Cynthia K. Robertson
Pat Conroy is my favorite author, and it is fitting that he dedicates the same passion for cooking as he does for his writing in his new book, The Pat Conroy Cookbook. The fact that Conroy is so fascinated with food is in itself ironic. Conroy grew up in a house where food was important, but good food was not. In fact, he regrets that his mother "looked upon food as a necessity, not a realm of art." Her idea of seafood every Friday night was fish sticks. This all changed when his wife announced that she was going to law school, and he would have to start preparing the meals for his family (consisting of three young daughters). Conroy is an avid reader and a keen observer, so he began his education in earnest. First, he went to the local bookstore. Instead of recommending something basic and easy (like Betty Crocker), the owner talked Conroy into purchasing a book by the French chef, Escoffier. Soon, he was immersed in the world of making stock, roux and exotic foods. He discovered that cooking could be great fun, and combined the skills of being an artist with those needed to become a mad chemist.
As part of his culinary education, Conroy also became an avid collector. He collected cookbooks, and especially enjoyed those homey books published by churches and civic groups. They not only offered great recipes, but also precious nuggets of knowledge such as "store mushrooms and string beans in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator, not in plastic." Next, he started a collection of culinary friends. Some were cooks, some were chefs, and others just enjoyed good food. Then he started collecting recipes. Many came from friends and family, others he created or recreated. He added foods to his repertoire (things such as white asparagus and escargot). He took a number of cooking classes, and finally, he started traveling. Living in Rome and France for extended periods introduced him to whole new cuisines. While I'm not sure that Conroy has become a master chef, he certainly must be an accomplished one.
But you can bet that Conroy would not be content to just compile recipes for a book. The Pat Conroy Cookbook reads more like a memoir with a generous helping of recipes sprinkled here and there. Each chapter describes a story, saga or anecdote about his life, and is then followed with related recipes. He tells of preparing a bridesmaid's luncheon for his daughter, cooking for his dying father, and foods to make for funerals. He talks about foods from Italy and France, and honeymooning in Umbria. He provides chapters on oyster roasts, pig roasts, Vidalia onions, and grilling. He regales us with the best meals that his has eaten-both in restaurants and out. And he tells us of the relationship between food and his writing.
The recipes themselves are interesting, intriguing and not too intimidating. For those that are more complicated, Conroy takes us through them step by step. He also provides the reader with some of those nuggets of wisdom he so admires in church cookbooks, such as drain fried foods on paper bags and not paper towels. I will definitely try a number of them-especially the low country specialties like shrimp and grits, crab cakes, and pickled shrimp.
So whether you like Pat Conroy or cooking, you will love this cookbook. Not only will it tempt your palate, but it will also provide the reader with a generous dose of "The World According to Pat Conroy." What a tasty treat, indeed.