After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.
No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.
Sasha Martin, creator of the popular blog Global Table Adventure, didn’t set out to write a memoir about what she calls her “rough background”. Martin intended to chronicle the four years she spent cooking meals from every country in the world. She envisioned a book filled with “sweet stories about overcoming pickiness”, not one that brought back painful memories of her difficult upbringing. But when Martin’s editor asked her what inspired her to begin her ambitious cooking project, Martin realized that Life from Scratch was going to be about much more than food:
Every time I tried to answer her, memory pushed me further and further back in time – all the way to the foods and stories of my childhood. Introspection (and lots of tears) brought me face to face with my rough and tumble childhood – the string of foster homes, the painful separation from my mother, and the tragic death of a beloved family member.
Food, specifically cooking with my mother, had been an important anchor early on but as an adult I felt disconnected from that experience. As I worked to build my own family, cooking the world had become much more than trying new food – it became a path towards healing. It was my way of working out what unconditional love and belonging meant. Reflected in the desire for my daughter to love her world, I also saw my own need to love my world and feel loved by it. After a childhood in turmoil I was hungry for peace.
Many of Martin’s early childhood memories take place in the “warm, fragrant space” of the kitchen in a tiny apartment in a working-class suburb of Boston. Martin’s eccentric mother invents creative meals from the meager groceries she’s able to obtain, using every scrap and telling Martin and her brother that “a little mold never hurt anyone”. I was reminded of Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone, in which she dubs her unbalanced mother “The Queen of Mold”. Martin’s mother, unlike Reichl’s, is actually a good cook, serving delicacies like Hungarian crepes and a 21-layer German Tree Cake. Readers will debate whether she’s a good mother. Certainly, she faces many challenges and makes life difficult for her children — but how much of the family’s turbulence is within her control?
Martin’s mother can’t even decide what Sasha’s name will be, changing it numerous times before her tenth birthday: “Each time the Boston courts awarded my foiled and stamped name-change documents, Mom sent out calligraphic announcements to everyone she knew . . . She treated each reinvention like a festive occasion, taking us on the train to the North End , where we’d eat Italian subs to celebrate”. Despite their poverty and chaotic home life, Sasha and her siblings feel loved, especially when they are cooking and sharing meals together: “In those days food was never just sustenance; the very act of cooking knit our disparate lives together”. So it is devastating when the children are finally placed in a foster home — and the matter-of-fact way in which Martin describes this traumatic event makes it even more heartbreaking for the reader.
In Martin’s new home, she has every material thing she needs, in addition to safety and stability. However, she desperately misses her mother and the bond they shared through food and cooking. She’s not allowed to help prepare meals in her foster mother’s beautiful, well-equipped kitchen — “‘The kitchen’s no place for a child! Go find something fun to do!'”, she’s told.
But I wanted to cook I needed to cook. Mom had raised me with the implicit understanding that cooking is the answer to all life’s vicissitudes — not just the antidote to boredom, but also a way to ward off the darker realities of grief, separation, and loneliness. If I could just get my hands on a ball of dough or a pot to stir, I could work my way through this new life and be OK.
As I read about Martin’s struggles during her childhood and adolescence, I wanted to ask all the adults involved in raising her if they had ever considered putting her needs ahead of theirs — or indeed, whether they had considered her needs and feelings at all. I was glad that I knew from the beginning that Martin would be OK — actually, more than OK. Her generous and forgiving spirit shines through her writing on every page. Martin never preaches about “gratitude” and “positive thinking” or offers platitudes, but honestly tells a story of forgiveness and healing. Her story, like all the best memoirs, speaks for itself.
As Molly Wizenberg says in another wonderful food memoir, My Homemade Life, “When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.”
Food is never just food. Sasha Martin found it was a way to make peace with her past and a way to connect with the world around her. Life from Scratch is heartfelt and plainspoken, inspiring us to think about the role food plays in our lives. It also contains about 30 recipes, from Dark Chocolate Guinness Cake (sounds delicious!) to Cambodian Grilled Eggs (!!!) — and Global Table Adventure features hundreds of international recipes, with beautiful photographs.