“Authenticity” and “transformation” are words that spill from Elissa Altman’s lips more than once in the course of discussing her newest book, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking.
The book, published by Chronicle Books and released March 5, is the story of one year in her life that altered her relationship with food as much as it altered her relationships to people in her life. While a natural outgrowth of her award-winning blog, “Poor Man’s Feast,” in which both food and family are regularly exposed, the book is not simply a compilation of the blog. It grew out of a response to her blog readers who would beg her to elaborate on a particular essay.
“The blog got me thinking about how food is transformative, and I realized through the blog just how transformative food has been in my life,” she said. It is a love story, said Ms Altman, with parallels on many levels.
“It’s a parallel between my very, very New England Susan [Turner], who didn’t think about food beyond tradition, and me — I grew up in New York City, thinking about food as a social tool. It’s between my father and his longtime companion, and between me and my love affair with food,” she said. “I think it’s a love story; love in all its guises,” said Ms Altman.
“The first thing for me is that food and family are intertwined. I can’t really write about one without writing about the other. The book is really about that very first year when I met Susan. Over the course of that year, a lot evolved, including the way I thought about food,” Ms Altman said.
A Christmas snowstorm turns her dreams of a mythic first-ever New England Christmas dinner, complete with goose and plum pudding (for two), into a snowbound feast of onion panade, a savory bread pudding created from the simple ingredients on hand.
Building a garden that initial year in New England, and harvesting the wealth from it “really opened my eyes to the concept of garden to table cooking. I had never occurred to me that gardening was something I would want to try,” she said.
“People talk a lot about expectation versus reality. It’s hard for some people to accept simplicity and authenticity. That [first New England] Christmas made me realize you don’t have to have all the trappings,” said Ms Altman.
Although she attended night classes at the Peter Kump School of Cooking in Manhattan, she credits her father with teaching her all she knows about food.
“He was an authentic ‘fresser,’ taking me away on these elaborate Saturday luncheons to fancy French restaurants,” she said. But her father went through his own transformations in his relationships with his girlfriend and with food, the same year that Ms Altman discovered Ms Turner and the simple life.
“It turns out my dad was a country boy at heart. His girlfriend also was focused on food ‘not tarted up to excess,’ so he was going through a big change, too,” she said.
From Manhattan Dean & DeLuca employee and foodie, in an era where who ate what food, when and how, to a country girl wallowing in food at its authentic best, Ms Altman shares her tale of transformations. The book eases the reader through the Ms Altman’s journey from fancy to simple, using a first person narrative into which recipes for comfort foods, “the kinds we would all recognize,” are woven.
“Life is complicated enough. We don’t need to make it more complex, at the table or away from the table. Food is a fact of life. We all eat, and we all want comfort. Food should be about conviviality and communing with other people,” mulled Ms Altman. “I love to feed people; that’s what I do,” but leaving behind the frills and frippery of elevating food beyond its natural beauty is a thing of the past for this writer. Authenticity in food is as vital as authenticity in relationships.
The Newtown author returned Sunday, March 31, from a two-week book tour to promote the book that covered nearly 9,000 miles and eight cities in the Northwest, West Coast, and Midwest.
“I had a fabulous response to the book, with standing room only at some places,” said Ms Altman.
As a book editor for Rodale Books, she is aware of the bookstores thought of as a kind of Mecca to book lovers. To be able to read and do book signings at places like Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, Powell’s in Portland, Ore., or Omnivore Books in San Francisco more than made up for the frantic pace.
The six-city East Coast leg of her book tour begins April 12, at Harvard Bookstore, in Cambridge, Mass. She will do a more local book signing at the Wilton Library later this spring, and is planning a benefit book signing at Your Healthy Pet in Newtown, as well. Ms Altman, who confessed to living with “a small herd of animals that I love dearly,” said that sales from her book there would support The Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary in Newtown.
“Poor Man’s Feast is really a story of finding peace and sustenance in a world that can be very complicated. It’s about finding authenticity in places where we could get all wrapped up in crazy stuff,” said Ms Altman. “It’s a love story… how much more basic can that be?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Ms Altman graduated from Peter Kump's School of Cooking. Ms Altman attended night classes at the school.