Monday, December 7, 2009

Book review: Cherries in Winter

Title: Cherries in Winter
Author: Suzan Colón
ISBN: 978-0-385-53252-5
Pages: 223
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Non-Fiction Memoir
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Publisher: What is the secret to finding hope in hard times?

When Suzan Colón was laid off from her dream job at a magazine during the economic downturn of 2008, she needed to cut her budget way, way back, and that meant home cooking. Her mother suggested, “Why don’t you look in Nana’s recipe folder?” In the basement, Suzan found the tattered treasure, full of handwritten and meticulously typed recipes, peppered with her grandmother Matilda’s commentary in the margins. Reading it, Suzan realized she had found something more than a collection of recipes—she had found the key to her family’s survival through hard times.

Suzan began re-creating Matilda’s “sturdy food” recipes for baked pork chops and beef stew, and Aunt Nettie’s clam chowder made with clams dug up by Suzan’s grandfather Charlie in Long Island Sound. And she began uncovering the stories of her resilient family’s past. Taking inspiration from stylish, indomitable Matilda, who was the sole support of her family as a teenager during the Great Depression (and who always answered “How are you?” with “Fabulous, never better!”), and from dashing, twice-widowed Charlie, Suzan starts to approach her own crisis with a sense of wonder and gratitude. It turns out that the gift to survive and thrive through hard times had been bred in her bones all along.

My review: "Put up soup" is the motherly advice given to Suzan Colón, the author of Cherries in Winter, when she loses her six-figure salaried job as a features editor for a well-known national magazine. Down home, stick-to-your-ribs cooking is the author's family response to financial hardship and economic recession. Ms. Colón realizes that the first thing she and her husband need to do is stop spending money on take-out and restaurant dining and start cooking. But it's been a long time since the author experienced financial hardship and she needs some help getting back into the practice of cooking. She unearths her Nana, Matilda Kallaher's, recipe file in the basement, discovering notes and tidbits of advice on coping during difficult times, as well as essays her Nana wrote. Ms. Colón's mother tells her that Nana enjoyed writing so much she considered writing her autobiography. However, she found Francie's life in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (A wonderful book! I highly recommend it!) so similar to hers that she abandoned her memoirs. Ms. Colón wants to know about the woman, her Nana, who cared for her until her death when Ms. Colón was only seven years old, so she encourages her mother to tell her about Nana. What the author wasn't aware of, but soon learns, is that Nana believed one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves and each other is spending time with the ones we love. Ms. Colón's job loss provides her the opportunity to do just that with her mother.

"We may have been broke, but we were never poor" was one of Nana's favorite sayings and one of the many characteristics Ms. Colón's mother imparts to her about Nana. It takes the author some time to understand what Nana meant by this. Despite having some savings, a 401(k) and zero balance on her credit card several months after losing her job, Ms. Colón is concerned about spending money on food and other things she and her husband don't really need. From her Nana's notes she learns how to make a dollar last, something at which Nana was a champ, having lived through the depression and severe financial troubles. But of almost greater importance, Ms. Colón comes to understand, is Nana's belief that sometimes you have to splurge on a frivolous "luxury", like plump French raisins or fine china vases from Austria, even if it means scrimping more for a week or two. Nana believed the occasional treat prevented a person from becoming bitter, downtrodden and from measuring everything and everyone by monetary worth.

The author has been through difficult financial times before, but for several years her job allowed her to get used to spending her ample salary on lunch and dinner out, on expensive skin care products and make-up, and at expensive NYC gourmet markets. When she loses her job and, hence her six-figure salary, Ms. Colóns concern and fear about money is understandable. But her worry verges on tedious whining that begins to grate on our nerves like fingernails on a chalk board. For example, she complains that her computer is a few years old and not always reliable but she isn't sure she and her husband should spend a few thousand dollars on a new one. She laments spending money on a high end salon hair cut but then justifies it because her hair is curly and frizzy. Meanwhile, she tells a story about Nana working to support several family members at age sixteen and only being able to afford a muffin and a cup of coffee for herself to eat all day every day during this time. The complaining is especially hard to understand when, early in the book, she says that her husband, Nathan still has a job so they are:

"...comfortably well off by recession standards. Our rent is low, half of our friends think we live decadently because we have health insurance and our cats are fat and happy."

Fortunately, as Ms. Colón learns more about Nana and what her life was like, she comes to understand that, although she needs to make changes and the economy isn't great right now, her family has been through much worse and she has much to be thankful for.

I enjoyed this book for the most part but it did take me several chapters to get into it. I didn't feel a connection to the author until her worry about losing her job and her fears about having enough money diminished as she learned more and more about the difficulties her Nana experienced. The book is a little disjointed, too, as many of the chapters bounce around from the author's story to Nana's story and back again. Some of the chapters also include a section for the author's great-grandmother's story. I had a little difficulty keeping track of everyone's name although the family tree, in the front of the book, is helpful. My favorite part of the book is Nana's story. She was a very resourceful woman who enjoyed life and people and persevered through some very difficult times, always with a smile on her face. Ms. Colón tells us that Nana was famous for her positive, happy outlook on life. No matter what was going on in her life at the time, whenever anyone asked Nana how she was, she always replied "Fabulous. Never better." That's a woman I would love to know and experience her influence on my life. The recipes that begin each chapter are from Nana's coffers. They are simple, recipes for "stick to you ribs" inexpensive meals and some delicious desserts.

This book is a reminder for us of what is most important in this life, the people we love, our family and friends, being there for them as they are for us and spending time with them. Everything else, as far as Nana was concerned, should be a means to that end. So when you finish cooking and enjoy a meal with your family and friends, take some final advice from Nana, as the author does, and leave the dishes in the sink and enjoy being with your loved ones.


  1. These are the type of books that should be given to newly weds. To help them learn to eat probably and save money. I really like the sound of this book.

  2. I guess I have mixed emotions about reading this one. As you know, I love cooking. When I quit working five years ago, we had to make sacrifices, one of them being eating out on a regular basis. I finally had the time to make masterpieces in the kitchen, and I embraced it. I love the premise of learning about Nana through her recipes. But I think the whining would get on my nerves. I may track it down at the bookstore and touch it and see what I think! Great review!

  3. Vivienne: That's a great idea! The recipes are good & simple so even a new cook could use them. And it's also a sweet story, plus the author talks about when she was a newlywed herself and when her Nana was as well. Thank you for reading my review!

    Sandy: I admit the whining got on my nerves for a while but the author does redeem herslef some and realizes her life is still pretty good. It sounds like you really embraced cooking & did a great job. And part of my problem with this book is the author acts like she's the only one going through this even though she mentions friends and family members have financial problems too, her attitude is troubling. But her Nana's story is gret and worth reading the book for.

  4. I'm glad to hear that you liked the book for the most part! I wonder if you'll be perusing any recipes from it.

  5. Lilly: Hi! That's a good question. There are a couple I think I'd like to try. I'll be sure to post about them if I do!

  6. This sounds great! I'll have to remember that it starts out slow.

  7. I'm glad to hear you liked this one for the most part as it's sitting in my stacks. I just love the cover on it.

  8. Good review. I love this cover and that was the beginning of my interest in this book. Thanks for giving me an idea of what the book is like. :)