Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Adventures in Cooking: A Review of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway

Title: The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove
Author: Cathy Erway
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Gotham Books (2010)
Pages: 320
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: We have a shelf of new-ish books at my library and this was sitting on top of the shelf. As someone who finds himself eating out at restaurants all the time, I thought this would be an interesting book to read.

About the Author: Cathy Erway writes the tremendously popular blog "Not Eating Out in New York," featuring recipes, ruminations, and rants about all things home-cooked. She also writes a green blog for The Huffington Post, and her work has appeared in, Edible Brooklyn, The L Magazine, Time Out New York, and Serious Eats. She hosts a talk show called Cheap Date for the Heritage Radio Network, as well as numerous local food events and fundraisers for organizations like Just Food and Slow Food USA. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Synopsis: In the city where dining out is a sport, one daring gourmand swears off restaurants and commits to cooking at home in a manifesto for a new generation of conscientious eaters.

Cathy Erway was a typical twentysomething in New York City, on her own for the first time and struggling to make ends meet in a town that often seemed ready to swallow her whole. She landed her first job and a tiny Brooklyn apartment, unpacked her pots and pans, and was shocked to discover that the stove didn't work and that the previous tenant hadn't cooked a thing in twenty years. New Yorkers aren't the only ones who would sooner read a take-out menu than a recipe these days. Convenience food has become such a cheap and easy option that, as a nation, we are halfway down the road to forgetting how to cook. This was weighing on Cathy's mind, along with the nagging advice she'd heard: Your twenties are the best years of your life to start saving. So Cathy committed to a unique type of fast and gave up restaurant meals, take-out, and fast food for an astonishing two years.

Cathy knew that not eating out in New York was a bold undertaking. Would she lose all her friends after declining one too many dinner invitations? Was she doomed to stop dating and live a life of eating creations for one in her small apartment? Quite the opposite. By not eating out, Cathy finds a world rich in recipe experimentation, artisanal food-making, cook-offs, and supper clubs. Within a month, she is debating the merits of no-knead bread, learning to butcher her own meat, and foraging for wild greens in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. her two years of not eating out lead her to a healthier, happier, and greener life. And she saves a bundle, as well.

The Art of Eating In is a personal journey that transforms the reader as it transformed the writer. Cathy shares her growing pains and triumphs in and out of the kitchen, as well as her mouthwatering recipes. She reminds us of the simple pleasures of cooking at home, dining with friends, and turning something seemingly ordinary into something completely extraordinary.

Review: Like many of the books I've read this year, I picked up The Art of Eating In on a whim. I had never heard of Cathy Erway, her experiment, or her blog. Having read the book, I now wish that I had started following her blog ages ago. Erway is a skilled writer who takes cooking from the kitchen to the page with relative ease. She's funny and insightful and has a natural curiosity that makes reading this book so much fun. Rather than being content with just cooking bland meals at home, Erway goes out of her way to discover new and different methods for not eating out in the city that doesn't sleep...or cook.

The book is broken down into chapters based not on a timeline of her experiences, but on various aspects of it. In one chapter she talks about dating while not eating out; in another she goes foraging for plants in urban parks; in yet another she engages in dumpster diving. She goes to cook-offs and dinner clubs and is changed along the way. The book goes from being a personal account of her two years without restaurants to being a treatise of sorts on the current state of American food consumption. She talks about how much waste is produced by a single take-out meal, the infatuation that we have with using restaurants for meetings and other gatherings, the modern-day taboo against eating things found in the wild (such as raspberries from a bush in a park). The number of topics that she explores is impressive for such a short, readable book. The fact that the book even needed to be written is evidence that Erway's commentary on our culture is sadly true.

Erway feels very strongly about taking the time and making the effort to bring cooking back into our lives and her spirit is rather contagious. While I haven't totally given up on eating out at restaurants, I did find myself deciding that eating at home more often wouldn't be such a bad thing. I love to cook, but the convenience of living near a thousand places to eat has given me excuses not to do so. Erway's book successfully makes the case for ignoring those excuses and going back to eating in our own homes on a regular basis.

Far from being a dry read, The Art of Eating In is a funny, well-written book that is designed to be savored and enjoyed. Erway takes the reader on a two-year adventure in food that includes personal experiences that help the reader to identify with her. We get to know her friends and family and we get to see how she interacts with all of the people she meets during her restaurant fast. Reading more like a novel than a work of non-fiction, Erway's book draws you in by the sheer uniqueness of her experiment and keeps you reading through its humor and humanity.

One of the great parts of this book is that Erway shares some of the things that she made during her two-year fast. I'm going to admit that I haven't tried any of the recipes in the book, but there are two to three at the end of each chapter and many of them sound delicious. Some are ambitious, while others seem much easier to make; all of them are related to the chapters they are featured in and most of them are recipes that we get to see Erway make. From No-Knead Bread to menudo (containing tripe, which, apologies to Miss Erway, sounds disgusting), these recipes reflect her journey and offer alternatives to the American staples of fast-food burgers and $15 a plate seafood dishes.

I love books that chronicle experiences like this (e.g., The Happiness Project), books about people who leap out of their comfort zone and let us tag along with them. The Art of Eating In is one of the better ones that I've read and it's the only one written by someone in my age bracket. Erway started her experiment/blog in her mid-twenties and much of what she goes through is similar to what many twentysomethings are experiencing. Even for those readers who are into their 30s and beyond, however, this book offers a reaction to contemporary culture and attitudes about food. It makes you stop and think about your own habits and how they are affecting your life, your health, your wallet, and the environment.

I'm giving The Art of Eating In 5 out of 5 Gabriels. If you're a foody or someone interested in being greener or just interested in reading a fascinating account of one young woman's healthy relationship with food, Erway's book is highly recommended.



  1. Yay, you finished it! I kept seeing this in your sidebar and have been looking forward to the review :-)

    It sounds like a great read, though is it really the case that so few people cook in the USA? Over here, eating out is still a treat and I don't know many people who eat out more than once or twice a week. That said, where you lead, we usually follow about ten years behind, so it's a depressing future ahead if true.

    I love project books too, and those based on blogs are often some of the best. This sounds a bit like Julie & Julia. Great review!

  2. Sophia: It was such a good book; I definitely recommend reading it.

    I'd say that between the take-out and the order-in and the fast food and the sit-down restaurants and the fixing meals from boxes at home there really is a dearth of cooking at home. Erway made practically everything from scratch, which is pretty impressive for doing it for two years straight. There are a lot of places (even in the US) where eating out is a special treat, but food culture in America has gone so far down the road to convenience eating that many people, especially in cities, are eating out more than they're eating in.

    If you read it, let me know so that I can go check out your review. My internet time is so restricted that it's hard to keep up with other blogs at the moment. :(