Many years ago, when I was young and stupid, I fell for a verbally abusive alcoholic, Karl, who cheated on me, spent the rent money on strippers and turned out to be on the lam from a warrant in another state for trafficking cocaine. The relationship ended badly, but I still think about him sometimes: "I hope that bastard is dead in a ditch." (Pause.) "He sure did make a damn fine London broil."
Apparently, Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright dated the same guy (or at least a few just like him), planting the seeds for what would become "The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: They Came, They Cooked, They Left (But We Ended Up with Some Great Recipes)."
The two women met at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and eventually moved into a farmhouse outside of Iowa City together with their four cats. During many a winter night, they would drink wine, eat bagels and absorb themselves in memories of the boys and men of days gone by. "The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook" was conceived while they were planning a barbecue and Ergenbright said, "Oh, I'll make Davis' spicy barbecue rub!"
That same night, while their friends feasted on char-grilled cheeseburgers, Nissen and Ergenbright retreated with their beers into the farmhouse. There, the self-confessed pack rats sifted through musty old boxes filled with reminders of lost loves: faded photos, letters, valentines, dead flowers, ticket stubs and postcards. They revealed to one another the stories behind every scrap of paper, every withered petal. One memento at a time, the recipes that feed the body and the anecdotal gems that feed the soul unfolded.
Though shelved in the cookbook section, the book could easily fit into any number of categories -- art, creative nonfiction, humorous essay, self-help or inspiration. The chapters are broken up into atypical food categories, like "sweet things," "sort of fluffy things," "slippery things," and "substantial things."
But what truly sets this book apart from any other cookbook is that each recipe is accompanied by an anecdote about the man (or boy) from whom it was acquired. And to really crank up the fun factor, Nissen and Ergenbright have framed each recipe/anecdote with whimsical, colorful, downright punk-rock collages that furnish a visual tie-in to each vignette. Also, given that specific author attribution isn't given to the individual stories, the collages -- which incorporate personal souvenirs of their relationships -- are often the only clues as to who wrote what.
The stories themselves come from a variety of sources. Some of the reminiscences belong to the authors, others to friends and family, and a number of the "boyfriends" are composites of several exes, the end result being an unpredictable mixed bag of heartfelt, bittersweet and often uproarious tales. One twisted fellow, whose refrigerator doubled as a repository for small animals that he meant to dissect later, is the source of "Liam's Refrigerator Cookies."
"Murphy the Folksinger's Apple Pie" proves that love is not only blind but also deaf, as our heroine discovers that the singer who had once made her swoon with his dreamy music is decidedly untalented, but makes a scrumptious pie.
In "Poor Donald's Chicken Enchiladas," the author recounts an exhausting night baby-sitting Poor Donald during a bad 'shrooming spell, only to be awakened by his cat giving birth in the wee hours -- right on the author's stomach. Eew.
Many of the recipes come not from actual ex-boyfriends, but from the women's schoolgirl crushes, one-night stands, from-afar longings, and even from the mothers, grandmothers and postal-delivery workers of the boys and men who have touched them (both literally and figuratively).
"Theo the Thespian's Mother's Lace Cookies" relays the angst-ridden tale of an unrequited high-school crush that was at best rewarded with a delicious recipe from Theo's mom.
"Casey's Mom's Best Pasta Salad Ever, or Else" owes its moniker to young Casey's sadistic streak, coupled with ownership of a BB gun and an eagerness to fight to the death on the issue of his mother's pasta salad.
The authors leave a few blank pages at the end of the book, encouraging readers to recall their own experiences with food and exes. So that's what I did. I remembered my lanky British boyfriend Nigel -- a dead ringer for the love child of Sid Vicious and Herman Munster -- who taught me the protocols of eating almost anything with mayonnaise (in the U.K., mayo comes in flavors such as garlic, lime and onion).
Then there was James, another Brit with very spiky hair who would get me very high on Amsterdam's best hashish, talk to me about politics, religion and philosophy, and then make me the most incredible macaroni and cheese in the free world. He used all kinds of rich English cheeses like Cheshire and double Gloucester.
And of course, there was Karl, a wiry, bug-eyed, fugitive coke freak who nonetheless had a magic touch with a huge slab of beef.
But my most memorable dish comes from a relationship I'd like to forget. I'd never had Southern cookin' before, but when a longtime boyfriend (let's call him "Jocko") first made me his Southern-fried steak and country gravy, it melted my heart and thrilled my taste buds. Then one day, I saw how he made this "gravy." First, he fried the steaks in pure lard in a cast-iron skillet that hadn't been washed for 40 years (allegedly, not washing it enhances the flavor of anything cooked in it). This left a lethal mixture of molten fat and beef drippings to which he added butter (!), heavy cream, flour, salt and pepper, and then vigorously whisked it all together. Clearly, Jocko was trying to kill me. I broke up with him, but it was too late; I had already memorized the recipe.
Anyone who's ever been in love (or at least blinded by beer goggles) will find comfort, empathy and joyous belly laughs in "The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook." We all lose things in relationships (CDs, books, stereo equipment, self-esteem), but we gain so much more (CDs, books, stereo equipment, low self-esteem, restraining orders, venereal diseases). Fortunately, something everyone can equally reciprocate without detriment is a recipe.
Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright understand, with great profundity, the connection between food and love, and they write about it with striking poignancy and comic finesse. Like so many of us, these are women who know all too well the ecstatic delirium of finding your soulmate -- only to realize later that he's just some guy with smelly socks and a porn collection.