British writer Lawrence Durrell was most known as a novelist. But, when it comes to evocative writing, it's his travelogues that mark him as great. Nobody has ever evoked the people, the geography, the very soul of place as well as he did; particularly when he wrote about the Mediterranean islands in books such as Reflections On A Marine Venus, Prospero's Cell, and Bitter Lemons .
At her best, Deirdre Heekin, in her culinary memoirs In Late Winter We Ate Pears and Libation: A Bitter Alchemy is every bit as good as Durrell. Unfortunately, she's too often not at the top of her game. When she's good she is very good indeed. And when she's not it can be a struggle to read what she has to say.
To be fair, I may be overstating the case, somewhat, because I read the two books backwards. I'd not read In Late Winter We Ate Pears, despite the fact that everyone I know who had read it raved about it. And it received great critical acclaim when first published. So, when my copy of Libation arrived, I anticipated great things. Maybe my expectations were too high? Or maybe, in her group of loosely connected essays describing her path to becoming a vintner and authority on off-beat Italian wines, she just didn't have enough to say and had to stretch things? Either way, I found the book disappointing.
In the publicity materials accompanying the book, we're told that Libation "weaves a compelling narrative taking the reader from vineyards in Italy, her adoptive land, to old cocktail bars in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. She reveals that---more than what we eat---what we cultivate and drink represent our most profound engagement of the natural world."
It's not often that I quote promotional literature. But in this case, I have no kick with it. When she's writing about her own experiences, and feelings, and culinary (and distilling) worldview, she accomplishes exactly what the publicist promises. But that promise is fulfilled far too infrequently.
The problem is twofold. First, while each of the essays deals with the general topic, they are not related to each other. If you read them as, say, a series of magazine articles, that would be fine. But as a book it makes for disjointed reading. You naturally expect one chapter to follow logically from the last, with some sense of continuity. And that's, sadly, missing.
My second complaint is harsher. So long as Heekin sticks to her experiences, feelings, and personal analyses, there's some great reading. This is supposed to be a personal story; a tale of the journey taken as she both develops a wine palette and becomes a vintner. You're going along, really getting into her head. And suddenly, with no warning, there's a long, scientific treatise stuck in the middle of the essay. It's almost as if she wrote the essay and her publisher said, "hey! This is great stuff! But you need to make it longer." Not having anything else to say, on a personal level, she slaps in the scientific stuff.
To be sure, there are a very few chapters that stand beautifully in their entirety. Her short essay on searching out, and finally preparing, rosolio, a little-known Sicilian liqueur distilled from roses and particularly popular in the 19th century. "It is a cold, rainy October day when my husband and I first taste the rosolio," she reports. "The rain falls horizontally, and the National Weather Service has issued a High Wind Alert. We are in the middle of a house renovation; and, because the roof is off, with only our cedar ceiling and a large tarp between us and the elements, leaks have sprouted around the windows and in certain places in the roof. There's no reason this should be happening….."
That chapter is filled with such writing. Unfortunately, the very next essay starts out: "The Minnesota Grape Growers Association lists nineteen wine grape varieties indigenous to Minnesota. These varietals are hardy down to –20 degrees….." Talk about a stopper! If you have a personal interest in becoming a vintner in a northern state such info is valuable. But you can order it up directly from the appropriate agricultural sources. There's no need to read a memoir to discover it.
This problem permeates the book so thoroughly that, after reading it, and thinking about the reports I'd heard about Pears, I had to wonder, "what's all the shouting about?"
To find out, I ordered a copy of In Late Winter We Ate Pears. This is the book in which she, along with husband Caleb Barber, really shines---reaching the literary level of Durrell. Frankly, after reading Libation, and despite the glowing reviews, I was surprised.
Heekin and Barber spent their honeymoon year in Italy, and fell in love with the land, the people, and the cuisine. They've since made many trips back, further exploring the food and wine. Subsequently, they opened an Italian bakery and café, in Woodstock, Vermont, which, over time, evolved into the award-winning restaurant and wine bar Osteria Pane e Salute. In Late Winter We Ate Pears is the sometimes poignant, oft times amusing, and always evocative tale of that journey. Subtitled "a year of hunger and love," it's all of that and more. An example:
"'Go to Carnevale,"' they said, they being friends who knew. So we went; Caleb and I took the long slow train from Florence. We stood most of the way because there was nowhere to sit; everyone was going to Carnevale, a celebration in Venice that had been abandoned for years but had been returned. Winter rains pelted our train car through the smoky landscape, and my body ached: ankles, knees, wrists and shoulders. I traveled with a fever, a shiny heat that had started to take hold of me about an hour after we boarded the train."
She doesn't spell it out. But I can feel the dampness of the late-winter rain, and smell the mixture of sweat, and baskets of bread and salami, and diesel fuel in the too-crowded car, and feel the headachyness of the on-coming grippe.
Such spirit of place fills the pages of Pears with high-intensity light, whereas in Libation they appear more as bright flashes in an otherwise dull landscape.
Another difference between the two is that Pears is a memoir with recipes. It is not a cookbook, per se. But scattered throughout are recipes collected on the frequent trips to Italy. Sometimes the recipes just illustrate a point made in the essay. Other times they are adaptations as served in the restaurant, or dishes cooked at home for the two of them. Anyone familiar with Italian cuisine will recognize most of them, albeit in slightly different forms. The essays are arranged to reflect the passing seasons, and the recipes follow suit. They aren't there to demonstrate culinary creativity, but to show how Italian cuisine, long before the California thing, was based on seasonally available fruits and veggies.
But you don't read In Late Winter We Ate Pears for the recipes. You read it for the great writing, for insights into the author's culinary worldview, and, mostly, for how she captures the soul of place.
In sum, In Late Winter We Ate Pears is a feast to be devoured at one sitting. Bitter Alchemy, on the other hand, is best served as small plates over many days. And you may want to take a pass on many of the dishes.