Cathy Erway’s first memoir, The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, is the kind that includes recipes at the end of each chapter. Well it might: Erway spent two years cooking nearly every meal she ate, avoiding both restaurants and takeout food, and recording her experience at her blog, Not Eating Out in NY. This memoir shares what she learned during those two years, intertwining kitchen discoveries and personal revelations and including a thoughtful assessment of the state of eating out in America.
Cooking for oneself may not be a novel idea in a rural area, but Erway lives in New York City, where, she says, virtually everyone eats out. Many of her meals came “from nearby deli's, soup shops, cheap sushi places, and the occasional street vendor.” The food was expensive for a recent college graduate on a small salary, and often it wasn’t satisfying. Moreover, Erway was distressed to feel herself enmeshed in a “restaurant routine” that is endemic throughout the country. “An estimated one-half of America’s meals are prepared away from home,” she writes; most of those meals are fast food.
Erway attacked her new project with a vengeance. She’s an adventurous eater and a bold cook, dreaming up unusual, delicious-sounding food combinations. (Peppercorn, Potato, and Parmesan Bread, anyone?) She’s curious as well, delving into urban foraging (collecting wild, edible plants in public places) and dumpster diving with "freegans" (individuals who try to reduce waste by salvaging thrown-away goods from restaurants and supermarkets).
One challenge of not eating out in New York, Erway discovered, was its effect on her socializing. What to do when a group of friends decided to go to a restaurant? Even worse, where to go on a date? But Erway is nothing if not gregarious, and after a few missteps she discovered a love of cooking and arranged her social schedule accordingly, dabbling in invitation-only supper clubs and becoming passionate about cook-offs and charity fundraisers.
Despite her declaration that she likes to experiment more than follow a precise recipe, Erway is numbers-minded in other areas. My favorite parts of this book were a chapter called “Not Ordering In: Less Haste, Less Waste,” in which she meticulously weighed the packaging of a takeout meal versus those of the raw ingredients for cooking the same meal, and the Epilogue, in which she compared receipts from a week spent eating out and a week spent eating in. (The results didn’t surprise me, although the numbers that Erway gives for the amount of packaging waste Americans produce, and the amount of toxins in that packaging, did.)
There’s much more to enjoy in this memoir, such as Erway’s reflections on the origins of the raw ingredients she buys, and the tenderness of her feelings for her family and friends. All along, she takes pleasure in her meals and in the company she keeps. “I was having more fun with this project than with anything I’d ever done in my life,” she says, and the fun is evident in her writing. The Art of Eating In makes for entertaining reading and could spark a thoughtful conversation with friends — over a good home-cooked meal, of course.
Elizabeth Roca is staff editor for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, and her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, The Washington Post, Utne, and other publications. She lives with her family in Maryland, where she can often be found jockeying for the last bag of spinach and tasting gelato at the local farmers’ market. She has high hopes for the herb garden she and her children planted this spring.