REVIEW by Kate Padilla
Muffins and Mayhem:
Recipes for a Happy (If Disorderly) Life
by Suzanne Beecher
Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, April 2011
Paperback: 233 pages
My mother's recipe box contains my memories of her. She loved to cook, and to bake, and I only have to take one look at that old metal box to tell which foods were her favorites. They are near the front.
This is one of the reasons why I love Suzanne Beecher's Muffins and Mayhem. She combines two elements of my childhood: recipes and books (like Beecher, my mother also thinks books should be present in every room of the house.) For Beecher, however, recipes do not apply only to food. In the introduction, she advises readers to create a recipe box of life: stories and moments that children can one day look back on:
Write down what you were thinking on your first date (it doesn't have to be fancy), how it took you hours, maybe days, to figure out what to wear. How awkward your first kiss was.
This book is Beecher's collection of “life-recipes.” What else can you expect from a woman who says in the first pages, “I used to think I didn't have anything to say about my childhood” before she goes on to tell 200 pages of stories? Within the context of cooking and of recipes, she has a feast's worth. The recipes that mean the most to her find their way into the book.
[Reflecting on her job as the nursing home's volunteer coordinator] I asked family members to bring in one of their mom's or dad's favorite cookie recipes, and in addition to baking and eating some mighty good cookies, we'd get to hear a story. “Sarah, can you remember when you used to bake these cookies?”
What is most entertaining about this book is Beecher herself. She's so full of life, even though she and life have battled. Every calling, every spark guiding her toward her purpose, she has stumbled upon by accident: meeting her husband, landing her literary columns, even her personal blogging and its resulting success.
Cooking allowed Beecher to escape from the limitations and everyday stresses. She was raised not to fail, but she learned from a very young age that she could save any mistake with a can of cream of mushroom soup.
Of the infinite lessons cooking and recipe-keeping has taught her, the greatest, she feels, is love:
Mrs. Creswick was a great cook, and there was love in her kitchen. Whenever I got the chance, I liked to watch her make dinner. One afternoon she even taught me how to make her famous Frosted Meat Loaf. When I asked for a copy of the recipe, she helped me write it down on one of her recipe cards, along with personal tips on how not to burn the meat loaf when it was time to put it in the broiler. I still have the faded Frosted Meat Loaf recipe card today.
Muffins and Mayhem is endearing, witty, and full of spice. We learn how Beecher found a way to marry her love for cooking with her love for books. She began DearReader.com as a book-club preview, but she needed the permission of the publishers before she could email three-chapter excerpts to her readers every week. This, of course, was a job only for chocolate-chip cookies:
I baked a batch of cookies and wrote a brief one-page letter simply stating that I had a new idea about how to get people reading again and how to sell more books . . . . My letter and cookies went right to the top. [of the list at the publishing house]
This is the power of cookies, and of recipes. When I think back to my mother's baking, I remember most clearly her Monster cookies—peanut butter, M&Ms, chocolate chips, and oatmeal all baked into one four-inch cookie. They still show up in care packages, and they will continue to make an afternoon special for years to come.November 5, 2011