Food is as much about pleasure as it is about survival, and New York-based writer Alison Riley has brought together foodies and pop culture icons to prove exactly that. Recipe for Disaster is a new cookbook and collection of essays about “humor and heartache”—as Riley puts it—that features four talents with Bay Area roots. Comedian Chelsea Peretti, chef and activist Alice Waters, cabaret star Justin Vivian Bond and record producer Bob Power contributed recipes to the book.
Riley and her partner, rapper, singer and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, will appear at Noe Valley cookbook store Omnivore Books on Monday, April 10.
Published in the wake of Covid, several of the essays in Riley’s book invoke a feeling of hopelessness that drove many into the kitchen in search of comfort in 2020. Oakland-born comedy writer and actress Chelsea Peretti—perhaps best known for portraying sardonic protagonist Gina Linetti in Brooklyn Nine-Nine—details her recipe for a zesty basil pesto that, as she described, is now forever linked to the ennui she experienced during shelter-in-place.
“It’s like also kind of a depression food cause it cuts through—the basil, the garlic, the lemon—and if you don’t respond to one of those with some part of your body, then you are in a truly dark place,” Peretti wrote.
Alice Waters also shared a poignant Covid memory in the book. The godmother of the slow food movement and co-founder of Chez Panisse in North Berkeley confessed that her frame of mind at the beginning of the pandemic echoed the intense fear and grief she felt during the AIDS epidemic. Back in the early 1980s, Waters resolved to keep her restaurant open as a communal refuge, but during Covid, that was not an option.
As a chef, Waters has built a reputation on preparing simple, nourishing food, and she takes that same approach in the cookbook, offering her recipe for classic vinaigrette. In 2020, the greens she sourced from Chez Panisse’s farm boxes became an emotional panacea.
“Through all of this change, the agony of uncertainty, and the real, genuine loneliness of this time, I’ve looked forward to the beautiful boxes of salad greens delivered to me from the restaurant,” Waters wrote. “A good salad will buoy my spirits. A good salad—I now realize—will help see me through calamity.”
Still, not all of the recipes in the cookbook center on Covid. Justin Vivian Bond, the local cabaret icon, actor and artist who hosted the first San Francisco Drag King Contest at DNA Lounge in 1993, contributed a simple comfort food—fried potatoes. In their short entry, Bond wrote about their mom, lovingly recalling how she began slicing Idaho russets whenever Bond’s family needed cheering up.
“She would fry those potatoes within an inch of their life,” Bond wrote.
The book also touches upon the utter disbelief many Americans felt on the night of the 2016 election. Grammy-nominated record producer Bob Power wrote about how he spent that particular evening at what he thought would be a victory party for Hillary Clinton at a fancy restaurant in Gramercy Park.
Power, who studied jazz at Lone Mountain College—now part of the University of San Francisco—and has produced records for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu and not-so-incidentally, Ndegeocello, described the five stages of grief he experienced over the course of his meal, which included a side of roasted cauliflower.
“While the campaign polls had not been overwhelming, I think I harbored a deep-seated belief that no one as dim and transparent as Trump could actually be elected president,” Power wrote. “Inside, I felt that it would be akin to someone like Bozo the Clown—or at least Silvio Berlusconi—inhabiting the White House.”
Chronicling sensory memories that balance despair and hope in equal measure, Riley’s cookbook serves up the kind of catharsis that often comes from telling a story over a good meal.
'Recipe for Disaster' Author Event
📍 3885A Cesar Chavez St., San Francisco
🗓️ Monday, April 10 | 6:30 p.m.