It began as a simple idea: Author Deborah Joy Corey knew that hunger in Maine was on the rise, and thought she would write an essay about it. She visited food pantries and shelters, spoke to church and community leaders. What she learned, however, went far beyond the bounds of a single essay. It laid the groundwork for Blue Angel, the food pantry she founded in 2019, and for an anthology of essays about food.

Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger, and Family” is a lavish melting pot of food writing by such A-listers as Susan Minot and Richard Ford, Bill Roorbach and Lily King. This is what happens when 70 authors ponder their connection to food: They create a rich stew of customs and traditions, lessons and laments, that are, at once, universal and singular. Their narratives include accounts of immigrants longing to fit in, next to stories of local and seasonal treasures; tales of meals gone (very) wrong and sensibilities offended; of illness and second chances.

Portland author Phuc Tran recounts the pizza his Vietnamese mother made by toasting white bread, American cheese and ketchup. If her goal was to replicate a Pizza Hut pie on a shoestring, the result was something else altogether. “She lay the whole assemblage in the toaster oven, and as it heated up and melted,” Tran says, “it turned into a funeral pyre, immolating what I understood of pizza.”

Later in the same chapter is a father-son treatise on the perfect tomato sandwich, as served each summer on their porch in East Blue Hill, Maine. The entry, by Jonathan and Desmond Lethem, exemplifies a sub-genre of food writing, the playful-obsessive homage to an item or ingredient for the sole purpose of joyful riffing. Besides, there’s nothing like a 10-year-old to enlighten his author-dad on the all-important “sauce” that results from sandwiching ripe tomato with abundant mayonnaise.

Underlying the broad array of essays is the premise that not all food recollections are created equal. Many people lack memories of holiday gatherings or home-cooked meals; hunger is a recurrent theme, food a signifier of privilege and class. So it is that we find Ron Currie reckoning with the shame he felt as a boy when his mother worked the lunch counter at the school cafeteria. By contrast, Tanya Whiton, daughter of a career naval officer, was taken aback by the poverty she witnessed when her family moved to Down East Maine. “At school,” she says, “there was a social hierarchy based on who could afford to bring their own lunch.”

Food essays often entail a kind of stock-taking, as if the food itself embodies the pain or joy of a given period. The book includes tales of pot brownies baked for the dying and hot dogs as a memorial tribute; of learning to eat again after a kidney transplant; of finding comfort in green bean casseroles.

Humor is plentiful throughout the book, as when Hal Crowther celebrates his father’s grill techniques: “He taught me to enjoy steaks the way he prepared them: bloody inside a rich crust of carcinogenic carbon,” Crowther says. “We ate beef seared with everything but napalm.” Or in her wistful essay, “Take Another Little Pizza My Heart,” when Jennifer Finney Boylan reflects on how to commemorate her son’s leaving for college. The answer? Homemade pizza, of course. Writes Boylan, “Through it all, as my daughter likes to say, ‘We have always been held together with cheese.’”

“Breaking Bread” offers a feast of food writing, remarkable both for its variety and excellence. Co-editors Debra Spark and Deborah Joy Corey earn high marks for their achievement. The book provides sufficient food for thought that readers would do well to savor its contents slowly. Note that profits from the book will benefit Blue Angel.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in many publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.

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