I don’t often buy cookbooks anymore. My library is full of what I need and love and would miss if the internet went down; the internet has the rest.

However, over the holidays I came across a “cook book-art book-book book” which called out to me. Recipes. Art. Stories. Southern. Comfort food for the eyes, mind and soul. Robin’s egg blues with tropical pinks and Kelly greens even a ribbon bookmark and an accompanying personal journal.

“A Good Meal is Hard to Find” (Chronicle Books, 2020; www.agoodmealishardtofind.com/) is a collaboration between an artist, a writer and a culture the South, where stories are as important as eating. The book’s sections Morning Glories, Lingering Lunches, Afternoon Pick-Me-Ups, Dinner Dates and Late-Night Takes, Anytime Sweets are as evocative as many of the recipe titles:

“Hannery’s Gracious Coffee Fudge Cake”

“Camille’s Bridge Club Egg Salad”

“Dolores’s Vibrancy Water”

“Ruby’s Red Eye Gravy”

“Lenore Anne’s Delta Hot Tamale Balls”

And my favorite:

“Etta’s Third Date Chocolate Brandy Pudding”

The paintings accompanying the stories are just as enticing:

“Vera ate her weight in oysters”

“Thelma loved rhinestones and Cheetos”

“Eventually, bottled sunshine just wasn’t good enough”

“Gladys always put a rabbit’s foot in her apron pocket when she made a meringue”

Fictional vignettes precede each of the 60 recipes, paired along with a lovely, whimsical painting in bold colors. Each page satisfies many desires: Nostalgia, vintage arts, good food, good drinks, the everyday, the tiny victories and failures we have all had, love and loss, that make up the daily experiences.

The recipes are not difficult, but some regional ingredients would need to be ordered in — very easy these days. They are not particularly healthy, but they are honest and I don’t see one that would not taste good — even Louise’s Sardine Crisps. (Please forgive the double negative, it’s ingrained)

“Louise kept her favorite earrings hidden in a sardine can in the cupboard. They weren’t worth more than a dime, but she thought it was a fine hiding place for something that held such sentimental value. Louise didn’t even wear them that often, for fear they might break as soon as she held them up to her ears. But she would get them out every once in a while, just to pay them a visit and recall the details of that too-short summer she spent on the coast.”

LOUISE’S SARDINE CRISPS

3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

1 (17.3 ounce) package frozen puff pastry sheets

2 (3.75 ounce) tins boneless, skinless sardines in tomato sauce, drained

1 egg, beaten with 1 Tablespoon water

Flaky sea salt

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, aluminum foil, or baking mats and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix together your mustard and room-temperature butter. Roll each of your pastry sheets into a very thin 14-inch square. Spread the dough with the mustard-butter mixture.

Break the sardines into small pieces and scatter them over the dough. Roll each square of dough up into a log. Cut into rounds 1/4-inch thick and place them about 1 inch apart on the baking sheets.

Brush the tops with the beaten egg mixture and sprinkle with flaky salt. Chill the rounds for about 10 minutes in the freezer.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Bake the rounds for 12 - 15 minutes, until deep brown and crisp. Serve hot.

There is a little note on the side about reserving the oil for the sardines. That could be used in a Caesar-style dressing for a salad, or drizzled over pasta, or any number of other things. Fish oil is good for you!

(N.B. See? I’m not the only person that talks the way I do — this recipe is verbatim from the book – RM)

Overall, when the days are short, are dark, and going out is limited, this cook book-art book-book book is a big ball of warm sunshine. You wouldn’t have to cook a single thing and still feel like you got five times’ your money’s worth.

Martha Hall Foose is “The Cook.” She’s a best-seller, a James Beard award winner for Screen Doors & Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales of a Southern Cook (and nominee for a second book), has two books on the Best of the Best lists at NPR and Food & Wine and she won Food 52’s Piglet Award for Cookbook of the Year. That’s a great name for an award.

Amy C. Evans is “The Painter.” Her paintings have appeared in Southern Living, Southern Cultures, and on CNN’s Eatocracy and the Oxford American blog. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The Bitter Southerner, The Local Palate, Mississippi Folklife, and Cornbread Nation 5: The Best of Southern Food Writing. She has been recognized by the Mississippi Historical Society, Food & Wine magazine “(a) fearsome talent,” the Houston Arts Alliance and her work is represented by the Koelsch Gallery, Houston.

Their press tour has been derailed by the pandemic, so I hope to see these ladies in a city near me in the next year. Artist and writer Maira Kalman reviewed “A Good Meal” and said “What a completely beautiful book. I knew I loved the South. But now I love it even more. I want to join the ladies at the kitchen table in the Delta and luxuriate in the sweetness of life.”

The authors write:

“Here’s to the generations of women who raised us and fed us and told us stories and were glad when they finally got to put their feet up for a spell. The friends who gathered together for all of life’s celebrations. The women who leaned on each other and summoned a laugh in hard times. The ones who have leftover cake and a glass of bourbon for breakfast when no one is watching.

“You’re our inspiration.”

-Amy & Martha

Let’s get cooking.

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