REVIEW: Janet Reich Elsbach’s ‘Extra Helping’ incredibly thoughtful with practical adviceMore Info
Sheffield — Everyone wants to know what Janet Reich Elsbach is having for dinner. One step into her cavernous kitchen and I can hardly resist asking, so I look for clues. The space boasts a marriage of granite and stainless steel, fieldstone and distressed wood. There are sweeping, distant views of Catamount Ski Area and Race Mountain to the southwest. And none of these details even hints at the passion for which Elsbach has become known — the subject of her new book, launched Tuesday by Roost Books of Boulder, Colorado. “Food is the only thing I could imagine writing about on a regular basis,” said Elsbach of “Extra Helping: Recipes for Caring, Connecting and Building Community One Dish at a Time.” Exuding equal parts humility and candor, she cut straight to the chase: “Food is just a way — a means — to connect with people.” It’s that simple.
“I was born into a family that was completely oriented around the [kitchen] table,” said Elsbach, a place from which “pretty much all of my growing-up memories [stem],” she added. She pointed to her mother, a super-adventurous eater and cook, as leaving an indelible mark on her childhood. Elsbach recalled the hours her mother and a close family friend would log in the kitchen without fail: “They used to pick a particular food each summer and decide they were going to master it,” she explained. “They would make it every Thursday until they got it right,” she recalled, adding, “My Mom was always looking for food from other cultures and incorporating them into the way that she cooked,” which, in retrospect, is at the core of how Elsbach cooks: not only for her own family but also for others.
For Elsbach, who began blogging about food at the urging of a close friend, the progression of “Extra Helping” was a natural one. Both of her sisters and her father experienced pretty serious illness during the early days of the endeavor, “so the writing started leaning toward caregiving, about giving and receiving help,” Elsbach explained. It was a seemingly natural evolution in how she started to think about food and the role it plays in bridging the gaps among people. In a world where many find it increasingly hard to connect, Elsbach sees food as a great connector, one capable of spanning even the greatest divides. It is a topic she finds endlessly interesting and, not surprisingly, is the place from which her book springs forth. Elsbach looks to universal moments in the human experience — the birth of a child, the purchase of a new home, the despair of a new diagnosis, the loss of a loved one — as inviting connection despite so many of us not knowing how to support our friends and families in these often difficult moments. Elsbach likens it to crossing into “an alternative universe” which, she continued, “any time you can cross that line, it is humbling.”
“Companionship, solidarity and community are all more important than what someone brings [to eat]” Elsbach said, which brings me back to the premise of “Extra Helping”: “Food is a really simple source of pleasure, [and] connecting to your wheelhouse — what you are able to do — is really valuable,” Elsbach reminded, which means that, sometimes, a dozen bagels is exactly what is needed in a particular situation. “It kind of doesn’t matter what you bring,” Elsbach stressed, “just come from the place of helping, of lightening another’s load, which carries a whole different energy than those gestures without thought.”
Elsbach’s recipes are incredibly thoughtful. Those included in the first section, “Food for Expanding Families,” take into consideration that a new parent might, for instance, need to eat standing up, straight from the fridge, in the middle of the night; and that breastfeeding newborns rarely appreciate garlic and onions in Mom’s dinner. In these instances, Elsbach’s suggestions range from carnitas and super-savory ground kebabs to citrusy grilled tofu skewers and noodles with options. Oh, and sunset-to-sunrise oats which — you guessed it — can be eaten any time of the day, from sunset to sunrise, warm or cold. Which is kind of brilliant.
Elsbach also doles out heaping portions of practical advice — through engaging narrative introductions to each chapter — borne of situations in which she has found herself. After the death of her sister, Deborah, Elsbach recalled the friends and family members who were brave enough to simply show up—what positive psychologist and grief counselor Maria Sirois calls “bear[ing] witness without flinching from darkness.” Those kinds of details are invaluable. “Many people are alarmed and alienated by other people’s grief, succumbing to a kind of paralysis in the face of it,” Elsbach explained. “Others don’t want to intrude or bother, fearing that they might compound the stress of an already stressful time with unwanted intrusions.” For those of you who might be able to identify with the aforementioned sentiments, rest assured: “It’s so unlikely that your edible offering will be a bother,” said Elsbach. Her menus in “Food for Solace” range from a Greek-inspired breakfast koliva (traditionally prepared and eaten in memory of a loved one who has died) and wild rice soup to Nana’s tiny pancakes and a hot drink of substance, the latter of which is infused with cardamom, cinnamon, red chili pepper, orange zest and dark chocolate.
“Find a place to begin, a toehold, something that feels comfortable to you,” is Elsbach’s uber practical advice for beginners. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, [and] it’s all doable if you come to it from that place of curiosity.” Not surprisingly, Elsbach does not write from a “foodie” perspective; rather, her perspective is simple: “everybody eats, [which means] food [is] the one thing that unites us all, no matter what is going on.” She has winnowed her collection of recipes down to the point that what one cooks is nearly irrelevant; it is the choosing to reach out, and extend an arm across what Elsbach describes as “these great chasms that divide us,” that will be most memorable.
Are there obscure ingredients listed in her recipes? I suppose that depends on how adventurous a cook you are and how well stocked your kitchen. But if you don’t happen to have a knob of ginger, a carton of coconut milk or a penchant for whipping up your own Golden Milk Mix (a marriage of turmeric, coconut milk powder, coconut sugar, freshly ground pepper cinnamon, ginger and sea salt), Elsbach’s collection is teeming with recipes to meet any cook where s/he is. Surprisingly delicious recipes like Roasted Broccoli and Zucchini Me-Mo call for, well, broccoli and zucchini with the pantry-ready additions of olive oil, salt, pepper and the zest of a lemon or a handful of parmesan cheese. And then there are options: Opposite Elsbach’s Little Meatballs, she offers Unmeatballs, and many recipes offer variations to make the dish vegetarian and/or gluten-free. Suffice it to say, there is something for everyone.
At the end of the day, Elsbach is not writing about anything she has not experienced herself. “I am a person who finds it very difficult to take help,” she admitted. When pregnant with her second child, a new friend asked Elsbach, “Who is doing your food?” It was a simply query, one that perplexed Elsbach, who had yet to be initiated into the community of people who bring food to mark milestones. “Entering a community of people, being held, is far more compelling than [what someone brings to eat],” she explained. “Feelings of being abandoned can stick with you; so, too, can feelings of having been met,” she articulateed. “You go forth into the world and pay it forward. Knowing you are not alone—that is most nourishing.”
“Extra Helping” is available anywhere books are sold—from the Bookloft in Great Barrington to Amazon.com. Join Janet Reich Elsbach Sunday, Nov. 18, for a book launch party and signing at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge from 5 to 7 p.m.; she will also be on hand for “Nourishment: A Gallery of Art that FEEDS,” in conjunction with Community Access to the Arts, Friday, Nov. 30. A portion of all book sales go to support Feeding America, a national hunger organization aimed at supporting the one in eight Americans who face hunger each day.