The cookbook section of any book store inevitably sends me into a full blown meditative state. Something similar to hypnosis occurs when I’m amongst volumes of endless culinary possibilities something akin to being handed the key to a mysterious secret world. My insatiable appetite for Gastro Lit has already resulted in a concerned husband, a plan for additional bookshelves and an Amazon wish list a mile long, but I remain undaunted! My unyielding desire was temporarily sated recently when I stumbled upon the most heartwarming cookbook/personal memoir I’ve seen in some time, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food Family and Big Sur.
My Nepenthe is exactly how it sounds: one part recipes, one part family history and one part love letter to Big Sur. Big Sur being one of my favorite places on the planet and Nepenthe being a place I’ve spent many memorable meals with loved ones, suffice to say this book had me at hello.
What touched me the most about this book was how warm and personal it is. Any cookbook can tell you how much flour and sugar to use but this book is much more than just a bunch of recipes. It’s full of candid writing, old family photos and naturalistic food and landscape photography. This beautiful book unravels almost like a diary and captures the timeless allure and culinary bounty of California’s central coast perfectly including the unique people who choose to spend their lives there.
Author Romney Steele recounts the tale of her Italian immigrant grandparents and the heartwarming often harrowing journey that eventually brought them to the live on the edge of this continent. They came to Big Sur seeking what we’re all looking for, a good place to raise their family, only theirs turned out to be one of the most majestic and rugged landscapes in the world.
Like most good stories theirs begins with a stroke of luck. In the case of Romney’s grandfather it was the purchase of a humble cabin in 1944 from a heartsick Orson Welles looking to erase the memory of his recently failed marriage to screen siren Rita Hayworth. The couple used the tiny refuge from tinseltown only a few times (some even say never) during their short lived romance. Who would have thought that this tiny cabin sold in haste would eventually become the legendary Nepenthe?
Call it what you will, kismet or old fashioned hard work but over the next two decades they turned that modest little log cabin into an out and out creative epicenter, drawing artists and free thinkers from all over the world. It didn’t hurt when in 1965 director Vincent Minnelli made Big Sur and Nepenthe the backdrop for his movie The Sandpiper; a story of a fallen priest played by Richard Burton who falls in love with a free spirited bohemian arist played by none other than his brand new wife Elizabeth Taylor. The newlyweds caused a sensation as they were known to do and Big Sur suddenly became THE place to be—with Nepenthe at it’s cultural center. And so a legend is born.
“Nepenthe” translated from ancient greek literally as “medicine from sorrow” has been just that for close to 60 years now. And why not? A late summer afternoon spent on their deck gazing over the redwoods at the open ocean while the Stellar Jays sqaubble over whatever it is they sqauble about, sipping a glass of local wine and noshing on a lovingly prepared cheese plate can only be described as pure soul tonic.
The My Nepenthe cookbook basically guarantees that some of that magic will rub off on your kitchen and let me tell you I’ve had first hand experience already! What else could explain my husband Frank’s sudden about face toward making salad dressing when asked to recreate Nepenthe’s classic roquefort dressing? This sudden culinary prowess had him beaming with pride!
Along with dozens of simple, delicious recipes from the menu of the famous restaurant your heart will be warmed by the love that spills off the inevitably stained and well worn pages. This book is not haute cuisine but rather more of an homage to the everyday and filled with beloved tried and true classics. My hope is that the story of Nepenthe will cast it’s spell on you the way it did me filling kitchens everywhere with the spirit of this rugged isolated heaven in the sky. Most of all, My Nepenthe shines a light on what connects us and is a reminder that the meals and traditions we share with the people we love are truly life’s own medicine from sorrow.