It’s a bit of an understatement to say I’m not a joiner. I’m not a loner, either, mostly because it’s hard to find time to be alone. I just don’t like crowds. And I don’t understand people very well. Or hu-mans, as I say in my head. People are confusing even one at a time, and in large numbers, they tend to be confounding. Too much input. Faces, language, emotions, drama—my brain has trouble making sense of that much data all at once. And they are illogical. Humans want nice lies instead of the helpful truth.
Well, I used to think the truth was helpful. It took me a long time to figure out that people really don’t want to hear it.
When I was about twelve, I went away to a girls’ camp for a week. One of the activities was baking a cake over a campfire and decorating it. Our cake rose on one side and fell on the other. Someone thought of a clever idea to decorate it like a ski run. It was pretty creative. I went around to the other camps to see how their cakes looked. I was impressed by what some of them had come up with. When I got back, some of the girls asked me about our chances against the competition. I said, “Well, ours is pretty good, but there are about three others that look better.” The outcry was immediate and vocal. “No, ours is better! Green camp is the best! How dare you say there are better cakes?” I was stunned by the response as they turned on me. I was telling the truth! Why didn’t they want to know?
What I didn’t learn for a long time was that most people aren’t looking for truth, they want comfortable lies. They want to hear what they already believe. This explains politics, money, relationships, and food, among other things. I also didn’t understand the power of the crowd. It doesn’t have to be right, it only has to validate what you believe.
I know what foods are healthy, what makes my body stronger and makes me feel better. I also know there’s a big attraction to comfort food, the foods of childhood. The first food I learned to make was bread, and the next was brownies, both unhealthy by today’s standards, but so delicious!
Food served as a sort of entrée into the world of other people. I still have a clear memory of making a batch of homemade crescent rolls for a church dinner when I was about eighteen and a new bride. There were dozens of more experienced cooks there, but my rolls were the first thing to disappear. It was a needed boost to my ego. I’m not the first person to have figured out that feeding people can be rewarding. Cooking was also a skill I could hone as a stay at home mom, and later use to make some money. It is one of the few transferable “mom” skills. Years later, I became a caterer and cake decorator, using my talent in cooking as a compensation for a lack of talent in social skills. I was always happier in the kitchen at a wedding than among the invited guests.
When you don’t play well with others, it’s hard to discover your own community. I found my “people” in books. Characters in books, as well as some of the authors writing the books, can be solitary and introverted and still provide good company. It’s a way of being alone and being together at the same time. I can understand Curious George and Washoe. I empathize with Frodo. I didn’t grow up with Harry Potter but he’s still my friend, even at my age. Michael Pollan can tell me a story, even though he doesn’t know who I am. I don’t have to make polite conversation with Ruth Reichl or Anthony Bourdain. I doubt I’d be any good at it. I’ve met Julia Child and had no idea what to say to her in person. When I read their books, I communicate with them perfectly. I don’t have to think of the proper words to say. I don’t have to worry about offending them by saying the first inappropriate thing that comes to mind. And I can renew the friendship any time, even after they are long gone.
It’s fair to say that I’ve made a lot more friends in books that I have in real life. It would be exhausting to try to keep up with a thousand people on Facebook, but since they are characters in books, it’s not a problem. I can read four or five books in a good week. That’s a lot of new people. Some are fairly forgettable, but others have stayed with me. Because I am who I am, it’s the stories that involve food that I remember the best. Of course.
Some of my most vivid memories are from the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Little House on the Prairie and the rest of them. I was fascinated by the preservation methods described in the books. Since I was raised in a fairly traditional household, we spent time every summer canning quarts of peaches, pears, and cherries, and we always had a garden and our own beef in the freezer. So I identified with some of the stories describing food preparation for winter. There is a scene that tells about the hams hanging from the rafters, which fascinated me. I think I just liked the idea of being able to reach up and cut a piece of ham off for a snack, but there was also the sense of coziness I imagined. The snow would come and they were stuck in the house for the winter, but the family had everything they needed.
I grew up reading The Joy of Cooking like a novel, which it really was. The stories are of an upper class childhood that I could never imagine. Part of the reason it was interesting to read was its foreignness. The index contained, on the same page, recipes for both Opossum and Opera Creams, neither of which was on our regular menu. I also remember a story about boiling potatoes in pine pitch, an extravagant and strange preparation that I can’t help but wonder if anyone has ever really made. There is also a recipe for frying bacon, which is about as basic as it gets.
Sometimes the recipes are beside the point. The stories are the thing. One of my cookbooks that has the best stories is The Pat Conroy Cookbook. He’s famous for The Prince of Tides and other books, but the only one of his books I’ve read is his cookbook. I doubt I’ll ever make his pickled shrimp recipe, but I remember the stories.
And just as cooking gave me a way to communicate with other people on a more basic level, books have done the same. One of the best things about owning a bookstore is the opportunity it provides to talk to interesting people. The guy with a tattoo in binary–a quote from Firefly on his arm. The couple from Taiwan, the descendants of James Joyce, the visiting professor who came in and found a copy of something he’d written, the guy with the pirate shirt, the young girl who had never read Harry Potter and was just enchanted by it, the girls with green hair and silly hats, the boys with capes, the oddballs. My people.