Recipe For Disaster: 40 Superstar Stories Of Sustenance And Survival by Alison Riley

This collection of essays with recipes is absolutely stunning, both visually and in the impact of the stories. Not all the essays come with recipes, which is why I hesitate to call it a cookbook, and some recipes have definitely been more rigorously tested and precisely presented than others. But overall this is an emotionally moving, visually arresting volume that will sit beautifully on the coffee table of anyone starting to entertain again as the pandemic continues to wane.

I say that with some specificity because this is definitely a book that deals with the pandemic, both from the perspectives of relatively average people and from the perspective of restaurateurs like the legendary Alice Waters (who contributes her go-to salad dressing recipe here.) The pandemic disrupted people’s lives in so many ways, and is only one of the many disasters considered in this searingly honest but overall warm-hearted collection.

More prosaic disasters abound ofc, whether they be painful breakups, career setbacks or dealing with difficult parents. A disaster of note, that I felt keenly and pray is only a one-off, was the horrifying realization of the outcome of Election Night 2016, as related by record producer Bob Power. The throughline here with all of these often brief essays is how food comforts and heals, how the simple pleasure of consuming, if not outright constructing, meals at the very least sustains the sufferer, and in the best instances gives us the hope and strength to eventually move on. Sure it’s a fairly obvious thesis — food nourishes body and soul — but it’s also one that we pilots of our human bodies tend to forget: hangry wouldn’t be a thing otherwise. Worse, we often forget that other people have the same issues, too. Recipe For Disaster provides us with the comfort of knowing that other people have also recovered from these ailments, often with the help of the foods and recipes included in this book. And hey, maybe they could help you find your way clear from disaster, too.

That said, this is not your grandma’s feel-good cookbook. Ben Wagner oversaw the design of this volume and it is outstanding. The pictures are just as often unsettling as they are attractive, with images that pop off the page, demanding attention. This is, after all, a book that’s just as much about disaster as it is food.

And because I am the kind of person who loves to cook from books, I decided to try my hand at one of the recipes. There are varying degrees of complexity on show here — and I’m not gonna lie, Kia Cook’s essay on the Popeye’s Spicy Chicken sandwich is by far my favorite, if recipe-free, entry, making me reconsider cooking in favor of driving over to the closest Popeye’s instead — but I ultimately decided to make the not-too-easy, not-too-hard Crispy Hot Salty Potatoes by Justin Vivian Bond (recipe above. Sorry for the image quality: it’s a picture I took of the e-galley.)

Well, I thought they’d be not-too-hard anyway. Setting up the dish was quite easy, tho I did take a leap of faith in assuming that the potatoes were to be added to the pan that already had the onions in it. Onions take forever to caramelize anyway, so I figured it was the smart move. Also, despite writing a weekly book-related cooking column for almost seven years now, I’m not an intuitive cook, much less a trained one. I am however good at following and, perhaps more importantly to my readers, evaluating recipes because I come to cooking as a dedicated layman.

Which is a lot of background to provide you with before admitting that I totally messed up this dish. The good news is that I can point you to where exactly I went wrong so you can avoid disaster!

First, I used a non-stick pan, which was a terrible idea for crisping things up. In my defense, it is the largest pan I own, besides the cast-iron skillet I’m still shy/nervous of using. In hindsight, the cast iron would have been a much better choice tho.

Second, this combination of olive oil and butter is really not great for getting things crispy. While they’re excellent flavor-wise, combining them with a glug of another oil that has a higher smoke point — peanut is often a favorite, but canola and vegetable are great as well! — will help get those nice frying temperatures you need for crispiness.

The potatoes I made this first go-round were tasty, if soft. Instead of snacking on them on their own, I wound up using them as the starch (in lieu of rice) to go with the butter chicken a good friend brought me. I am definitely going to try making these again, perhaps even in my cast iron skillet, to see if I can do it right next time. Potatoes are my number one comfort food, and knowing that I can make something akin to a potato chip but not quite just has my heart fluttering with happiness.

Insofar as any non-fiction book can be a comfort read, this was definitely it for me. Showing readers the intrinsic connection between food and comfort via 40 essays from creative, famous and often humorous people, this book is great for hoarding to yourself but even more for sharing as a conversation starter.

Recipe For Disaster: 40 Superstar Stories Of Sustenance And Survival by Alison Riley was published March 14 2023 by Chronicle Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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  1. Delightful review! Thank you!

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