Reality Hunger

Lately, there have been signs that despite the hand-wringing and predictions to the contrary (my own included), the digital revolution has stalled. No matter how cool the latest app is, the human body wants what it wants. The Internet of Things will soon be upon us for real, but the purely tactile world, filled with pleasing idiosyncrasies and bound together by individual rituals rather than data, is still the one we live in. You can buy a “smart” frying pan with real-time temperature feedback to help you cook, but no one’s actually clamoring for a Jetsons-style setup that will make cooking itself obsolete. Useful food-prep shortcuts abound, but even the popularity of meal-kit-delivery companies like Blue Apron proves that we still want to pour and stir, even when we don’t have the time or the inclination to shop and chop.

Record and book sales are up, too. According to a report in Billboard, vinyl sales rose 52 percent in 2014; in 2015, they reached their highest numbers since 1988. Wander into any Urban Outfitters these days and the first things you’ll see are LPs and turntables, with Polaroid cameras running a close second (photos you can hold! Whee!). While some people bemoan the fact that adult coloring books are one of the major reasons for the rise in paper-book sales, that trend, too, is a variation on the theme: We get pleasure from creating something through a process we can witness, and affect through simple motions, every step of the way, same as we ever did. A body, after all, moves in three-dimensional space. At the time of this writing, Amazon (which also happens to be the country’s largest vinyl-LP retailer) had just announced the latest iteration of the Kindle. One of the device’s new design features, according to the New York Times, is “an unusual asymmetrical back, which substantially thickens the device on one side. When the device is held, the slope between its two thicknesses acts as a grip for the hand.” Remind you of anything? Yep. Looking for a way to describe it, an Amazon executive interviewed by the Times “compared it to the spine of a book.” As much as we marvel at the possibilities that a Kindle offers, we want to use that technology in at least some of the old familiar ways—staying rooted in the real world even as we’re transported beyond it.

So it’s no surprise that we still want our blogs—especially when we really like them—made into books, particularly when it comes to food books like Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes (Grand Central, $26). Written in alternating chapters by Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen, it’s a collection of recipes and Nguyen’s gorgeous, layered line drawings and watercolors, woven together with the story of their friendship from high school to the present day. Now in their early thirties, Madison and Nguyen fill us in on their childhoods in suburban Maryland and the highs and lows of their coming-of-age, including what they cooked and ate along the way; it’s cookbook as bildungsroman. The recipes are great, but greater still is the pair’s unvarnished take on the comedic hideousness of being young and totally confused about everything from love to work to how much the steam heat in your crappy Manhattan apartment costs (pro tip from Madison: It’s free, but when you’re naive and broke you might not know that and sleep in a parka to avoid turning it on and paying for it. Oops).

Like many of us, these two finish college thinking they know what they want to be—a fashion designer (Nguyen), a journalist (Madison). Then reality sets in. The stories of missteps, cheap ramen meals, and existential worries that follow are suffused with a dry, self-aware wit that’s clearly part of the bond these two share. There’s also a lot of directionlessness here, which feels both true and compelling; more often than not, it leads to something culinary. Consider the series of jobs Madison blows through in just a few years, so random that they must be real: Brazilian-cheese-puff salesgirl; editorial assistant at a Catholic magazine (“Stevie Nicks would not have approved of a twenty-two-year-old working at a magazine that put out special issues about the Eucharist”); and, finally, assistant at a fashion magazine where she was known as the “fat, smart one,” though she was not even remotely overweight. In the first job, she ends up (naturally) addicted to cheese puffs and figuring out how to make them at home. In the second, she adopts the “brown-bag turkey sandwich lunches” appropriate to her station. The recipe connected to her third job is for the dinner salad she ate after her daily brush with near-starvation at the office, a place of “group-wide juice cleanses [where] lunch was a daily exercise in competitive dieting.” It’s nothing fancy, but it’s warm and thus a huge upgrade from her previous nightly meal, which consisted of gobbling chickpeas straight out of the can “in moments of sheer desperation . . . hovering over the sink.”

For Nguyen, the child of Vietnamese immigrants, venturing into adulthood has less to do with finding work than with figuring out how to simultaneously navigate her heritage and her American upbringing. She moves away for art school aware of the fact that she’s “spent most of my young life ignoring or actively suppressing my cultural background because it seemed to cause me nothing but embarrassment with the outside world.” Describing her discovery of Chicago’s Little Saigon neighborhood, she performs a quick bit of brainy, hilarious self-analysis: “There were actual rickshaws parked in front of one of the restaurants. . . . They were obviously pandering to tourists, but to me it was a sign of home. Not that I’d actually been a passenger in one or had even seen a rickshaw before in my entire life, but I knew people who had. I was rickshaw-adjacent.” Her first small conciliatory gesture toward her background takes the form of an ingredient: She buys a bottle of fish sauce, an item she refused when her mother tried to send her off from home with it. The recipe for Caramel and Coconut-Braised Pork Shoulder—delicious and the real deal—at the chapter’s end makes good use of it.

Tram Nguyen’s illustration for the Simple White Wine Roast Chicken recipe from Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes.
Tram Nguyen’s illustration for the Simple White Wine Roast Chicken recipe from Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes.

Madison is no less mordant. On her first out-of-state assignment as a political reporter in 2012, she’s sent to South Carolina to cover the Republican presidential primary. The trip makes her simultaneously thrilled and insanely uncomfortable: “The chief activities I fear in life include speaking on the telephone; talking to strangers; giving people a reason to be mad at me . . . and asking people to do things they don’t want to do,” she confesses before finishing up: “These activities loosely describe the day-to-day activities of being a reporter.” On her last day down South, having made it through her journalistic baptism by fire and a lot of dreadful room-service entrées, she does what any self-respecting curious eater would do and treats herself to a “lavish southern feast” of eggs Benedict with crab cakes and fried green tomatoes. The recipe she creates from this meal is accompanied by Nguyen’s illustrations of its raw components—acid-green tomatoes, a pale-brown egg, and a blue crab with red-tipped claws—stacked in a beautiful, delicate tower.

A painting like this doesn’t look nearly as good online as it does on paper. The Pen & Palate blog also features Nguyen’s illustrations, but they have a flatter affect onscreen. They’re appealing, but their weight and depth are lost, inviting us to scroll past them quickly rather than linger. Because food is essentially of the body, we experience even writing about—and images of—it as more real when we can touch them. Food bloggers are not oblivious of this truth. On the publication of her first cookbook a few years ago, and soon after she had a baby boy, Deb Perelman of the (excellent) recipe blog Smitten Kitchen told a reporter that the ephemeral nature of the site was a problem for her, saying, “I needed to have a record of what I do that I could pass down” to her son. As for her readers, they were more than ready to follow her onto the page. “I couldn’t wait for her to come out with the book,” one fan said. “I wanted something to hold in my hand.”

Like Madison and Nguyen, we’ve evolved in the past decade, arriving at the realization that we don’t always know exactly what we want and that it’s OK. We love our iPhones, but the old traditions and habits, be they fish sauce, family recipes, or books, are worth hanging on to.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).