When I was a child, I had a pen pal. I found her name in the back of a magazine sent to our house by one of the insurance companies used by my parents. In that magazine, there were postings for youngsters who wanted someone with whom they could correspond. I don’t remember the name of my pen pal. What I do remember, however, is how much fun I had writing those letters to a total stranger. And it was even more fun to open up the mailbox and see an envelope addressed to me in her lovely cursive handwriting.
That would have been in the late 1950s or early 1960s, right about the time that 27-year-old Joan Bergstrom sent a fan letter to 59-year-old Imogene Fortier in the book Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love, by Kim Fay. Joan is a single career woman who has just begun a career writing in the food section of a Los Angeles newspaper. She sends Ms. Fortier the letter because she has enjoyed reading the older woman’s simple missives about life on an island off the coast of Seattle in a Pacific northwest magazine.
The letter captures the attention of Imogene because Joan has included in the letter a sample of the spice saffron, something completely unfamiliar to her. It is the 1960s, where women were the cooks, and foodstuffs that we take for granted now were foreign in some parts of the country. Imogene had never tasted fresh garlic, so saffron was a completely unique experience.
That letter was the impetus for a relationship between two women who, despite their age difference, are drawn together by food and friendship, shared via letters. Through their correspondence, they become familiar not only with one another, but with their lives and their challenges and their loves and hates. Joan challenges Imogene to look at food a bit differently, and Imogene accepts the challenge with joy. Imogene’s joy is shared with her husband, a typical mid-20th century man who has never cooked a meal in his life, and who looks at his life as a predictable drudge. But he takes on the initial challenge of saffron, and his life is never the same. Pretty soon he’s preparing foods from other cultures and using ingredients that they have to work hard to find.
I really liked this book. I enjoyed the way their lives were presented to the readers via letters. The author allowed us to share in the excitement of cooking, and to learn how food can draw people together. Having grown up in the midwest, I was also amused to realize how different the cooking styles were then than they are today. It was the rare cook who left the safe lane of everyday cooking.
If you are a foodie, read this book. Imogene and Joan are a lot of fun, and a good example of true friendship.