Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bittersweet : Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen - Matt McAllester

Summary:  A well-seasoned foreign correspondent who had traveled to many of the globe's most dangerous hot spots, from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kosovo, Matt McAllester had been exposed to terror and tragedy on an epic scale.  But nothing he saw in wartime prepared him for the onslaught of grief he felt when his mother, a mere shadow of the elegant, vibrant woman she had once been, finally died.

In the months that followed, he found himself poring over old family photos and letters, trying to reach out for her.  But as he looked anew at her long-cherished collection of cookbooks, he realized that the best way to bring her back was through the food she had once prepared for him -- form her spare ribs to her scones to the homemade strawberry ice cream that seemed in memory the very essence of happy times.

With a reporter's precision and a storyteller's grace, McAllester has written a moving tribute to his mother and a dazzling feast for the senses.  Complete with recipes that evoke the pleasures of the past and the hopes for the future, Bittersweet is a memoir that weaves an unforgettable tale of family, food, and love.  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review: Matt McAllester is a battle-hardened war correspondent and a man desperately broken by loss. Bittersweet is his story, and that of his mother, a woman who spent the final years of her life as a suicidal alcoholic with manic depressive episodes that drove even her closest family away. At her passing, Matt is overwhelmed by a sense of inconsolable sorrow, made worse by his own inability to have children, and eventually finds a form of solace in the kitchen, creating the meals his family shared in happier times.

While this book’s title and culinary premise create an obvious draw for a foodie like me, this novel is more than simple food lit. As the author attempts to resurrect his mother, at least in spirit, he begins to cook some of her favorite recipes and to remember life before her illness. With each taste of long forgotten dishes, he dredges up memories of their shared past and struggles to reconcile the idyllic scenes of his childhood with the turbulence of his adolescence and adult life. This mixture of recollections and recipes forms a genuinely tender opus to his mother -- a catalog of her life, for better or worse -- and follows the author’s gradual transformation into a more relaxed, self-sufficient, and satisfied human being.

Bittersweet feels like an accurate portrayal of the difficulties and heartbreak that come from mental illness. The author does not condemn his mother for the conflict caused by her infirmity, but strives to convey the complexities of their relationship in a realistic but respectful manner by highlighting both positive and negative memories. The result is a (pardon me, but there is no better word for it) bittersweet story of a man who learns to love his mother again, regardless of her debilitating disease. I enjoyed this book about as much as you can enjoy a book about mental illness -- the recipe/food sections didn’t hurt -- and thought it strangely uplifting in spite of the subject matter.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some discussion of sex and occasional swearing (including several curses of the F variety). Also, this book might be difficult to read for anyone struggling with fertility or miscarriage. The author and his wife repeatedly attempt to conceive with little success. I’m not sure whether their experience would be cathartic or painful for someone in a similar situation, so be forewarned!

Sum it up: McAllester’s story is a poignant and unaffected memorial to his mother – one of recognition, acceptance, understanding, and love.

Post edit: SPOILER: I just heard from Matt, via email, and he delighted me with the news that he and his wife had just adopted a little boy named Harry who will be turning one in February.  Best wishes to their little family from RFS!   I actually sighed with relief when I read the news.  Yay!!

1 comment:

Yvonne said...

Sounds like a very interesting book.

I gave you something at my blog


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