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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John Steinbeck: Pork Posole

John Steinbeck was a locavore before it was cool. No matter where he was writing from, his letters always mention the local produce. In California, he bought a cow so he could make his own butter and cheese. In England, he foraged for dandelion greens (“cook them slowly and for a long time with pieces of bacon”). In Sag Harbor, he reveled in the local seafood (“I figure I can always catch my dinner”).

But sometimes you come home after a long day, and you don’t want to knead your own bread, dry your own pasta, butcher your own goat. You just want to buy a whole baguette, put some brie on it, eat it all while watching The Wire on Netflix and call that dinner. “I like good food and good clothes, but faced with getting them I can’t round myself into a procuring unit,” Steinbeck wrote in a particularly lethargic mood. I imagine he said it on the sofa in sweatpants.

Often it’s the presence of other people that keeps me from nights of cheese sandwiches in front of the TV; cooking for company is just more fun! But when Steinbeck was alone on the road, he would forget the butter-churning and revert to the life of a single guy. Hence his recipe for posole, borrowed from his friend (and famed screenwriter) Jack Wagner: “a can of chili and a can of hominy.” Hello, bachelorville.

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The Cocktail Hour: E.B. White

Learning about the drinking habits of your favorite children’s book author is both disconcerting and a little thrilling. It’s like that teenage realization, so obvious yet somehow inconceivable, that your parents likely were sloshed at some point during your early years and you didn’t even notice.

When you’re raised with Charlotte and Stuart Little, it’s harder to remember E.B. White’s other pursuits, ones that make him a more likely candidate to kick off a cocktail feature. Besides revising that English-major staple The Elements of Style, he was one of The New Yorker’s top contributors for an incredible 50 years. After a half-century in that crowd, you’re bound to pick up a few mixology tricks.

Writers are a notoriously well-soused bunch. But a martini probably has the most literary pedigree of any drink in the repertoire: the publishers’ three-martini lunch, Dorothy Parker’s poem, James Bond. White was one of its most vocal devotees, praising it as “the elixir of quietude. … Martinis, if anything, have a muting effect on the constant ringing in my ears.”

It’s still hard for me to picture White, martini glass in hand, writing the words I would later read with a flashlight under the covers. It’s easier to imagine him early on: just out of Cornell and working at an ad agency, looking for a newspaper job on his lunch breaks. “I wouldn’t mind going without the food if I could have a little luck with the jobs, but it’s damn hard to have neither success nor sandwiches at noon,” he wrote in 1921. When his first New Yorker piece was published, four years later, I envision him sitting down with a celebratory turkey club and pouring out a much-deserved drink.

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