Posted in Academic, Book Review, Close Reading

The Memoir Within “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I learned to Cook” by Alex Guarnaschelli


Upon a first thumbing through the pages of this glossy cookbook, the reader sees the typical recipes paired with photographs of succulent looking scallops or a cake with a slice removed to expose the alternate layers of chocolate frosting and yellow crumb. There are several pages that catch the eye that are styled like a journal or scrapbook. The author has transposed drawings of parsnips and notes about duck fat and livers into these pages. Old-School Comfort Food reveals itself to be, not just a cookbook, but also a memoir of how she came to love cooking and food with such fervor. Chef Alex Guarnaschelli uses her words and experiences to guide the reader as a friend on a culinary journey through these pages and in to the kitchen.

As hinted in the subtitle, The Way I Learned to Cook, the author starts her readers in her mother’s kitchen. As a child Guarnaschelli watched her mother, a cookbook author, whip up trusty classic recipes as well as inventing new ones. We are introduced to a memory that revolves around a cheese soufflé being brought into existence. It is served as soon as a pile of manuscripts are removed from the dining table.

“ ‘Al, I just got a great book proposal for a thousand-page book about garam masala. What do you think?’ ” (8). If the reader were a layperson when it comes to the names of exotic ingredients they might ask themselves “what is garam masala?” Yet, we are in Alex’s memories right now, and it doesn’t matter that the reader, or a child, knows what garam masala is. The reader is brought to the revelation of “old school,” or as it is described in oversized font “…sometimes the very things that started it all” (9).

The reader experiences the continued childlike wonder of cooking and food through the eyes of young Alex. She then takes the reader from the culinary encounters in her mother’s kitchen to those of high-end professional establishments in the US and Europe. Her journey is the reader’s as she uses present tense to describe things that started happening in New York City in the early 90’s. “I bop into the kitchen….and explain I am there to work for free– to stage. He (the head chef) looks up and gives me a once-over. ‘I’ll see you here tomorrow at 9 a.m. sharp’ ” (13).

When Guarnaschelli transitions from her memoir to recipes the tense transitions as well. The author goes from the present tense of honing her skills and palate into past tense and concrete gastronomic authority. She gives the reader a lesson in a well-stocked kitchen, emphasizing not just the pantry, “my motto: buy imperfect, buy what you love” (30) but also on tools “outside of the Knife Bag and on to the Kitchen Counter” (28).

The featured photography goes from old family photos to those familiar in most cookbooks. Recipes captured in perfection by the test chefs and food photographers. The journal/scrapbook style continues though with sidebars of information and images of handwritten notes. One sidebar, an “Old-School Tip” reminds the reader of a less than pleasant experience many have had with meatloaf. “Ever bite into a meatloaf and end up with a piece of undercooked onion (or garlic)….adding them to raw meatloaf sometimes results in steamed (read: tasteless) or even crunchy bits of vegetable…cooking them on their own first, the garlic and the onion meld into the meat” (105).

This cookbook is organized like many others organized chronologically through a meal: snacks and salads to the main dishes of meat, poultry and seafood. In the second to the last chapter she covers dessert. As dessert is the ending of meals, and many cookbooks, she writes:

“While I believe dessert can take many forms– big or small, simple or complex– it should always be something you absolutely crave…it should take me back to my childhood and bring up all kinds of taste memories” (217)

Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I learned to Cook embraces a multi-layered approach to cookbook writing. By using both memoir writing and food writing Alex Guarnaschelli is able to create a new experience of reading food. Then the reader can open up their pantry, take out the ingredients and tools they love to either recreate the recipes, or go “old-school” and return to their own taste memories and comfort food.



Works Cited

Guarnaschelli, Alex. Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I learned to Cook. New York     City: Clarkson Potter/Publishers. 2013. Print.



©Ginger Lee Thomason and, 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ginger Lee Thomason and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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