We've all had our madeleine moments, when a bite of cake or other beloved dish triggered vivid memories. But few people's lives are as rich with food and history as cookbook author Romney Steele.
Growing up at her family's famed restaurant, Nepenthe, in Big Sur, California, Steele learned the value of celebrating food communally. "My grandmother fed all the staff and friends nightly — up to seventy people a night," said Steele. "A lot of that plays into me now, how food was very important, how gathering around the table was very important. It was the way we all came together, and it was often why people worked at the restaurant."
The author of the 2009 memoir My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur further explores the connection between what we eat and what we remember in her new cookbook, Plum Gorgeous: Recipes and Memories from the Orchard. Inspired by the time she spent living in a cabin on her friend's mountaintop farm in Big Sur, the book interweaves personal reflections, lines of poetry, sumptuous photographs by Sara Remington, and unfussy recipes that focus on bringing out the vibrant flavors in fresh fruit. "I'm a cookbook collector, but I love my cookbooks that tell stories," said Steele. As part of the Cooks' Book Club of Fourth Street series, Steele will join food writer and blogger Sarah Henry (Lettuce Eat Kale) and cookbook author Rachel Saunders (The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook) on Tuesday, August 23, at The Pasta Shop (1786 Fourth St., Berkeley) for a conversation about life on the orchard and the joys of growing and preparing your own food.
When you harvest fruit, "there's this immediacy that's wonderful," said Steele. "You also learn to follow the rhythms of nature instead of running to the store." In Plum Gorgeous, Steele starts with Seville oranges and Meyer lemons in winter and walks readers through a year in the orchard. Each season brings new fruit, recipes, and more memories — from the wild strawberry tartlets that remind Steele of picking berries along the path outside her cabin door to her sister Sara's persimmon chocolate chip cookies, which take Steele back to the "innocence of childhood."
In addition to evoking memories, food has its own story to tell, she says. And you don't have to live on an orchard to uncover it. She suggests talking with vendors at local farmers' markets (the Temescal farmers' market on Sundays is her current favorite) to find out more about the fruit's province. She also recommends visiting small farms. "There are still apricot farms out in Brentwood that allow people to come and pick," she said. "There's always a unique story behind the trees in someone's orchard, and then you taste the fruit and it tastes so much better."
The Cooks' Book Club of Fourth Street will begin at The Pasta Shop, where guests will have a chance to sample recipes and ingredients from the book. The event will then move around the corner to Books Inc. for a discussion led by Berkeley journalist Sarah Henry. After the book signings, the conversation will continue at Café Rouge. 6 p.m., free. 510-528-1786 or BooksInc.net/Cooks-Book-Club-Fourth-Street