Books and Food and Friends

In my four-woman book club, we rotate host duties for the monthly whenever-we-can-get-together meetings. The hostess chooses the book and decides where to meet — usually her house — and what kind of food to have. Because reading and eating are some of my all-time top favorite things, I’m not ashamed to admit that when it’s my turn to host, I usually choose books I know I can get a great menu from. And I hit the jackpot with my most recent pick, “Suite Francaise,” by Irene Nemirovsky. This is a powerful unfinished work about the German occupation of France during World War II. Nemirovsky, a well-known writer at the time, was from a wealthy Ukrainian family that fled the Russian Revolution when she was a teenager. The family settled in Paris, where she married and had two daughters while building her career as a major novelist. Because of her Jewish heritage, the French government refused to grant her citizenship in 1938, although she converted to Catholicism the next year. As the Germans approached Paris in 1940, she and her husband, also a Jew, fled with their children to a French village. Nazi control made life for Jews increasingly dangerous, and she sent her children to live with their nanny. She was arrested in July, 1942, at age 39 and gassed at Auschwitz, where her husband was sent and killed a few months later. The amazing thing about this story is that while watching her life and her family and her country — all the things most precious to her — destroyed all around her, she was writing a novel about it. “Suite Francaise,” made up of three novels of a projected five, follows fictional French characters as they are faced with the same unbelievable and unbearable circumstances Nemirovsky herself was facing at the exact same time — and, of course, without knowing the ending. You MUST read this book. It’s that good. And, since it’s about France — even France at war — there naturally are some excellent food references. I had great fun shopping for and putting together a menu: Shortbread, cream puffs, chocolate truffles, bread, cheese, olive oil and herbs for dipping, peach jam, sliced apples, cold sliced ham, mustard, pistachios, oranges, grapes, French-press coffee, French wine, Perrier and some little wine biscuits I found in the TJ Maxx food section — the best place for affordable gourmet. Impressed? Don’t be — the most I had to do to get this food on the table was open boxes and packages, although I did actually slice up the apple. I think. But for dessert, I actually made a cherry tart by my very own self. It smelled delicious while it was baking. How did it taste? Well, let’s just say that plenty of homemade vanilla-flavored whipped cream covers all mistakes.

Proof that I Actually Can Sometimes Every Once in a While Cook

Okay. Here’s a test for book-club members. My four-woman group recently read a newly published book about family relationships that’s been making the rounds lately. (Side note: We were sort of “meh” about it, but more on that later.) It was my turn to host, and since at our mettings we always try to outdo and impress each other prepare a meal that ties in to the book we’ve read, I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot because one of the main characters in this book is a chef. Food descriptions are scattered throughout, and, honestly, we all agreed that they were the best part of this book. Anyway, I took my cue from the book and made, among other things, Elvis Cookies (roasted banana ice cream sandwiched between peanut butter cookes and rolled in caramelized bacon) and a spinach frittata. So the question is: What book did we read? If you’ve been keeping up with book-club news, you should get it. Of course, the other question is: Did anybody actually believe I’d made this entire meal myself, all by myself? As a widely known non-cook, I can understand folks’ skepticism. After all, while I worked in the kitchen that day, my husband anxiously kept asking me, “Honey? What are you doing? Do you feel okay?” and my fellow book-club members were stunned into silence when they saw their plates. At least, I think that’s why they didn’t say anything as they were eating.