Fruit, glorious fruit, now is your time. The farmers' market doesn't come alive until the strawberries and cherries show up, and now with stone fruit season in full, chin-dripping swing, we have months of glory ahead. Perfect timing, then, for Plum Gorgeous, by Romney Steele, subtitled Recipes and Memories from the Orchard.
These recipes are as much inspirations as instructions, of the why-didn't-I-think-of-that variety. Once you read a description like Strawberry, Nasturium, and Cucumber Salad, Heirloom Tomatoes and Peaches with Burrata, or Honey-Baked Figs with Lavender and Wine, you almost don't need to bother with the cups and teaspoons; the idea is enough. Which is how the generous, bohemian-spirited Steele wants you to cook, anyway. Get the adorable but steely-hearted Miette bakery cookbook for your Louboutin-wearing, alpha-domme gal-pal, the one with the pink KitchenAid mixer, unchippable nails and spotless counters. Plum Gorgeous is a little more messy, much more colorful and a lot more forgiving. Starting with great fruit, it would be pretty hard to screw up any of these unfussy, casually delicious dishes, both sweet and savory, all seasoned with a dash of whimsy. The chapters follow the fruit of California's seasons: winter's citrus, spring's berries, the stone fruits of summer and the figs, apples, quinces, grapes, and pears of autumn.
Leafing through the book, it’s impossible not to be charmed at first sight. Read it cover to cover, though, from chirpy, service-y headnotes to poetic musings, and you might see how the whole thing risks falling into the sugar-coated, envy-making genre I'd call how nice for you. In her previous book, My Nepenthe, Steele told the story of her grandparents, the founders of Big Sur's fabled restaurant Nepenthe, and her family's involvement with the place through the decades. She alluded, gracefully and with the lightest of touches, to the challenges and complications of combining business, family, and the coastal counterculturalism of the 60s and 70s. Here, though, there's almost nothing but sweetness. Not every cookbook needs to be a memoir, especially not one whose ostensible purpose is simply fruit and fun. But without revealing a real story, a backbone of truth, writing that's aiming for a romantic, color-drenched poetry of the senses can end up reading like advertising copy, breathless and aspirational.
The photographs, by Sara Remington (who also shot My Nepenthe), are absolutely gorgeous, ravishingly styled and lit to look perfectly effortless. I wanted to live in the place captured by these photographs, and I also wanted to know if the cute skirt and candy-colored wellies on page 15 came in my size, and if there was express-shipping for polka-dot red dress blowing in the breeze on page 106. Was this a cookbook, or the latest Anthropologie catalog? The more Steele pushes the poetry of the idyllic years she spent raising two children in a mountainside cottage, surrounded by fog, flowers, and fruit trees, the more the reader notices how much she's assiduously sponged out. No sharp edges, no stress, just children spooned in the same bed "warm and tender like new-rising bread." Whispers run throughout: a murmur of returning home to Big Sur both "discontent and comforted by the coziness of home," of “closeness being at once beautiful and a challenge, heartbreaking and poetic.” But what happened? How did she end up, presumably a single mother, in that tiny house? A little more heartbreak explained might have balanced all that honey.
Maybe I'm just being crabby, envious of those azure Big Sur mornings and her memories of baking tarts surrounded by the lemon-yellow walls of Henry Miller's kitchen. Or perhaps it was too many lines like this one: "By this time we were drinking wine and nibbling on the last of the kumquat and couscous salad—just photographed for the book—under the shade of a grapefruit tree in the garden as the sun went down, and lavishing spoonfuls of rose petal jam onto toast with runny cheese for dessert." Well, how nice for you. This is the sort of thing that can take a lot of Raspberry Ratafia to swallow. Honestly, I could deal with the grapefruit tree, the sunset, even the kumquats. But did the jam really have to be "lavished?" Wasn’t a spoonful enough?
Of course, no one’s buying cookbook-memoirs called My Trip to Safeway for Another Box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. Every book like this, however based in real experience, is packaging a fantasy where the grapefruit trees are shady, the jam lavishly spread, and the kumquat salad always ready for its close-up. So enjoy the view, whip up the Rhubarb Mustard, Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Moscato Apricots, Plum Blackberry Sorbet, or Tomato-Grape Ricotta Flatbread, and imagine you’re in a cottage overlooking Big Sur. Now where I can find that perfect polka-dot dress?