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Culture | A new cookbook offers readers a taste of small-town living

Issue: "Post-party election blues?," Nov. 6, 2004

Fans of the Mitford novels will devour Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader (Viking, 2004). Here are the recipes for all the delectable dishes you've read about in Ms. Karon's novels. You'll learn how to make Edith Mallory's luscious crab casserole, Marge's chicken pot pie, Father Tim's poached pears with chocolate sauce, and, of course, Esther Bollick's famous orange marmalade cake. (The cake recipe, created by legendary chef Scott Peacock, was originally published in Victoria magazine in 1997.)

But recipes aren't all readers will find. Winsome culinary quotations are scattered through the pages (such as Lewis Grizzard's insight that "it's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato"). And Mitford fans will have the bittersweet pleasure of reading a short excerpt and six recipes from Light from Heaven, the last Mitford novel, scheduled to be published in 2005. Jan Karon also interleaves gastronomic meditations throughout the cookbook-reflections on her spice cabinet, musings about black iron skillets, a word about vintage aprons.

Many fans are drawn to Ms. Karon's novels because they take us to a place that we long for-a small town, where life feels a little less hurried, a little more wholesome. The Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader inspires a similar longing. Fresh-baked yeast rolls, Grandmother's peach cobbler, not to mention homemade bread and butter pickles, or fried chicken with sides of mashed potatoes and squash casserole: Just listing the delectable promises of the Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader conjures scenes of loved ones gathered cheerfully around the groaning board. This cookbook is sure to stoke our desires for a better life, a slower, simpler pace, where people have time to cook, and communities to cook for.

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People in Mitford rarely seem to eat fast food, and they very often eat together with friends and family, talking about this and that, lingering over lovely linens and pretty plates. The reality of American eating is quite a different story. Over the past two decades, the number of families that eat dinner together at home has declined 33 percent. (Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox recently found that families that attend church are more likely to eat dinner together.)

Sit-down dinners have become so rare that in 1996 the National Pork Board declared an annual "National Eat Dinner Together Week." One of the major causes of the decline of dinnertime is the increased pressure parents feel to enroll their kids in every imaginable activity; in my hometown, there's a football league for first-graders, with practice two nights a week! Add choir rehearsal, gymnastics, and quiz team, and it's no wonder we don't eat together. The irony is that in trying to do what's best for their kids, many parents deprive their children of basics like family time around a table.

Indeed, studies show that preschoolers who eat dinner with their families develop superior language skills, and teens who regularly eat with their families are less likely to use drugs and have premarital sex than kids who scarf a Big Mac on the way to soccer practice. Of course, it's not just families who benefit from eating together. Church communities should be places where empty nesters, single people, and families with kids mix and mingle and live a common life, one that includes breaking bread together, not just at the communion rail, but also around our kitchen tables.

Real repasts, instead of mere meals, are possible, even if you don't live in Mitford. Jan Karon's cookbook brims with encouragement and suggestions. "[T]able linens," she writes, "civilize and enhance our meals, and our kids need to know about such things! Absolutely worth the starching and ironing, and if you can't use them every day, use them on Sunday!" Even washing dishes in the sink, Ms. Karon says, can be "a type of meditation . . . an interlude during which I ponder and dream." And, of course, she reminds us to bow our heads "in a moment of recognition that God faithfully provides for your needs." Amen!

Thanks to the Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader, you needn't simply long for all that Mitford has come to represent to Ms. Karon's readers. Next Monday night, I'll be preparing that crab casserole, to be followed by apple pie (for which there are three different Mitford recipes). Care to join me?

-Lauren F. Winner is the author of Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity to be published by Brazos in April

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