By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Bonny Wolf, food commentator for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, sometimes talks on the air about her favorite family recipes and personal cooking disasters. Once she set her hair on fire, and another time, she baked a whole chicken in rock salt meant to melt snow and ice off the driveway.
These tales prompt listeners to send her e-mails with stories about their aunts' best recipes and their cousins' cooking calamities.
Wolf is not surprised that talking about food evokes such a warm response. "Food is a way for people to connect. It is a big part of people's identity," she says. "Handing down recipes from one generation to the next is an intimate, simple act of love and connection."
She shares some of her best recipes and essays in a new book, Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories (St. Martin's Press, $24.95). It includes her thoughts on making perfect toast, the beauty of aprons, the history of the bundt pan and the importance of having family dinners.
A family tradition
Wolf inherited her passion for food and cooking from her mother. "My parents were big entertainers. They did big parties. I always just thought this was part of the way you live. Somebody came into your house, and you gave them something to eat. You invited them into the kitchen.
"I loved being in the kitchen because that's where I learned about things. I found my mother would be much more talkative in the kitchen when she was working. It was just such a warm place."
Although she picked up some cooking skills from her mom and in high school classes, Wolf, 56, is mostly self-taught. After she got married in 1972, she started collecting and filing recipes in a blue loose-leaf, three-ring notebook. She gathered favorites from family and friends.
But the Internet "was my undoing," she writes in her book. "The information age was too much for my notebook. I began printing out recipes in a frenzy." When she decided to organize them, she realized that they "told the story of my life."
Wolf says she "ran into my great-aunts, a few cousins, old family friends, childhood friends and adult friends." She found her life could be divided into periods, with one that featured bundt cakes and another that included cabbage soup and turkey meatloaf.
Plus, she has lived in different parts of the country — now in Washington, D.C. — and appreciates that food has a key role in Americans' regional identity. "I'm from Minnesota, and we have wild rice and pasties (meat turnovers) that miners took into the mines to eat.
"When I came to this part of the country, I didn't know you could eat crab. But when my husband was growing up in Baltimore, everyone would be in the backyard on Sunday afternoon eating crabs and listening to the Orioles on their radios. He said he could walk for blocks and not miss a pitch."
Wolf can't estimate how many recipes she has tried over the years, but when she asked her adult son his favorite, he said, "I don't know. You never make the same thing twice." She often tries new recipes for guests. "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."
Making entertaining easier
Cooking and entertaining don't have to be complex, she says. "It took me 30 years to learn how to make a dinner party in less than 10 hours."
She used to make elaborate puff pastries from scratch. Now, she puts out nuts and olives for hors d'oeuvres, she says. It's no problem for her to whip up a dinner party in a couple of hours. "I love to have people over. Cooking and eating is the way I relate to people. It's the way I connect, the way I show affection."
People are starting to rediscover the importance of home cooking, she says. "It's coming back. It's part of the post-9/11 world. It's comforting. The world is so fast. Everything is so high-tech. Cooking is something that is slow, and it's a way to slow people down."