Table of Contents, Volume 5 (April 2016)

contents

After Dani’s trip to egg last month for Table of Contents, Vol. 4, I knew I had to make sure my schedule was clear for Vol. 5. Not only was the author of one of my favorite books of 2015 (Sara Nović, with her amazing Girl at War) going to be there, but two authors who I was excited to discover/rediscover were there too. It felt like the perfect blend of known and unknown and so I was excited to show up in Williamsburg yestereve.

Evan Hanczor, chef at egg and the brains behind both this series and the larger-dinner version (mapping a five course dinner onto a single novel, usually by a dead author – whereas all authors tonight, Evan assured us, were very much alive), stepped out from the kitchen to introduce the evening to the twenty-five or so assembled guests and one adorable baby. He was shuttling back and forth for much of the night, often pulling triple duty as host, chef, and server while making it all seem easy.

The first reading was from Sara Majka’s recently released linked story collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In. She (along with her aforementioned adorable baby) was charming and the excerpt of the story (“Boy with Finch”), while quiet and unassuming, set a perfect tone for the evening’s focus on the intersection of food and story when she read a scene where a bowl of peas and pearled onions is hurled at a wall. It stood out, this moment, as compared to the rest of the excerpt and when Evan brought out (you guessed it) bowls of peas with pearled onions (cooked in butter with some salt, pepper, and some unidentified something that gave it just a little more oomph [**Dani caught that this was pickling liquid from pickling ramps! oooooh**]), there was a sort of magical transmutation that occurred: the story had, in a very slight but very particular way, come a little alive.

The second course was Sara Nović’s and she, after noting that there’s “not that much food in this book – a lot of violence though!”, delivered a scene that seems almost innocuous in its mundanity except for the fact that I knew what this scene directly preceded and so there was a creeping dread that trembled through me as she read. In the scene, Ana (the main character) and her parents are driving back home and they stop at a roadside diner. There, they have beans with sour milk – and, as you might guess, Evan was headed towards something similar. He used red peas, which cook up and have a similar consistency to beans, and buttermilk – which, and I didn’t know this, is essentially sour milk. It was an earthy and simple dish but absolutely delicious; the sort of thing that could fill you up before you even realize it.

The final course of the evening was via Rachel Cantor and her second novel, Good on Paper. Dani is reading this right now and I’m looking forward to it after being only lukewarm about her debut – and the excerpt she read hit all the points I liked about that first novel, the humor and intelligence. Ms. Cantor also sold me on the strength of her reading itself, where she provided the occasional humorous footnote about characters or the scene. There was no single, super-specific direct reference here – but the characters were at a Chinese food place on the Upper West Side and so, of course, Evan whipped up some moo shu pork (or moo shu mushrooms, for the vegetarians present) and Mandarin pancakes. And by god if it wasn’t so delicious that everybody went back for seconds.

After that was done, the four sat down for a brief conversation. Evan mentioned the craft of food being similar to the craft of writing and asked how the authors interact with the making of food. Sara Majka had worked at Parish Hall, which predated egg, and talked about being around food and being hungry and that level of very basic interaction with food that has influenced her writing. And Cantor pointed out that food, for her, serves a great function: it brings characters together, giving them an opportunity to talk or interact – that food and restaurants were not just decoration, but that they mattered intrinsically. They all also talked about the similarities between food and sex – whether it was how food precedes sex, as a sort of both parties warming to one another, or how the writing of these moments gets at the fundamental similarity between the two things (meaning the sharing of a moment, an intimate one but also a deeply pleasurable and highly sensory one).

Cantor said something, as she was introducing her reading, about “what better tribute to a book than to make some of it appear on the table in front of you” and I find myself thinking about that even now. The sounds of cooking sneaking out from the kitchen during the readings, the charmingly lo-fi nature of the event, the informality of the conversation and the sense of having found a… well, an amazing secret, in many ways – all of this added up to make the night feel like a tribute indeed to these marvelous works of fiction. The next one will be in late May, probably the 26th – but you can find out more via egg’s Facebook page and, trust me, clearing your calendar is worth it. There’s something wonderful about being a part of an intimate, unique experience like this. I can’t imagine it’ll be secret for too much longer.

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(yummmm those biscuits!)

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