Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking
“Readers will find accompanying Ms. Altman on her journey from childhood to a life of love and a life filled with love makes for a lively trip.”
Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking is a delightful new book by Elissa Altman, an award-winning food writer, editor, and an authority on all aspects of food.
The book, mostly content from her popular blogs, is part biography, part food writing, and more. Ms. Altman also shares her experiences wherever she finds meaning in the culinary world, whether the object of her attention is a butcher, a chef, a purveyor, a recipe with few ingredients, or a new and simple method of preparation.
Her food reporting and choices of anecdotes make enticing reading in her competent hands.
Ms. Altman begins her story with her childhood in an eccentric New York Jewish family. There is a pleasant honesty throughout her work while she shares anecdotes or describes characters.
She writes without criticism, but with wicked wit. Many incidents start when family members make efforts to look and act with upper class refinement. Ms. Altman tells of the importance of the word, “fancy” because it was applied to suitable dress, proper manners, desired society, but mainly to food:
“In my family, nice is perfectly fine. But fancy is always much better.”
Her father considered himself a gourmand and took his daughter to the “fanciest,” most expensive restaurants in New York for lunch. Meanwhile her mother was having her hair done. But her mother abhorred food and was so frightened by it that she often worked her food into a mess on her plate to suggest it had been eaten.
Later, Ms. Altman embraces the food philosophy of her partner, Susan Turner. Ms. Altman begins to understand the paradox that plain food is worthy of the care that many cooks and chefs give to complicated, fussed over, (fancy) gourmet dishes.
She grows to find the magic of creative and careful, but easy treatment of food. She revels in the goodness of a few simple of ingredients by following traditional and simple cooking methods and unpretentious meals. There is even a chapter on foraging. Thoreau would be proud!
With her élan vital, optimism, and depth of character, Ms. Altman finds common sense and the goodness of simple food, and she also finds love with Ms. Turner and an uncomplicated rural life as they settle in Ms. Turner’s home in rural Connecticut.
The poor “man” in the book’s title suggests that Ms. Altman’s pleas for simplicity for all of us, for “Everyman:” This that one should have integrity in meeting one’s needs while purging superficial elements of sustenance like exotic foods and extensive preparations and presentations that border on silly.
The prose in Poor Man’s Feast prose is careful and often beautiful, especially when she is writing about her personal life. The author smoothly weaves major themes into a tapestry with confidence, word choice, and her selection of entertaining, humorous, delightful, or tragic tales.
There is a chapter about Arnaud, a bully butcher, who is not impressed with Ms. Altman’s culinary expertise. The butcher’s prices are terribly high, yet he hammers unasked for advice into Ms. Altman, although he knows she is an expert herself. Their food battles are verbal, but fierce.
Ms. Altman tries to pay, but Arnaud is not done with his tirade. He asks what Ms. Altman is going to go with a baby lamb leg:
“No,” Arnaud replied, smiling, and looking me square in the eye. I could feel my face growing hot. “First tell me exactly what you’re going to do with it.”
My knees turned to gelatin.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
Arnaud’s face went stern.
“Madame,” he barked, “if I am going to cut a piece of meat for you that is this good, I would like to know how it is going to meet the end of its life.”
Poor Man’s Feast provides a wealth of food tales about foodies and food phobics, cooks and kitchen disasters, cooking successes and failures—all in clear, pleasing prose (with occasional French for a dish’s name). The book also has 27 recipes, a lovely bonus.
Ms. Altman possesses writerly and storytelling skills reminiscent of Elizabeth David, M. F. K. Fisher, A. J. Liebling, and is certainly reflective of of Laurie Colwin and her praise of simple, home-cooked, “real” food. Readers will find accompanying Ms. Altman on her journey from childhood to a life of love and a life filled with love makes for a lively trip.
Poor Man’s Feast deserves a place on the shelf with the finest food writers.