Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life

Michael Lee West, Author
Michael Lee West, Author HarperCollins Publishers $25 (262p) ISBN 978-0-06-018371-4
Reviewed on: 05/31/1999
Release date: 06/01/1999
Paperback - 262 pages - 978-0-06-098442-7
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Beginning with a childhood during which she ate dirt (not out of poverty, but because she felt compelled to taste the mud pies she had produced), West draws a loving and beguiling portrait of her Southern relatives and their obsession with food. This is not a cookbook in the strictest sense, but the humorous narrative is laced with recipes. As West (known for her novels Crazy Ladies and American Pie) points out early on, families tend to lose their favorite dishes as elderly relatives pass on; here she attempts to record some of her family's favorites. The recipes are as chatty as the prose: Mimi's Buttermilk Biscuits can touch each other, they ""like togetherness,"" and Miss Johnnie's Macaroni and Cheese ""serves eight hungry souls or six starving ones."" Chapters are cleverly self-contained, but some relatives have recurring roles. As a rule, the recipes are not gourmet fare--Tempe's Blue-Ribbon Coconut Cake uses Duncan Hines cake mix--nor are West's relatives gourmets. One of the funniest essays here culminates in her aunt Dell serving a pot roast with bugs in it, at which point West and her mother discover a new interest in vegetarianism. West's mother and aunts play starring roles; whether providing a recipe for a Love Stimulant, a Remedy for a Lonely Heart or Better Than Sex Cake (although Aunt Dell claims it does not live up to its name), they come across as original characters. West manages to portray Southern charm without falling back on stereotypes, and meanwhile stylishly explaining the mystical, eternal link between family and food. When West and relatives visit a barbecue restaurant formerly owned by her uncle, her aunt announces, ""We're kin to this sauce,"" and it doesn't sound like a metaphor. (May)
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