Kate McDermott seems to have packed several lifetimes into her 60-plus years.
She’s had three “wuzbands” and given birth to two children, including a daughter with severe mental and physical disabilities whom she had to surrender to foster parents -- “the hardest decision my life.” She and her second husband built their dream home, then gave it up to buy a “1970s upscale hippie house” with an 85-year-old cedar tree growing through the ceiling. Like her marriages, the white elephant of a house didn’t work out.
But her cooking did. In fact, it flourished.
In good times and bad, McDermott learned to feed her family on quick and easy soups, stew, casseroles, savory pies, and dips. She also became a famously gifted pie maker and the author of “Art of the Pie” (Countryman, $35), which made my list of best cookbooks of 2016 and was finalist for a James Beard Award.
Now the Port Angeles, Wash.,-based pie legend is back with a second cookbook that encapsulates her style of cooking at home, where there is always an extra place at the table for a guest. As she describes in her introduction, there’s nothing “haute” about her Kitchen Sink Nachos, Make-Ahead Layered Salad, Winter Vegetable Shepherd’s Pie, and Berry Good Coffee Cake.
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“If you are looking for quick, satisfying recipes, for mainly one-dish meals, to please even the pickiest of eaters, you have come to the right place.”
I couldn’t agree more: The recipes are made to order for workaday family meals, and there are many here I’m eager to try.
But I’m smitten with this book for another reason. This isn’t just a folder full of recipes: It’s a lovely and affecting account of the interior life of a cook: the joys and sorrows, the bumps and bruises, the comforts of nurturing oneself and those we love.
McDermott is a wise, insightful (perhaps unintentional) philosopher who has learned to bask in the quiet moments: the smell of fresh coffee in the morning, the click of her dog’s nails on the floor, the sound of her neighborhood waking up.
We are treated to the tales of how she grew up in her own family’s funeral home, finding respite in the apartment of the caretaker.
“Opening the back door of the mortuary and taking a deep breath, I ran as fast as I could in my white Stride Rite oxfords, past the embalming room, the casket showroom, the chapel with a big stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, ‘the arrangement room,’ to finally arrive at the wide carpeted stairs that led to Sadie’s apartment.” In that comforting refuge, she learned to make cookies and knit. “Sadie has long since passed away, but whenever I make her cookies, I feel her with me, and I’m still her little girl.”
I cried when I read the essay on McDermott’s own little girl, Sara, whose disabilities and round-the-clock care threatened to shatter the wellbeing of the entire family. In the end, Sara found a loving foster family, and McDermott was able to see her often. Sara died in 2016.
Leavening this sorrowful tale are stories about her son Duncan’s make-believe “Truck Stop Café,” which happened around their kitchen table; McDermott’s love of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” and how she became friends with its author, Marion Cunningham; and the comic lulu about the time she let a total stranger live rent-free in her guesthouse.
When all is said and done, I believe McDermott is one of the greats, as natural at the craft as M.F.K. Fisher, Marion Cunningham and Laurie Colwin. (Is it intentional that this book shares a title with Colwin’s much admired and deeply influential “Home Cooking,” from 1988?)
As much as I admire McDermott’s recipes for Coddled Eggs with Herbs and her Hearty Cheddar and Potato Soup, it’s her personal essays that I believe will stand the test of time. McDermott may be a wonderworker at pastry and home cooking. Yet her philosophy of love, kindness, and letting go, so beautifully and effortlessly expressed here, may be her finest achievement.
“Home Cooking with Kate McDermott” is one of the best American cookbooks -- of this year or any year.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).