Last summer I got a phone call from Sara Foster. "Hey-ay--yyy...." she said. Sara's from Tennessee, where "hey," like "dude," for those of us from San Diego, can be a multiple syllable word. "Can you do me a favor?"
During the time I got the pleasure of knowing Sara, by writing two of her cookbooks, she introduced me to a lot of things, including pimento cheese ("pimenna cheese"), Ole Miss and Oxford, Mississippi, tailgating the way only southerners can, Lake Placid, and a kind of generosity that--other than the Chino family, who are famous for theirs--I have never known before or since. All you can do with people like that is try to give back, but for better or worse, you're pretty much assigned to a life of generosity debt with them. Still, I try.
"Anything," I said.
"Can you look at what Sam Sifton wrote about the book and tell me if it's good or bad."
Sara was talking about her new book, Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen, which came out this summer and which I didn't write. Sam is, or was until something like yesterday, the New York Times restaurant critic, had done a round-up of summer cookbooks for the Times Book Review that week, which I had yet to read. "I can tell you right now that he liked it," I told her. "Because it's a round-up of book's he's recommending, not a review." Nevertheless, I read the write-up and I could see how she could be confused. He seems to like it when he writes that it's, "Lavishly illustrated and... very likely destined for kitchen shelves in coastal weekend homes and rentals from Montauk to Hilton Head." But then he goes on to say that the recipes are, "neither surprising nor problematic," and, "not going to change your life." So now, thanks to Sam, we know what the cookbook is not, and if Sam were not in the position he is, he would have an editor who insisted on a rewrite stating what the cookbook was. Before getting back to Sara, I emailed a friend who has one of the savviest minds I know in the book biz, and asked her what she thought of Sam's write-up. She's also a woman of few words. "Inscrutable." was the one that came back.
Yesterday, just to add to my debt, Sara sent me a case of Fresh Everyday, which was recently reprinted--with a much livelier cover. Inside the same box was a bottle of Foster's Market Seven Pepper Jelly, which I always have to have around in case of entertaining emergencies, and then there was a copy of her Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen.
Even though he gave it a weird review, I can see why Sam chose the book in his round-up: It's one of the rare cookbooks—among them I would include Judy Rogers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Classic Home Desserts, by the late Richard Sax, and Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, by Lidia Bastianich—that feels like a life's work. The life's work of a cook who is in his or her own way significant in the landscape of American cookery. Plus the food in this book looks and sounds delicious, and I know that Sara's recipes are tested within an inch of their lives. Whether or not you have a house in Montauk, Hilton, or Lake Havasu, this is definitely a cookbook you want to have on your short shelf. I only wish I could say that I wrote it.