Despite what her name might lead one to believe, Nava Atlas is not a travel writer. Yet in her most recent book, it’s clear that she is embarking upon a journey. Not only has Atlas abandoned the safe shores of the vegetarian and vegan cookbooks for which she is known, but she is taking her readers on a voyage through one of the most perilous landscapes a woman can travel: the modern marriage.
Much like a covert swing through the nearest fast food drive-thru cures our most guilty gastronomic cravings, Secret Recipes of the Modern Wife serves up a succulent and irreverent elixir for any woman who has ever said “I do” (and for those who eventually said “I don’t”).
With an uncanny resemblance to a 1950’s cookbook, the book provides recipes for four distinct stages of marriage, beginning with the Honeymoon (Recipes for Accommodation) and then progressing through the unexpected challenges of marriage (Recipes for Trouble and Recipes for Disaster) before ending on a hopeful note with Recipes for Reconciliation and (Gasp!) Romance.
Recipe highlights include Soufflé Of Fallen Expectations, Mother-In-Law Fruitcake, and Old Boyfriend Buffet, which enables disenchanted wives to “conjure up daydreams about the great love of your life after particularly vexing fights.” Way Too Much On Your Plate, meanwhile, “serves 1 frazzled female” and calls for ingredients such as a “Small pinch of time,” “generous grindings of guilt,” and “1 large bunch mixed obligations (try a combination of work, aging parents, extended family, community involvement, and endless errands.”
Atlas provided FWW with some additional insights on her recipes, the institution of marriage, and the divorcees who inspired her book.
FWW: You mention that the inspiration for this book came from several friends who were going through divorce or difficulties in their marriages. What was your creative process of taking their stories and transforming them into recipes?
Nava Atlas: This came about in such an odd way. In late 2006 I was scheduled for minor surgery, but I'm really squeamish and was afraid I would die. So I mentioned to my husband that I had several friends who were either divorced or going through the process, and that if I died during the surgery, he should marry one of them. He did not think this was funny, but I realized, wow! I have so many friends experiencing divorce. The first version of this book was a small, limited edition meant as an homage to their struggles, turning their experiences into faux "recipes" such as Gender Role Casserole and Soufflé of Fallen Expectations. I interpreted not only stories of dissolving relationships, but also some general themes inherent to contemporary marriage and motherhood, things one would chat about with a good friend.
The first version of the book proved especially popular among my divorcing friends. The more difficult the divorce, the more hilarious they found it. I was encouraged to expand it into a full-scale book, and it sold to Simon and Schuster. My editor encouraged me to shape the book into a more balanced view of marriage, and indeed, the published version ends on a happier note; it doesn't gloss over the challenges, but includes what is sweet and worthwhile in marriage; after all, many women (my friends included, all on match.com and JDate!) aspire to try again, or maintain that Happily Ever After, even in theory!
FWW: What inspired you to populate the book with unappetizing images of food and recipes from the 1950’s?
NA: I have long adored and collected images and magazines from that era. They're so iconic, and represent an unattainable ideal. Advertisers pushed the idea of the "happy housewife" really hard, as the post-war era was a boom time with tons of new products coming out for people to buy. We think of those times as "simpler" for some reason, and in some ways they were, but in others, we definitely have a revisionist view. The magazines, even the most mainstream aimed at middle-class women, were so much more thoughtful and complex than their present day counterparts. I do a lot of looking back and comparing in my blog, A Long Way… Maybe and it's surprising how, in many important ways, women have not come a long way at all.
Oh, I'm answering in a roundabout way, like a politician. About the food… yes, it does look bizarre and often unappetizing. Or just so incredibly precious and sugary. All of these food photos serve as perfect metaphors for the challenges, and even the joys of marriage, from Psychotherapy Pie to A Fairly Satisfactory Family Stew.
FWW: How do you personally think the institution of marriage has changed over the last half century (since the era of the images you chose)?
NA: From my perusal of the magazines of the era, the message was very clear that it was an important cultural ideal to be a good wife and mother. But today's media culture doesn't offer many other narratives to women, either. There are a lot more independent women today, able to enjoy a certain freedom if they so choose; there is not as much stigma in being single, but back then there was lots of divorce, and plenty of women not content in their roles as housewives. Men are more active in their roles as fathers, today, and that changes the tenor of a marriage for the better, for sure.
But quite honestly, I'm not sure that in essence, all that much has changed. How often do we see gay partnerships in mainstream media, depicted as a matter of course, or discussions about alternatives to marriage? There are dozens of different bridal magazines now, and in the 50s, there were 4 or 5. Women are still taught to see marriage as the ultimate ideal to strive for, and the "wedding-industrial complex" is huge.
FWW: Your husband has always been very supportive of your work. Did that change at all when he discovered the unique topic and approach of this book? Was he concerned that people might think you were "outing" him in some way?
NA: At first he was nervous. In the book's acknowledgments, I wrote that I kept telling him, "this is not about you!" He is a wonderful man and we have been married for 3,000 years. Once he saw the finished product, he loved it and is its most active promoter! And honestly, it is not a man-bashing book. There is some rage in some of the pages, compliments of my friends, because that's a very real part of the discontents of marriage. But so much of it is about the failure of the expectations drummed into us from our cultural conditioning, as well as what all the stuff we put upon ourselves.
FWW: Did the process of writing the book have any impact upon your own culinary endeavors?
NA: Yes, it put an end to them! Earlier this year my latest cookbook came out, actually the 4th edition of my perennial soups book, newly retitled Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons. My first cookbook, Vegetariana, came out in 1984 (no, I'm not so old, I was in my 20s at the time); there have been 10 altogether. So it's time to move on to new endeavors, though I will stay deeply involved in the promotion of the vegetarian and vegan way of life, it's a firm belief that I hold dear.
I'm also a visual artist and graphic designer, I love humor, satire, and cultural commentary, so a book like Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife perfectly blends my interests and skills. I hope to produce lots more visual books on women's issues in the near future.