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What is the secret to finding hope in hard times?
When Suzan Colón was laid off from her dream job at a magazine during the economic downturn of 2008, she needed to cut her budget way, way back, and that meant home cooking. Her mother suggested, “Why don’t you look in Nana’s recipe folder?” In the basement, Suzan found the tattered treasure, full of handwritten and meticulously typed recipes, peppered with her grandmother Matilda’s commentary in the margins. Reading it, Suzan realized she had found something more than a collection of recipes—she had found the key to her family’s survival through hard times.
Suzan began re-creating Matilda’s “sturdy food” recipes for baked pork chops and beef stew, and Aunt Nettie’s clam chowder made with clams dug up by Suzan’s grandfather Charlie in Long Island Sound. And she began uncovering the stories of her resilient family’s past. Taking inspiration from stylish, indomitable Matilda, who was the sole support of her family as a teenager during the Great Depression (and who always answered “How are you?” with “Fabulous, never better!”), and from dashing, twice-widowed Charlie, Suzan starts to approach her own crisis with a sense of wonder and gratitude. It turns out that the gift to survive and thrive through hard times had been bred in her bones all along.
Cherries in Winter is an irresistible gem of a book. It makes you want to cook, it makes you want to know your own family’s stories, and, above all, it makes you feel rich no matter what.
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Amazon Exclusive: Kim Sunée Reviews Cherries in Winter
Kim Sunée is the author of the bestselling memoir, Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home. Sunée has been featured in the New York Times, Ladies’ Homes Journal, People, ELLE, and Glamour. She was the founding food editor of Cottage Living and a former food editor for Southern Living, and she has appeared as a judge on Iron Chef America. Read her exclusive Amazon guest review of Cherries in Winter:
When I started reading Suzan Colón’s Cherries in Winter, I didn’t know if I should feel relieved that someone had written a book so perfect for coping in these challenging economic times or if it would be better just to lose my sorrows in an entire lemon meringue pie. Luckily, this book allowed me to do both.
Like the author, I lost my dream job as an editor for a national magazine. And like the author, I also spent much of my childhood with my grandfather, spending time in his kitchen, eating his food, and, in my case, listening to stories of his German family and how they arrived in New Orleans.
"Every family has stories," Colón writes. "...One only has to reach back and the stories are there, tales of courage and plain dumb luck that make us shake our heads in disbelief and respect for the ones who came before us."
Colón pays respect to several generations of survivors before her; the stories of her relatives are revealed to us through various recipes and moments she spends cooking with her mother. This is a book about food and family and what we inherit from those who came before us. Unlike the author, I did not inherit an entire recipe file of handwritten family favorites and magazine and newspaper clippings of instructions for "Mow ‘Em Down Michigan Apple Pie" and both an old-fashioned method and a modern recipe for "Chicken Pie à la Mississippi."
The book’s first recipe, "Suzan’s Rigatoni Disoccupati" (Pasta of the Unemployed) will provide some comfort to the approximately 500,000 Americans who are newly jobless and negotiating health insurance plans and 401K rollovers. The ingredients, a half pound of spaghetti and a small jar of prepared spaghetti sauce, are common and humble enough that we all have them somewhere in our larders.
I love some of the recipes because of the author’s sense of humor, especially "Suzan’s Attempted Split Pea Soup" to which she adds hot dogs after too many days of ingesting the same meal and because she doesn’t want to waste the already-opened package. Directions: "Marvel at how strangely, surprisingly comforting the hot dog pieces are in the soup, like something a kid would get for lunch. Feel that somehow, all will be okay."
In spite of shrinking 401ks and the sound of pennies dropping into a metal can, Suzan shares with us her deep resolve that if we love one another, feed our souls as well as our bodies, things can only get better. Cherries in Winter includes words of wisdom we’ve heard from our own mothers and grandmothers, but they get a new life here and we pay attention. This is a book about defying "poverty not of the wallet but of the soul." And one example--spending a little extra to relish the joy of "being in Manhattan in Central Park and eating cherries in winter"--teaches us the importance of spending a little more to help keep ourselves "from feeling like less."
