Table of Contents, Volume Four (March 2016)

Because I am addicted to offbeat, curated literary events, I’ve been trying to attend a Table of Contents event at Egg for months – and I finally did it! The brainchild of Egg’s head chef Evan Hanczor, the series started as a full meal themed around a novel. The updated format of the series, however, has each event feature a lineup of contemporary authors reading from their recent work, along with small dishes inspired by the excerpts. The roster on March 16th (“Volume Four”) was especially delectable as it featured one of my favorite authors and two others I’m excited to read: Catherine Lacey (much loved on RB and a rockstar guest of So Many Damn Books), Sarah Gerard, and John Wray.

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We sat down at the long, dark-wooden communal table in Egg’s back room to fresh biscuits with butter and jam while guests trickled in. After a brief introduction by Evan –an extraordinarily respected chef with a literary background and an analytical mind towards both food and words– the readings began.

Gerard’s piece, excerpted from her forthcoming essay collection, opened with a description of liquid eggs gone wrong, so in a test of bravery, Evan served eggs gone right. They were deviled, dried, and sprinkled with black garlic. Yum. In response to Lacey’s reading from her staggeringly beautiful novel Nobody is Ever Missing in which Elyria burns vegetables while working in a farm kitchen and thinking of the husband she left, Evan brought us a burnt vegetable salad, bursting with flavor. Sidenote: I sincerely don’t know how the difference in quality between the vegetables I cook and the vegetables he cooks is so great, but it is. It really is. Lastly, after Wray’s rollicking passage from The Lost Time Accidents describes an opulent but quirky dinner party, a chicken liver pâté with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms was brought forth to a chorus of oohs and ahhs.

The discussion afterwards was full of delightful snippets (Evan: “Do any of you have odd eating habits while writing?” Sarah: “I once ate an entire thing of red pepper flakes, plain.”). But the lengthiest portion of the conversation, and the thought I’ve been chewing on (ha) since the event, was a question Evan raised about a similarity he’s pondered between cooking and writing: what does it mean to be “good?”

As a chef at an acclaimed restaurant known specifically for comfort food, his job is to please people. But there’s also, of course, a large contingency in the food world, especially in gourmet circles, that encourages experimentation and adventuresome cooking. So on one hand, if the patrons of Egg don’t enjoy the food put in their mouths, Evan hasn’t done his job. On the other hand, the food can’t be boring. They don’t want to eat something they could make at home.

Writers face a similar balancing act: create something brilliant and new and unique, but you will be criticized if your book is overwhelming to readers, if they can’t understand it, if it’s confusing.  Wray admitted and accepts that readers might not understand his book – it’s (intentionally) kind of all over the place. For as many people as there are who adore Lacey’s book, she has encountered people who just don’t like her main character – which really means that the character makes them uncomfortable. And in Binary Star, Gerard plays with form and relatively graphic discomfort in drastic ways.

It comes down to the question of comfort vs. discomfort in art (and I am absolutely counting the culinary arts here). I think about this all the time – granted, I work at a contemporary art museum so I’m immersed in the public’s reaction to this question every day. Is there a line? Is it all about preference, or an inclination to be or not to be pushed beyond what a reader or eater is familiar with?

For fear of making one too many puns, the whole evening gave the crowd food for thought. And literal food. The series is free, and it’s happening again on April 27th with authors Sara Majka, Sara Novic, and Rachel Cantor. We’ll be there, and we highly recommend you join us for Volume Five.

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