I’ve been reading a delightful book that combines food with memoir called Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood with Recipes by Lucy Madison and Tram Nuguyen. It’s one that has made me smile and laugh more than any food book I’ve read in a long time. It’s written by two childhood friends and it’s about them growing up and growing apart and coming back together with food being the glue that binds the story together. It’s the sort of book that I wish I’d read in my 20s. There’s no melodrama, no Steel Magnolias-style death bed weepathons, instead it sort of crept under my skin and hooked me gently but firmly. What kept me reading was the quality of the writing, the honesty and the deadpan humour. This is Lucy on her attempts to become a reporter:
“The chief activities I fear in life include speaking on the telephone; talking to strangers; giving people a reason to be mad at me; dealing with people who are mad at me; and asking people to do things they don’t want to do. These activities loosely describe the day-to-day activities of being a reporter.”
There’s a chapter where Tram becomes a cartoon animal costume builder which manages to be slapstick and intensely moving at the same time. And the recipes at the end of every chapter, especially the Vietnamese ones, sound delicious. Lucy has very kindly agreed to answer to some questions :
So what’s your problem with Malbec?
To be fair to Malbec, I first experienced it as a broke 20-year-old while studying abroad in Argentina—so I wasn’t exactly tasting the finest examples of the grape. I would love to go back to Argentina and learn more about it, because I know there are so many winemakers making amazing bottles there now. But I’ve often found Malbec to be a bit harsh and acidic for my palate.
What wine do you like?
Right now I’m craving a crisp, minerally white—like a nice, nutty Grüner Veltliner. Maybe it’s because it’s almost summer. I’m also into Falanghina; I discovered it on my honeymoon in Italy and I’ve been seeking it out ever since. Oh, and I’ll never say no to champagne.
What’s your favourite drink to reward yourself after a long day’s writing?
I love a strong Manhattan.
Do you have a favourite bar in New York?
I’m about to move from the West Village to Brooklyn, so I’m feeling especially nostalgic about some of my neighborhood spots right now. The West Village can get a little touristy and overrun, so I feel a lot of fondness for my local dive bar, Automatic Slims, which is never too packed. It’s got cheap wine, great bartenders, and decent bar food. For something more upscale I like Anfora, which has an excellent wine list and the best ricotta toast I’ve ever had.
What’s your ultimate comfort food?
Cacio e pepe. Or an elaborate cheese plate. Basically any iteration of pasta and cheese.
Is there anything that you are terrible at doing in the kitchen?
I’m not super comfortable cooking red meat in a sophisticated way. I was a vegetarian for a long time, so I didn’t get a lot of practice preparing meat-heavy dishes until I was in my mid-20s. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I don’t have that built-in confidence I have with baked goods and starches.
Which food writers are an inspiration to you? (or writers in general)
Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is only tangentially about food, but it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It’s so funny. It has the perfect hilarious-to-heartbreaking ratio. And Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. I love anything that’s funny and cozy and embraces the idea of imperfection.
And favourite cookbooks?
I love the Cook’s Illustrated books. I like imagining their whole team of professional cooks in the kitchen, testing out a million variations on a recipe so that I don’t have to. I also like to read recipes online and then scour the reviews for comments on what worked and what didn’t, and tailor the recipe accordingly.
How did you get into writing about food?
My best friend Tram Nugyen and I started a food blog, Pen & Palate, a few years ago. We had wanted to collaborate on a project for years, and we both love food and cooking. We’d write about what was going on in our lives and then include a recipe at the end of each post. Tram is an amazing artist, and she illustrates the whole thing.
How did the book come about?
In a lot of ways the book felt like a natural extension of what we were already doing, because the blog was always driven by the stories and the narrative as much as by the recipes. So when someone approached us about the possibility of doing a food memoir, it seemed like a natural fit.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t get too caught up in how terrible you think you are! The first draft is allowed to suck; just put down whatever you can and then edit the shit out of it. Also, try not to take criticism too personally. This is impossible but, I’m told, invaluable.
Are you working on another book?
Not yet! Right now I’m trying to take one thing at a time—the book, a baby that could drop at any moment, and a new apartment. Once that’s all settled, I’m going to try to figure out what’s next.
Thank you Lucy!
Find out more about the book here: Pen & Palate: Mastering the Art of Adulthood, with Recipes . You can read more about Lucy Madison and Tram Nguyen on their blog: Pen & Palate.