"The women in my family," Colón writes, "have certain traits: height, prominent noses, and the ability to rationalize spending extra, just once in a while, when there is no extra to be spent... I got some of their height and all of the nose, but I thought the last characteristic was missing in me. It wasn’t: I just didn’t realize that it only wakes up when we begin to measure ourselves by money, or the lack of it. It’s not a reflexive kick of denial about having less. It’s a deep breath reminding us not to become miserly in spirit. We may be broke, but we’re not poor."
Suzan reminds us that these stories and recipes "offer more than directions for making the comfort food that sustained my family for four generations. They’re artifacts from times both good and bad--not vague references, but proof that we’ve been through worse than this and have come out okay. And right now, that’s something I need to know."
I don’t know how books help us, but when reading Cherries in Winter, you will feel a little less alone in these uncertain times. Suzan Colón’s book will make you want to head to the kitchen with a favorite relative in hopes that you, too, will learn a thing or two, if not about your family then about yourself, about your own hunger and resilience. Colón’s journey helps us remember to celebrate the simple things, like how, in the deep of winter, summer fruit can still taste its brightest.--Kim Sunée
(Photo © EunHo Lee)Suzan Colón on Cherries in Winter
My mother is a brilliant storyteller, especially of our family’s history. Around the holidays, she can have me in tears from laughing and crying, sometimes simultaneously. There’s no shortage of material--our family is an interesting bunch--and Mom’s delivery is almost stage-perfect. She could read a shopping list and turn it into tragic comedy.
When I got the idea to write these stories in what would become Cherries in Winter: My Family’s Recipe for Hope in Hard Times, I was cooking meatloaf with my mother. I had been laid off and had to economize, and Mom suggested I dig out Nana’s recipe file from the basement. In it, I found instructions for making good, simple food from many years of challenging times that my family had faced. I started making the recipes with Mom, and she’d tell the stories behind them.
I tried writing down what she said, but I lost all the flavor of the way she said it. Next I brought my tape recorder; Mom was initially a little shy, but she soon forgot the little machine was running--especially when I hid it behind the onions.
When I transcribed the tapes, I had more questions. "What year was that? How old were you when this happened? What was Nana wearing? Where were my great-grandparents living then?" A lot of our family stories, like our recipes, have been passed down through generations, and some of the details have been lost. "I don’t know," Mom would say, trying to remember things she hadn’t been told since she was a little girl.
Later, I’d read my notes and see big blanks in my family’s past. It was like having parts of photographs, or a treasured quilt missing squares. I wished my Nana were still alive so she could tell me where she’d been, what she’d been thinking and feeling.
Then I remembered--though I know that isn’t the right or best word for something that came to me, rather than from me--that there had been another box with the old recipe file. I’d been so excited about finding the recipe folder that I hadn’t bothered to look at what was next to it.
I ran down to the basement again, opened the second box, and found the key to my family’s history. In beautiful script and nearly perfect typing, on stationery, work letterhead, and even envelopes, Nana told me our stories. She’d written essays about meeting the father who never admitted she was his. She described my great-great-grandparents in lyrical detail. I read her voice, and it was as though Nana was saying, Here--this is what happened. She was right there, writing the book with me.
I’d never known until then that Nana had wanted to be a writer. Her work had never been published, but one of the happiest moments of my career as a writer was putting our words together. Between Nana’s poetic details, Mom’s rich storytelling, and me recording how I got through my own hard time in this recession, we wrote Cherries in Winter. The book isn’t just about my family; it’s about all of our families. I hope when you read it that you’re reminded of your own family stories. Those, and some good, sturdy food, are what will get you through any hard time. --Suzan Colón
(Photo © Adrian Kinloch)About the Author:
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Suzan Colón is a contributing writer and editor for O, The Oprah Magazine. Her articles have appeared in Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Details, and other magazines. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, Nathan.
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