“Simple Pleasures: Thoughts on Food, Friendship, and Life” authored by Stephanie Mills
This review was made possible by NetGalley, who provided a Digital Advanced Release Copy for review (DARC); my review of the material may not wholly reflect the final product upon its official publication.
I didn’t realize when I requested this book on NetGalley that it was not only a short book (it’s only two chapters from the author’s book titled Epicurean Simplicity), but also one published and written largely for / about the sustainable Food Movement. And as most people know by now, a number of things about the Sustainable Food Movement largely make me uncomfortable; to put things simply, I’m incredibly critical of the movement and I like to keep it at arm’s length. So when I found out that this was exactly what the book was about, I almost didn’t bother with it. However, I was approved for it and they were entitled to a review… And I’ll admit, that’s about the only reason I actually buckled down and delved into it despite my distrust of its content.
Let me say this now: That age old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Well, it’s also true about judging books by the synopsis of their content; I genuinely don’t have the words to adequately express how surprised I was by this book. Don’t get me wrong, though… It certainly has its problems.
For one, it is still a book about the Sustainable Food Movement. Because of that, it does fall into a lot of traps that are present in materials for / about that movement; I would be a liar if I didn’t say there were parts I certainly rolled my eyes at- either because some of the statements had been debunked in the past, or were just outlandish.
For another, the flow of some of the writing is awkward in areas; little bits here and there don’t seem to have much of a place within the topic. Other bits of information genuinely would have been more appropriate elsewhere- perhaps earlier on. And in a few areas, I genuinely found myself wondering why the reader actually needed to know that fact about the author in the first place, and what including it genuinely lent to the story. Which brings me to the next point: The author has a writing style which, for lack of better words, is rambling; in most areas it seems like she doesn’t know what any punctuation mark but a comma is. The result is an incredible number of run on sentences that you occasionally have to read 2, 3, and ever 4 times to understand.
And yet… And yet… I found myself mostly glued to the pages all the way through to the end of the first chapter (the second was disappointing comparatively, but not incredibly so) If there is one thing to say about the author… It is that her writing style is, in equal measures, eloquent, poignant, and even bittersweet; her words ultimately give you an immense sense of heartful longing as you read, and it lends itself well to the story. And while the rambling and occasional incoherence of passages certainly detracts from that eloquent voice in places? It is not enough to say that the author does not have an incredible skill with words.
Interspersed between stories of her life, talk about Sustainable food and Community, and more, are little gems that absolutely make this book worth reading at least once; on of my favorite passages, perhaps, is where she talks about Hospitality:
Respecting food, preparing it nicely, set me thinking about hospitality, covenants, and friendships. Although in this instance I was cooking for myself, there’s nothing I like better than cooking for friends […]
Like poetry, good dinner parties are conscious of form, if only to be able artfully to dispense with certain aspects of it. One formula for successful dinner parties holds that the guests should number no fewer than the Graces (three) and no more than the Muses (nine). Whether the audience is only me and a friend or two or a full eight at the table with all the dining chairs, leaves, and hodgepodge of crockery and linen pressed into service, cooking is a performing art, entertaining to the cook, certainly. Whatever the form, a dinner should be spacious and comfortable; the courtesy liberating, not intimidating. Entertaining should unobtrusively set the scene for pleasant surprises among the guests: insights, eloquence, wit, and the possibility of greater friendship.
Although those salon repasts were ample and the menus sometimes exotic, neither of those qualities is required for good hospitality. Epicurus in his garden, offering guests fresh water and barley porridge, demonstrated that the practice of hospitality is a simple matter. One can be penniless and still generous. Penniless or no, both guest and host can be embarrassed by intemperate hospitality.
Both my parents were, and Dad still is, hospitable by nature, courteous, and considerate of company. They taught hospitality by good example, by performing the countless small deeds—such as greeting guests at the door and immediately making them comfortable and offering refreshment that declare and sustain the welcome. Hospitality means being mindful of the whole situation: having the home tidy, being attractively turned out, knowing or quickly learning something of the guests, making everyone feel included and looked after, and making an enjoyable time of it. Hospitality should be like manna from heaven, like grace, should feel as easy as breath.
I’ll admit that this is where the book really hit me; it had been decently enjoyable up until this series of passages, but too early in the book to really make a decision on it. Yet when I read these passages and the ones they’re interspersed between? It was like a 10 ton freight train slammed into my chest at a thousand miles an hour.
This isn’t the only gem it contains, either. There is also a rather poignant bit about Community much later in the book, and it hits just as hard; there is genuine wisdom in this book- though it certainly needs some polish. That wisdom is one that makes your heart mourn (for what, I’ll never know) and makes you really dig your knuckles in deep on the subjects of Community, Family, Hospitality, and Life in general.
While I don’t know that I would necessarily pick up the full book as a result of reading this… Ultimately I would recommend picking this excerpt up if for nothing other than a short and rather emotionally stimulating read.