Reviewed by Layla Khoury-Hanold
It’s rare to read a recipe that starts with the direction “Begin near tears,” but that’s exactly how essayist Sheila Squillante begins the second chapter in All Things Edible, Random and Odd:Essays on Grief, Love & Food (Clash Books; November 2023), a collection of essays on grief, love, and food. The book centers on her complicated relationship with her food-loving father and the grief of losing him, but in using food as a narrative thread and flashback vehicle, the essay collection opens to explore other unresolved relationships, how we make sense of our past through our present, and how her own family and food memories are shaping her life today.
In the realm of traditional cookbook publishing, contemporary titles are increasingly expected to weave in a personal narrative, whether in the recipes’ headnotes or in pages dedicated to essays or personal photos. Squillante’s recipes begin conventionally enough with a title, list of ingredients, and set of directions, but she draws the reader into a mood, feeling, or scene with anecdotes and asides, as with chapter 2’s “Meat Ragu” introductory instruction, “Begin near tears.” She acknowledges that writing about her father is difficult, as is grieving his death, so she lets her mind wander on the page, all the while pulling the reader in with the details of the people and kitchen in which she is standing, chopping, and cooking. It creates an immediate intimacy that is the linguistic equivalent of inviting a reader to pull up a chair at the kitchen counter.
Her original approach to weaving essay writing and recipe writing is on full display in chapter 15’s “Linguini with White Clam Sauce” which calls for “1 lb. linguine or other—what your daughter calls ‘slurpy noodles'” and “½ cup dry white wine you would be happy drinking.” In the instructions she slides in a directive tied to a previous failure (forgetting to salt the pasta water one time), which not only cements the tip in the reader’s mind but deepens the intimacy—they’re in on it too. The reader can imagine calling their mother to make sure they have a family recipe correct or dispatching their partner to the store for a missing ingredient (Parmigiana Reggiano in Squillante’s case).
When cooking from a recipe, it’s smart to read the recipe the whole way through, but Squillante gives us more reason than merely getting our mise en place in order. With each recipe, she is penning a love letter, evident in the care with which she treats her relationship with family and close ones. She paints them as multi-faceted characters with charms and flaws—her mother’s alcoholism, her dad’s criticism, her ex’s self-absorption—in such a way that we can’t help but love the characters, even as much as we side with the author in her telling.
The reader senses they are in the hands of a master storyteller, but it is a rare feat to center the reader experience so wholly in a book of personal essays. I especially appreciated, in chapter 5, the way that the author experimented with tense. She switched between past and present, as if to distance herself from the memory and to capture the rollercoaster scene more objectively by putting herself in the reader’s shoes. It felt like a fresh way to play with flashbacks in a way that felt satisfying to the reader.
In addition to being an essayist, Squillante is also a poet, and her lyrical touch and original composition shine brightly in the pages. This is especially apparent in chapter 11, “Four Menus,” written like miniature plays. In one, she introduces a Samuel Butler quote – “Eating is touch carried to the bitter end” – before she sets up a joyful scene with children playing, juxtaposed with the feeling of being childless and in love with a man who doesn’t know if he wants kids. She writes: “Some days I crave. I am a lean witch cackling hungrily into a bone-cold wind.”
In the fourth menu, she talks about her reverence for food, cooking, and feeding others on a spiritual level that approaches the divine. The language is lush, the description generous, and the prose is rich with the kind of emotional resonance that a writer can only access once they’ve plumbed their own emotional depths. You have to read passages like these more than once so that you can truly savor them: “Food is worship and God, to me, is kimchi, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, and roasted garlic popped hot from its skin and spread warm with butter on bakery bread. God is lamb shanks braised long in orange juice and Cabernet; is chopping Spanish onions with a heavy knife; is bittersweet chocolate chunked from dark Swiss bars. Is bittersweet entirely.” Lines like these thread the food narrative as she lays bare the cravings we experience on a human level: connection, belonging, love, and acceptance.
My favorite essay is Chapter 26, “Strip District Meats,” not only because it builds up to the final recipe and closing out the narrative arc of grieving her dad, but because it captures the universal appeal of food writing. It’s in the way she talks about how deeply her identity has been shaped by her father and “the memory of meals eaten at his direction, in his presence, or his memory,” and how food serves as a shared loved language for so many parent-child relationships. Squillante beautifully captures the nostalgia that is wrapped up in our most formative food memories, or as she calls them, “iconic mouthfuls,” and our longing to recreate them through cooking. She can’t help but want to pass this on to her own children, even as she intellectually knows that her iconic mouthfuls—namely the turtle soup she seeks to recreate—won’t be theirs. She writes: “The taste of that soup has become rarified through time and memory and loss.”
All Things Edible, Random, and Odd is a must-read for food lovers of all stripes, readers who enjoy lyrical essays, and anyone seeking to understand the complicated relationship between grieving, picking up the pieces, and preserving according to their own recipe for life.