Nora Ephron: Frozen Key Lime Pie

My first Nora Ephron experience was watching When Harry Met Sally backwards. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, that week when cable channels run marathons of the film, back to back, all day long. On holiday from school, with nothing better to do, I randomly flipped on the TV to the last scene, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan finally end up together and everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne.” I stumbled upon another scene later that day, on a different showing: the epic fight over the wagon wheel coffee table. Finally, I caught it at the beginning and watched the whole thing. Seeing it that way was pleasingly disorienting — Nora Ephron meets Harold Pinter.

Ephron might not fit the mold of other writers on this blog—Crazy Salad doesn’t occupy the same place as Crime and Punishment, nor should it—but she was in a class of her own when it came to pure food joy.” I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose,” she said. “And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”  She wasn’t shy to share her culinary opinions, either, particularly in the Great Egg White Controversy of 2007. Her recipe for egg salad began: “Boil 18 eggs, peel them, send six of the egg whites to friends in California who persist in thinking that egg whites matter in any way.”

It’s no surprise, then, that food made its presence felt in Ephron’s fiction writing too. Her 1983 novel Heartburn is maybe the best example, seamlessly integrating recipes into the plot. Now the novel/memoir-with-recipes genre seems ubiquitous—everyone from Kim Severson to Ruth Reichl has one—but Ephron did it first, and best. She knew that cooking and storytelling share a common thread: The words draw people in, and the food draws people together. Some books are best enjoyed in solitude, but not Nora’s. They beg to be shared, the best passages read aloud to anyone around to hear them.

I got the news that Ephron had died right before boarding a plane for California, where I grew up. Back in my family’s kitchen, I started squeezing the juice for her Frozen Key Lime Pie. Although I had read many of her recipes over the years, this is the first one I was attempting. Finally, I thought, I’d have what she was having.

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Walt Whitman: Cranberry Coffee Cake

For a transcendentalist, Walt Whitman was a bit of a hoarder. Just take a look at his daybooks, and you’ll see a list of the scraps he saved over the years: photos, receipts, weather reports, news articles, classified ads, and dozens of press mentions of Whitman himself. He meticulously monitored the papers, carefully cataloging his presence in the world. If he were around today, you just know he would be a chronic self-Googler, or maybe a habitual lurker in the comments section of New York magazine.

Among Whitman’s collection of papers from the 1880s are the few recipes he liked enough to preserve: one for doughnuts and one for coffee cake, making him a man after my own (pastry-clogged) heart. He regularly gave coffee cakes as gifts, probably because he wanted to receive them himself. In a letter from 1877, he wrote, “I was foolish enough to take a good strong drink, & eat a couple of slices of rich cake late at night – & I shan’t do any thing of the kind again.” Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. It’s what I tell myself before checking to see if the ice cream place down the street delivers (the beauty of New York is that it does).

That year, Whitman was recovering from a stroke and had moved to New Jersey under the care of his brother. “But I am pretty well,” he wrote, “& feel more able & sassy every day.” More than anything in Leaves of Grass, these letters from Whitman have inspired my new personal philosophy: Live every day with sass, and with several slices of cake.

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Charles Dickens: Apples à la Princesse

Thinking of Dickensian food conjures up two extremes – the stuffed goose and figgy pudding feast of A Christmas Carol and the sad gruel rations of Oliver Twist. During Dickens’ 200th birthday celebrations this month, there was a lot of talk of the former. Nobody seemed as excited about the gruel, but there are plenty of resources to help you make an authentic Victorian version that actually sounds kind of great (Favorite BBC quote: “We were hoping he’d make it far more disgusting.”)

Given the fame that Dickens achieved in his lifetime, he didn’t have to beg for second helpings. But one of his favorite dishes, baked apples, was quite simple, not to mention practical: He swore by their ability to prevent seasickness.

Dickens became a baked apple convert while sailing to Boston in 1867. They were served at every meal during the Atlantic crossing, and he always helped himself. “I am confident that they did wonders, not only at the time, but in stopping the imaginary pitching and rolling after the voyage is over,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth.

The magical apple diet clearly made an impression, and in 1881 Charles Dickens Jr. dedicated an entire cookery column to them in Household Words, a revived version of his father’s weekly magazine. Apples were getting cheaper and were beginning to be imported from abroad, so baked apples could be made by anyone, anytime. Perhaps thinking of his father, Dickens Jr. stressed the health benefits of the fruit. “It is unnecessary to say how valuable apples are as an article of diet.” Turns out, Dickens had been on the edge of a trend: The earliest version of our famous “An apple a day” saying was first published in Wales in 1866, just a year before his trip to the States.

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Elizabeth Bishop: The Brownie Recipe

Baking, especially baking bread, is one of those activities that is perennially nerdy-cool, like knitting or discussing artisan teas. If you’ve ever talked with rhapsodic satisfaction about your sourdough starter, you’re a part of it. But you’re not the first.

Elizabeth Bishop was one of the earliest to recognize the proto-hipster qualities of baking from scratch, after the 1920s inventions of Betty Crocker mixes and Wonder Bread made it unnecessary. “My part-time work at present seems to be baking bread,” she wrote to Robert Lowell in 1960, adding presciently, “it sounds food-faddish I’m afraid.”

Although she was always an occasional baker, making treats for cake sales and birthdays, it wasn’t until landing in Brazil in 1951 that Bishop made it a habit. Her trip, which began as a travel fellowship, turned into a 15-year stay, and she soon became a very popular neighbor thanks to one of her signature recipes: brownies.

The earliest published recipes for brownies appeared in Chicago and New England the early 1900s, but according to Bishop they hadn’t made it to South America by the 1950s. Her version was an instant hit. “Since Brazilians are mad about anything chocolate … I have been requested to bring along 4 dozen brownies (something I’ve introduced to Brazil) and a large chocolate cake,” she writes to Lowell in the fall of 1957. “You see how innocent our lives are here—just making money and eating sweets.”

There’s an intimacy about baking, which might be why I always like to celebrate Valentine’s Day with homemade desserts. But reading from the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell is just as romantic to me – no bodice-ripping, but plenty of wit, flirtation, and the kind of tenderness that bespeaks a very deep love.

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