.

The book opens to the theme of Al Dente, with a scenario that will be familiar to many. Dinner is ready, but the spaghetti must be tested – and not just by anyone. Drzal’s grandmother, an inspired cook and the author’s first culinary mentor, always summoned her husband for the task, invariably at the last minute. With his endorsement in tow, the family could finally sit down and eat what was, by then, overcooked pasta. Right out of the gate, Drzal gets our attention with an insight so homey and forthright that it would be easy to miss.

“My grandparents had been dead for many years before I understood that (this) was one of the rituals of love. My grandfather was central to the meal, his opinion valued above all others,” she writes. “When I left home and finally learned what al dente pasta tasted like, I realized (my grandmother) had sacrificed her perfectionism for sixty years to say in overcooked spaghetti what she could not put into words.”

Other chapters celebrate specific foods (quail, Jordan almonds, passion fruit); techniques (fork-beat scrambled eggs), or events, such as the dinner party that didn’t disband until 4 a.m. For Drzal, it was the apotheosis of dinner parties – a nearly transcendent merging of people, food and place, which she replayed in her mind over the years. Much later, in a startling revelation, she comes to realize that not all of the guests shared her recollection.

Drzal demonstrates how food often dovetails entire periods of our lives. A chapter entitled, “Vegetarian,” portrays her ex-husband, who claimed that designation for himself, despite eating meat and lacking any interest in vegetables. His story, as well as the marriage, unravels from there, seemingly one food at a time.

 

Yet salvation often arrives in edible form, as we see in the piece on Lobster Roll, which takes place in Kennebunkport, as the author flees a costly and tiring divorce. Drzal shows up at a guesthouse, her room “decorated in a style that can only be called Mid-Century Misery.” Further dismay ensues at a local restaurant said to be a favorite of the first President Bush. But later, when she joins a long line outside the Clam Shack, her mood brightens.

“Was this the best thing I ever tasted?” Drzal says of the lobster roll. “The food at the Clam Shack was so extraordinary, so pure and humble…. Twice a day I was welcomed, nourished, made to feel part of the human race again.”

The book contains a number of “firsts” and “bests,” reflecting a truism of the genre: Hyperbole often comes with the territory, each glorious bite adding a fresh layer of flavor to the whole enterprise. If Drzal tends to ooh-and-aah over every tasty thing, she’s no less candid at the other extreme. Some dishes are just destined for failure, such as the ghastly pheasant she cooked for M.F.K. Fisher (which supplies one of the book’s funniest moments), or the rotisserie chicken, in Rome, so saturated with rosemary that it “turned into a chicken-shaped room freshener.”

As if to show that this is not just another food memoir, Drzal shares a handful of choice recipes that reveal the book’s improbable range. Among them are Stromboli Stuffing, Liquid Pimento Olive, even Gruel. When it comes to serving size, the recipe for gruel ends with a wink. Says Drzal, “Serves: you right if you eat this.”

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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