Everything Is Under Control by Phyllis Grant
A memoir with recipes, for Readers of Ella Risbridger, Nora Ephron and M.F.K. Fisher
Prufrock measured life in coffee spoons; Phyllis Grant could count hers in tasting spoons. An experienced chef who's worked at restaurants such as Nobu, she is the author of family cookery blog Dash and Bella and has just published a raw, sensuous 'memoir with recipes', Everything is Under Control.
The daughter of a caterer, Phyllis's San Francisco childhood was steeped in cooking. When she moved to New York to study ballet in her teens, her mother packed her off with a bible of handwritten recipes and restaurant tips. But Grant's hunger for the city’s culinary delights would not last – for a dancer's body is her canvas. On being chastised for her croissant-plumped waist, she learnt the art of self-control (light-headed cigarettes and light-footed pirouettes).
But first love and food came hand in hand: queuing for buttermilk waffles with bacon; blowing a week’s budget on ravioli; drooling through upscale bistro windows. When it became clear that she would never make a living from dance, she gravitated to the kitchen.
At twenty-three Phyllis Grant started afresh: ballerina-turned-pastry assistant, the bottom rung of a rigidly hierarchical ladder. Doggedly clawing her way up, her resolve held firm in the face of endemic misogyny (including humiliating ‘special treatment’ from her boss) and punishing hours and conditions. She evokes the hothouse microcosm of a restaurant kitchen: the adrenaline, the perfectionism, the head chef’s absolute authority.
Then came children – the wanting, trying, losing, bleeding – before finally ending up with two. In searing, visceral prose Grant describes the pain and mess of pregnancy and miscarriage, and the challenge of loving a baby after the trauma of giving birth. Second time round, she tried to counter this with an act of consumption both symbolic and intensely physical.
‘I will try anything that might help me fall in love with my baby right away. Anything to prevent the violent images from coming back. They braise my placenta with their homemade ragout until it’s soft enough to eat for dinner. They stir in crème fraîche. This is a mistake. The placenta chunks stand out like sinewy beacons. They bring placenta Bolognese straight to my hospital bed. I eat it slowly, each bite a prayer.’
Determined that this time would be different, ‘I tell anyone who will listen. I describe the pit in my stomach. The deep sadness I feel all over my body. How I kill him over and over again in my head.’ She kept telling herself she loved her son until, eight months later, it came true.
Consumed by the anxieties of parenthood, she barely noticed insidious cracks forming in her marriage. After an especially bitter fight, it fell to the children to force apologies from their parents – a false reconciliation that only became sincere later, when signed and sealed in slow-cooked meat: ‘We fill warm corn tortillas with the spicy meat, cabbage salad, avocado halves, jalapeño pickles. We splash it all with crème fraîche.’
Grant binds her family with food: avocado bowls for her grandmother’s birthday; strawberry balsamic tart made with her son; hazelnut butter cookies baked with her daughter. Seventeen enticing recipes conclude the book, from simple templates for pastry, pesto and balsamic reduction to ‘Grandma’s Fudgy Icebox Brownies’ and the strawberry tart, avocado bowls and cookies. I used her adaptable recipe to create a pistachio, basil and rocket pesto which I served in rich, decadent dollops on salmon salad.
Like Ella Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken, this is a fierce, achingly candid love letter to food's emotional and therapeutic powers. Grant sketches a life in spare vignettes that vividly illuminate her themes: family, marriage, nourishment, ambition, control, and the connection between the physical and spiritual selves. This slender volume packs a joyful punch that will resonate with cooks amateur and professional, and feels especially significant now that feeding others – especially in large groups – is a pleasure we can no longer take for granted.
Everything is Under Control by Phyllis Grant was published by HQ in June 2020.