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Hungry For Love? Two Food Memoirs Satisfy

You can find thousands of recipes for chocolate cake by typing the words into a search engine. Likewise, there are thousands of memoirs recounting every conceivable life trauma, from growing up in war-torn Sudan to enduring a politician husband's infidelity while fighting breast cancer. With neither memoirs nor recipes in short supply, what explains the sudden popularity of the memoir with recipes?

Two sparkling new books suggest answers. Neither A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg nor I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci recounts a superficially remarkable story, and therein lies their charm. These are not accounts of lives flying out of control, but of lives being kept in order. While there's a train-wreck fascination to reading about the latest agony suffered by Augusten Burroughs, there's an equally powerful appeal to reading about people who handle tribulations with grace and manage to get dinner on the table, too.

Melucci's I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti begins like a fizzy work of chick lit: The pretty, funny Brooklyn-born heroine moves to Manhattan, gets a job in publishing and starts looking for someone to cook for. The conventions of the genre require that Melucci kiss a few frogs, and so she does. First, there's the brainy alcoholic, then the "complicated communicator," followed by the commitment-shy TV producer, who is replaced by the novelist who sleeps with her but doesn't "want a girlfriend or whatever." If this were, in fact, chick lit, Melucci would run into Prince Charming at about this point. Instead, along hops another frog. And then another.

There's palpable sadness in this book; Melucci, now in her 40s, never got what she longed for (at least not yet.) But she has both wit and an enviable sense of balance that's reflected in the delectable evening meals she cooks, even when there's no one to share them with. Her recipes for gutsy, straightforward pastas reinforce the gutsy, straightforward persona she's created on the page, and you wonder how anyone could resist either "linguine with friendly little fish" or the woman who makes it.

Wizenberg is best known for her blog Orangette, where, since 2004, she's published pellucid personal essays revolving around food and her daily life in Seattle. Fans will recognize some of the material in A Homemade Life, but it's been artfully reshaped as a coming-of-age story, one that somehow manages to integrate shattering grief and erotic love with recipes for rum cream pie, toffee and meatballs.

Wizenberg's recipes never feel like trite tack-ons; they're both a natural extension of her autobiography and an expression of her aesthetic, grounding this luminous memoir in the everyday and relatable.

The first half of the book describes Wizenberg's (mostly) happy childhood and ends with the death of her beloved father, Burg, a terrific character whose oversized personality is embodied by the dishes he favored, like an insanely rich potato salad. In the second half, Wizenberg tells of meeting and falling in love with her future husband, ending the book with the recipe for the simple chocolate wedding cake she baked for herself. Few memoirs or chocolate cakes are more satisfying.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Reese