Serious Reads: A Spoonful of Promises, by T. Susan Chang

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

20120307-spoonfulcover.jpgWednesday night marked the eve of the Jewish holiday Purim, in which Jews around the world read a particular scroll, dress up in costumes, and follow the holiday's custom of heavy celebratory drinking. As it was a Wednesday, I opted for a tamer ritual—baking hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies traditionally filled with such off-beat flavors as poppyseed, apricot jam, and prunes. My friends and I baked off a batch of chocolate and strawberry-filled ones. As they browned, we reminisced about baking these cookies as children, with our mothers, haphazardly folding and crimping such that they generally fell apart and released a flood of gooey jam onto the baking sheet. A friend pondered aloud, "Will we make these with our children? Will we cook the same foods for them that we ate when we were younger?"

To a room of college students, the question was rhetorical and given only a few moments of thought. But T. Susan Chang explores the power of food traditions and memories far more deeply in her new book, A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table. In the memoir, she reflects simultaneously on her childhood and her motherhood. Food is the thread that connects her tumultuous younger years with the joys of raising a new family.

The book is separated into three parts—"Food That I Remember," "The Food We Eat These Days," and "Food to Try at Least Once In Your Life." The chapters in each section focus on specific foods or food experiences, and end with relevant recipes. Some of the more enchanting tales include "Rebel with a Ring Ding," in which Chang sneaks bites of her classmate's delicious Hostess treats, which were certainly not allowed in her mother's home. Others, like "Chicken Pot Pie," reflect on Chang's early teenage years, in the wake of her mother's sudden death. She notes that to this day she cannot eat frozen dinners, such as chicken pot pies, because the floury texture reminds her of the weeks immediately following her mother's death. She and her father were struggling to cope, and survived on frozen meals for weeks at a time.

In "Supper for Superheroes," Chang negotiates her son's newfound love for action figures and, especially, branded snacks with cartoon representations of those action figures. In this and other stories, she reflects on how she feeds her young children and balances their opposing dietary preferences. She writes on parenting with a remarkably even-handed tone—while she packs dried fruit and whole-grain bread in her son's lunch, he is still allowed a few less healthy snacks each week. She doesn't want to be "judgmental about other [mothers'] snacks." It seems the siren's song of the Ring Ding had a lasting effect!

Chang's memoir is tinged with the sadness of her childhood lost, but largely has a hopeful and sentimental tone. Her recipes are delicious and simple—my mouth watered as I read her descriptions of chocolate bread and salt-crusted roast fish. She is self-reflective and encourages the reader to appreciate the flavor memories of childhood.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.