Book Reviews

The Bookshelf

Zosia Mamet’s new anthology celebrates food, glorious food

My First Popsicle: An Anthology of Food and Feelings (Penguin Books, Nov. 1) is, well…exactly what it sounds like—a delectable tour through the raw, complex, heartbreaking and heartwarming emotions we all hold, in one form or another, about food.

Editor Zosia Mamet, of HBO’s Girls fame, had the idea for the anthology when she and her husband, Evan Jonigkeit, were (so thematically) out to dinner with friends who showed them a video of their 2-year-old son eating his first-ever popsicle. His emotions regarding the popsicle were, as Mamet describes them, as complex and varied as a symphony—curiosity, fear, confusion, distaste, betrayal, sadness, jubilation. The video stuck in Mamet’s mind. Haven’t we all had an experience like that with food?

She was determined to find out.

A few years into the pandemic, Mamet set the wheels in motion for real, contacting friends, professional writers, cooks, musicians, actors and singers to see if they’d be interested in contributing. The answer? A resounding yes. Thus was My First Popsicle born. Its parents, midwives, doulas and doting godparents include Michelle Buteau, Sian Clifford, Beanie Feldstein, Rosie Perez, Busy Philipps, Ruth Reichl, David Sedaris—I could go on, but you get the picture. Star-studded. Some of Mamet’s contributing authors—like chef and cookbook author Anita Lo and chef and writer Kwame Onwuachi—write about food professionally. Others are actors, yoga teachers, illustrators, activists, dog groomers, mothers. Others are just big fans of food. The result is a tantalizing literary smorgasbord.

Bookshelf (Courtesy Penguin Random House)

As Mamet notes in the book’s introduction, food is one of those few things we truly can’t live without. But, unlike most of the other necessities of continued existence such as oxygen and water, food isn’t just fuel. It’s a portal into memory, family and identity, depending on your experience. The essays, at times joyful and sweet, pithy and acerbic, or melancholy and bitter, acknowledge such complexities with finesse and humor.

Among my personal favorites are writer and creative strategist Andrew Bevan’s “Ball Buster,” in which his boyfriend breaks up with him—on Valentine’s Day, no less—just as he’s put a humiliatingly large bite of the most succulent meatball into his mouth. During Bevan’s prolonged mastication of said meatball, we run the gamut of emotions from shock to bewilderment to desperation; from the perfect clapback to Bevan’s channeling fast-talking-dame Bette Davis.

In writer and performer Heidi Schreck’s “Solyanka Valentina,” we hear the story of her love affair with a Siberian man—and, more importantly, his mother and her cooking. Over blini, pelmeni, cold cucumber soups and, of course, solyanka, she and Valentina Konstantinovna forged a friendship so durable it couldn’t be broken by the narrator slamming Valentina’s arm in a hot oven (an accident, she swears).

Daniel Lavery’s “On Running-Away Food” is an homage to the foods we read about in children’s books: Lucy Pevensie’s Narnian afternoon tea, pie and coffee from the automat in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Heidi’s toasted-cheese sandwiches—to which the prosaic foods of the adult world can never quite live up.

But My First Popsicle isn’t just about those warm, fuzzy feelings we have about food and eating. It’s also about the sadness, the struggles, the isolation. The ache as complex as a stew that’s been simmering on the stove for days.

“Shallot Vinaigrette Insurance” is novelist, memoirist and screenwriter Stephanie Danler’s recollection of grieving a relationship built primarily around food, and slowly relearning how to give that nourishment to herself after it ended. In Sancocho Dreaming!, John Leguizamo celebrates the Latin American soup that, in his mind, bears the cultural traumas of the places it hails from, as well as the personal traumas associated with it (his family had sancocho after the death of his grandfather, who had stolen his parents’ savings to pay off his own debt). But it’s also a symbol of remembrance, of honor and resilience.

Recipes accompany many of the essays. If your culinary aptitudes are somewhat lacking, fear not—there’s something here for you, whether it’s Katie Holmes’ grandma’s peanut butter cookies or Beanie Feldstein’s “meh” fried egg. If you’re a cook of slightly more aplomb, or an adventurous dilettante, you might try Rosie Perez’ tía’s pollo guisado. Sometimes, the recipes are straightforward. Sometimes they’re as much a ritual as they are a recipe, as with Bevan’s “Uh-Oh” SpaghettiOs with Meatballs, a seemingly mundane dish elevated by Dave Brubeck and existential meditation. And if you want to try Matt Flanders’ Cookie Salad, comprised of vanilla pudding mix, milk, whipped topping, pineapple, mandarin oranges and Fudge Stripes cookies—well, it’s your funeral.

The world of food is a world where memories crystallize. Where Cool-Whip obliterates one’s errors with Bob Ross-ian gentleness. Where Fig Newtons are the height of sophistication. But most of all, where we’re fed, and we feel.

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