Weekends Away Without Leaving Home
Published by Conari Press
275 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Food can transport you. This is at least part of why "ethnic" restaurants are so popular. If you live in Paris, dinner at an American-style restaurant can put you at the center of the Big Apple, even if it's only for the evening. Likewise, if you live in Baltimore or Toronto, a table for two at your local Tuscan eatery can put you right under that sun. A mini-vacation for the price of a plate of antipasto for two and a bottle of a good, robust red.
Books can transport you, too. For as long as they've been around, books have been bringing other lives and lifestyles to the people who read them.
When I was a child, I was often compelled to combine the two experiences -- food and reading -- for a more complete adventure. An hour or two in the company of a Zane Grey novel would put me in the mood for beans and sourdough: preferably consumed while I read. The first time I tackled Anna Karenina, I found myself moved to making thin pancakes and cracking open a jar of my father's carefully hoarded lumpfish caviar for my own little version of blinis and caviar.
I thought this food and words pairing was my own invention: something secret I had stumbled upon too weird to be spoken out loud. I was wrong. In Weekends Away Without Leaving Home -- a book concocted on a Conari Press editorial retreat and executed by a handful of Conari staffers -- the book becomes a passport to adventure: your only limitation being the depth of your larder and your desire to experiment with new and different possibilities. "Among these pages," the book tells us, "you will find the makings for fifteen wonderful, rejuvenating weekends away -- without ever leaving home or spending a wad of money!"
The idea here is not simply food. Rather it's about creating a sort of mini-travel experience in the comfort of your own home, with take-out or visits to local eateries included if cooking isn't actually your bag. Each chapter begins with some basic information about the country in question, under the heading "Setting the Scene." For instance, in the chapter called "Fun and Feasting in China," we're told all about China's many festivals and that you "might want to incorporate some of the traditions and decorations mentioned here into your armchair weekend." A brief section on chopsticks discusses them blithely without going into operating instructions and each country includes a "Books," "Videos" and a "Music" section that discusses some background reading, viewing and listening you can to do to prepare for your weekend "away."
And then, anchoring and ending each section, the food. The fact that most chapters sport a different byline provides a place for unevenness when it comes to the recipes included. Though none of the countries include ample recipes -- certainly not enough for any country to last the whole weekend unless you eat a single thing over and over again -- some of the selections included are, quite simply, better than others. The chapter on Paris includes a recipe for a Salade Nicoise, Moules a la Mariniere, Brioche aux Asperges and Mousse au Chocolat. While I have had weekends where those particular food groups would make up my balanced diet for the weekend (just bring on the brioche and buckets of mousse on the side!), I am now at a place in my life where this simply wouldn't be enough variety. Especially from a country as diverse in cuisine as France. And moules (mussels) are traditionally served with frittes (french fries) as in moules and frittes. It seems odd not to offer them up this way here.
Australia's food section begins by telling us about the "New Australian cuisine" and how the food of Australia has "undergone a complete turnaround in the last twenty years. It used to be that most Australians sat down to an evening meal of meat and three vegs -- grilled lamb chops perhaps, or a roast, accompanied by some unadorned and quite likely overcooked vegetables." It's therefor ironic that only three recipes are included for Australia: Fresh Pea Soup, Roast Lamb with Vegetables and Gravy, and the classic down under dessert, Pavlova. What happened to the new cuisine?
The scope of Weekends Away is light and slight and prohibits in-depth views of a single country or its food. It's more like a tasting menu: a happy invitation to sample the delights -- in cuisine and otherwise -- of many places. Happy travels. | March 2002
Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.