food memory

I’m not going to say it happens against my will. But I will allow that it’s an irresistible urge of mine to concoct recipes in my head, at the most inappropriate moment. I’m at a funeral, and I start to think about bananas flambe, already cooled, mashed, threaded with semi-sweet chocolate, showered with minced hazelnuts, tucked into phyllo dough triangles for the toasting. It’s kind of my image of death. It’s the way I bury things.

At a wedding ceremony, I think of whipped potatoes.During fights, I sometimes compose a fra diavlo sauce in my mind, which is the kind of spicy food I order thinking it will satisfy me, but I’m always disappointed when I remember that I don’t even like spicy food all that much. It’s meant to brighten and excite our palates, but it numbs mine, leaving everything to taste the same for too long.

A friend asks for advice, what should she do, it wasn’t planned but she had “an indiscretion” she says. And I think of clams. With a man she met in Barcelona. Then I add saffron. She can’t believe it, at all, yet she continues to feed my imagination with details about how, um, long it had been since she felt that way. I add bucatini, a long hollow pasta.
food writer stephanie kleinWhen I see my children at school, ready to be picked up, holding their peculiar art projects, I think of sprinkles. Then popcorn. Marshmallows when we hug. My little candy corn climb into their car seats, and we discuss who’s used the potty, who’s getting a sticker once we’re home. I drive past joggers and trees, through puddles, and around orange cones and construction signs, when a sense of quiet washes over me. Creamsicle. I notice walls built from piles of stones. Almond bark. No, no that’s not right. Oatmeal cookies–that’s it. It’s so fast I’m not even thinking about “cookies,” just the idea of a junk cake, a kitchen sink of a recipe. I’m reminded of science class, sedimentary rock, concrete, how we can take pieces of things, leftovers, to create something new. Then I think of paella and all the wonderful inventions that have come from what’s been discarded. I love finding a home for second strings, improving them, making them part of something spectacular, when all along they seemed so common.

And yet, with all these thoughts making long ribbons of taffy in my head, I’m commonly roped into heading to the food market without a plan. “We need things for the kids’ lunches. Come on.” And then there I am, with the panic-stricken face, staring back at the house as we drive away, wishing there’d been time to grab a cookbook. So I scramble to pull up iPhone apps with their recipes and shopping lists, but I never land on anything “right.” And so help me, the first person to comment about the myth of perfect, the fallacy of balance, or to preach to me about not getting it right, to focus on something else… that life is messy… I’m going to catapult you into my archives, where I’ll have said it better myself. This is my joy and my crazy.

food writer stephanie kleinHere’s the thing: it shouldn’t be this hard. I should know what goes together, beyond the basics of tomatoes and basil. Here’s the problem, I want to create things that go together in new and exciting ways. Sure, I want ingredients in the house for a proper salad, but not some boring usual suspect, I want something bright and inventive.

So, I’m posting this random scrap of paper I found amid all my writing notes. This way, the next time I’m yanked into a grocery store, I can pull this post up on my phone, and I’ll be armed with a shopping plan:

Salad of figs, almonds, orange zest, prosciutto, arugula
Herbs for eggs: chervil + chives + parsley + tarragon
Lamb: lavender + rosemary + pistachios
Asparagus tips + soft boiled egg + truffle oil + chervil + parmesan
Soft shell crabs: lemon juice + clarified butter + garlic + tarragon + champagne vinegar
Lobster: avocado + mayonnaise + tarragon + white wine vinegar
Lobster: brown butter + orange zest + vanilla

I’m not going to lie to you. I think when life becomes overwhelming and I need to find a calm soothing nook, I find it in planning menus for parties I might never throw. Like Mel Gibson in Pelican Brief, where he always needs a copy of The Catcher in the Rye to feel at ease, I turn to perfect flavor combinations to find a release. I feel like Ira + Barry from City Slickers, where it’s their job in life to know which flavor ice cream goes perfectly with a certain style meal. And they just KNOW they’re right. I love that. It’s as if finding the exact balance, the right touch, that one last thing–however small–just makes it, and you can now be done with everything. Because you got that one thing, just right. This is my crazy.



  1. The Mel Gibson movie with Catcher in the Rye is Conspiracy Theory.

    On topic, I know exactly what you mean about wanting something bright and inventive. As you think of more ideas, be sure to share! ;)

  2. Wow, best post ever! Can’t wait for the Moose movie (and coordinating cookbook/lifestyle book)

    Now, what to pack for the children’s lunch today?

  3. The Mel Gibson movie w/ the Catcher in the Rye book is Conspiracy Theory. It was on yesterday.

  4. I love this. It’s exactly how I feel about food: soothed, cushioned and bubbly. There’s really nothing better than food for thought.

  5. Stephanie,

    I really love this post. How imaginative and lovely. When you write about food, I salivate and feel a strong compunction to run out and buy another cookbook. (I need another like a bullet in the head). Go, you fearless writer, go!

  6. stephanie,

    i’ve been reading your blogs now since almost day one. i have also read your books and i must say that i have seen so much growth in your writing. this one definitely takes the cake. i love the way you are now layering your writing with the arts and the way you are able to give the reader so much visual understanding. keep it up girl.

  7. This is my favorite post EVER for some reason Stephanie! Layers upon layers of juiciness and mouthwatering recipes and tastes, along with life situations and random thoughts stimulated and stemmed from sources other than food. Wonderfully crafted! Your writing is growing along with your imagination. No…… your imagination has always been this way I’m sure of it, but your ability to articulate it just as you think it has arrived!

    Love to read your mind!

    With admiration,


  8. …and one more thing…you give me hope that I can be more than a nine to five slave. That my complex and never ending thoughts can lead me to a life where I can subsist by being passionate! Thank you!

  9. What a yummy, delicious post! Your pairings are incredible…I was thinking what mine are.


    Peanut butter and Pringle (potato chip) sandwiches. On white bread. Not kidding.

    Bacon and jalapeno wrapped tater tots.

    Peanut butter pie (oh, so so so so easy)

    Chicken casserole (my sweetheart has named it ‘Yummy Goodness’)

    That’s what happens when you fall madly in love with a darling, mid-western, formerly Mennonite, man.

    When we went to their favorite restaurant in Indiana – I had homemade chicken and noodles served over mashed potatoes! Then I went rolling out of the restaurant back into the car where I immediately fell into a coma of heaven.

    Man, those Mennonites know how to cook! Thanks for the luscious read!

  10. This is incredibly written, Stephanie-definitely one of my favorite posts on your blog. I’m curious, how much crafting went into these words or has it become effortless after all this time? Also, when will there be another memoir?! It’s time!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Deanna! I’m working on the next memoir now, so stay tuned! And I will admit that when I write about food, the words come easily. I write best on dark rainy days, where I often turn quiet and into myself, producing reflective “inside thoughts.” That’s the thing. I think I’ve a very reflective writer, and as such, there’s a lot of internal conflict. With film, however, they don’t really want internal conflict, but want external conflicts, one after the next, someone getting in your way, anything, even the weather getting in the way of what you want. I have tried, and I’ll continue to, but to answer your question, it’s very easy for me to write about my inner world.

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