The saying goes that New York apartments no longer need kitchens because nobody cooks anymore. Although that may not actually be the case, it is not too far from the truth. If you’ve ever tried to find a decent meal around lunch time in Midtown Manhattan, you’ll have experienced the disappointment of a $10 sandwich that tastes far worse than one you could have made in two minutes and brownbagged. So why do we keep spending our hard-earned money like this?
That was the question that Cathy Erway found herself pondering after not enjoying an overpriced burger one summer. She decided to swear off eating out, for two whole years, to see what it would do to her wallet, and her health.
If you have come across Erway’s blog, Not Eating Out in New York, you can tell that what she found was not necessarily a fatter wallet and skinnier jeans, but a redeveloped sense of self. As any young professional starting out in this city probably has experienced, it’s easy to loose yourself in the daily grind. To thrive in New York City (or anywhere, really) you need a thing. Not necessarily a gimmick, but something to keep you striving. What Erway found the day she had the idea for her experiment and accompanying blog was not merely culinary, but also personal, enlightenment. What readers should take away from this book, besides the yummy recipes, is the determination to act on those inspired ideas and insights that strike us every so often. Who knows which is the one that will change your life forever?
Erway makes it all seem so easy; pots simmering on the stove and droves of dishes seem to exist only in the periphery of her story (I know I could write a book about the travails of dishes alone). She decides to start baking her own bread, and oh, wins a bread-making contest with her first loaf, thrown together on the fly — and gets a mention from a prominent food critic in Vogue! My first foray into making bread ended with an inch-tall bread-like slab and a tummyache, the results of not really following the exact recipe (turns out bread is not very forgiving) and misreading the “teaspoon” before salt and yeast for “tablespoon.” Erway did grow up in a household where cooking and eating together was very much a part of daily life. I did too; my mother always made healthy dinners that we ate together at the kitchen table, but I still feel like I am just rebounding from the culinary black hole of college pennilessness, when I consumed very non-organic cheap foods and way too much ramen noodles.
The Art of Eating In is not a collection of two years worth of blog posts, it is a well-written novel (Erway actually has a college degree in creative writing) in its own right. The two years of not eating out seem more like an adventure than a sacrifice, as Erway goes on urban foraging excursions, dumpster-dives with middle-aged freegans, and discovers the underground supper club and cook-off scene that was just emerging in Brooklyn when this book takes place. She approaches cooking like a bodybuilder does the gym, with furious determination and insatiable hunger. She wants to learn as much as she can about food, and in the process really gets to know herself. Boyfriends, apartments and jobs are lost, but new ones are found, along with a new career. Since the book ends, Erway has grown into something of a foodie-celebrity; she writes, not just on her own blog but for The Huffington Post, Saveur.com and Edible Brooklyn (possibly my favorite magazine), hosts a radio show about food and dating, throws her own supper club parties and judges cook-offs. All results of following her heart and pursuing a seemingly crazy idea hatched on a warm day in a Brooklyn beer garden — not eating out in New York.
The Art of Eating In comes out on February 18. The Book Launch Extravaganza at The Bell House in Gowanus will feature live music, a crostini cook-off and local brew specials. $2 of the $10 ticket price will go to benefit Just Food and Oxfam relief efforts in Haiti.
Illustration by Johanna Björk