Elissa Altman won the 2012 James Beard Award for Individual Food Blog for Poor Man’s Feast. The blog spawned a book of the same name, and recently Amazon made the Kindle version of “Poor Man’s Feast” available for $1.99. When I saw the price, I bought it in one-click. Over this past holiday weekend, I happily devoured the memoir with as much enjoyment as Altman has when she devours roughly torn baguette and soft, stinky cheese while drinking wine.
“Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire and the Art of Simple Cooking” is, as its title says, a love story. It’s a touching, funny, and sometimes sad story of the love of food, the love of a good woman, and the love of a daughter and father. Having finished the book exactly 10 years to the day that I buried my father made Altman's memories of her father particularly moving for me.
The memoir jumps back forth between her childhood and the beginning of her relationship with her partner Susan. Altman lived in New York City when their relationship started. Susan lived rural Connecticut. As their relationship progressed, Altman found herself traveling to Connecticut weekly, bringing fancy food from New York City to share with her new love. Over time, between the unavailability of many foods in rural Connecticut and tightening purse strings, Altman realizes that food doesn’t need to be fancy to be shared or extraordinary.
One of my favorite moments in the book is when she discovers the pure joy of eating a white bread sandwich made with a just-picked tomato, mayonnaise and cheese. She calls it a “truly extraordinary snack,” and I remember having the same reaction to this ultimate summer sandwich the first time I had it. Before biting in, I couldn't imagine it would be anything special. After that initial bite, waiting for the first local, vine-ripened tomato each summer has become an obsession. It’s one of the few reasons that white bread should still be allowed to exist.
There are many moments like this where Altman, who has had a love affair with food her entire life, discovers simple culinary delights as well as the satisfaction of growing food. She shares the recipes for these simple foods (and a few fancy ones) at the end of each chapter.
I enjoyed the memories Altman shares about food and about the beginning of her relationship with Susan, but where the memoir really shined for me was when she wrote about her father. When she was young, her father would take her secretly to dine in some of New York City’s best restaurants. Their outings needed to be kept quiet from her mother who saw food as a woman's enemy. Altman and her father shared a special bond with each other that was cemented over plates of Czech food when she was a child and over special birthday dinners when she was an adult that her father would go into debt to provide for her.
As I’m writing this, I notice I’ve used the word “share” quite a few times, and I realize that the results of sharing food is a central theme in this book. Perhaps that’s what makes this book stand out among the many very good food memoirs I’ve read over the years. It’s not just a story about loving food; it’s a story about sharing food with the people you love and how that communal experience when done with intention can deepen and strengthen relationships and create memories.
As of today, “Poor Man’s Feast” is still $1.99 for Kindle, but there’s no way of knowing how long that great price will stick around. If you find it's not that price anymore, I still recommend you get yourself a copy of Altman's memoir and devour it.
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