Cape Elizabeth poet Marcia F. Brown’s slender new book, “Well Read, Well Fed: A Year of Great Reads and Simple Dishes for Book Groups,” is hard to categorize: part cookbook, part personal essay collection and part Brown’s own Great Books list. (“Friends who have read it – I am interested in whether they are keeping it on their bookshelf or with their cookbooks,” Brown said.)

For food lovers and book lovers, it’s a pleasure on each of these fronts. The 14 recipes (Mediterranean Lentil Soup, Spring Greens, Shrimp Quesadillas) are intentionally easy to make and mostly healthful. The lists of recommended books – each is described in brief – include old friends and marvelous-sounding, potential new acquaintances. The essays, which explore both reading and cooking, are engaging and lucid.

I have already written down on my gift list the names of three family members and friends who I know would like the book.

One month after its publication and – as Brown reminded me – during October, National Reading Group Month, we talked with her about Howard Johnson, a genius index and how she came to write “Well Read, Well Fed.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The book wasn’t what I expected. I expected it to be about cooking dishes from particular novels or dishes that are matched to those novels.

A: A dish from the book? Jane Austen and making syllabub or something like that? That really wasn’t what I wanted to do. It came out of many years of my being in a writing workshop that functions much like a book club. We started out with Poland Springs (water) and pretzels and snacks, and it wasn’t long before we were making increasingly elaborate meals to share, and really talking about all kinds of things before we settled down to work on our writing. As I wrote this book, I emailed and I polled a lot of my friends who I knew were in book clubs to ask them about their practices, and I ended up assimilating a lot of their responses. People use these clubs for a lot of socializing and sharing and enjoying food and books. I thought of this book as the print version of all those great conversations about food and books.

Q: Why is food important to so many book clubs?

A: We don’t, maybe, get together in warm-body groups anymore? We are all so virtual. The book clubs are now filling what bridge clubs used to – like-minded people really like being face to face and enjoying an evening of good food and conversation.

Q: Have you written poems about food?

A: A couple small ones. Not intentionally. I have a little poem in my first book called “Beet.” They might be more what you consider odes on one subject. Food is such an earthy thing, too. Poets tend to steer away from it to more ethereal topics. Sunsets. Not too many poets write poems about food. There’s a magazine called Alimentum that regularly does poems about food. They published a poem of mine called “Searching for Howard Johnson’s,” which is indirectly about food.

Q: So what inspired this book?

A: I have done four books of poetry and an anthology (“Port City Poems: Contemporary Poets Celebrate Portland, Maine”), so this is definitely a departure for me. I guess I was ready for change of pace. I am a very narrative poet, so I have been toying with the short essay for a while. The book was kind of there. I was ready to bring it to fruition. I’ve been an enthusiastic reader and home cook my whole life. I had the material at hand. Everybody is always saying, “I’ve book group this week. What should I cook?” It took its own form after that.

Q: You structured this book by time and theme, suggesting books to read in February (“Love Stories”) and September (“Time Travel”), for example. Summer/beach reading is a pretty standard category, but beyond that, while food is seasonal, I’ve never thought to pair certain books with certain months. Is that how you read, or was that simply a way to structure the book?

A: I had originally twice as many book recommendations, so (the themes) were to give structure and logic to those recommendations. For every one book you put, there are 10 more you would like to put. The editor said I had to cut the book recommendations; we only had a certain number of pages. The food was easy – I planned to do one (recipe) for each month. I ended up with one extra one, which I put in the postscript.

Q: I guess the extra book recommendations will have to be your sequel.

A: Yes, “Better Read, Better Fed.”

Q: Does your cooking style relate to your writing style?

A: Perhaps it does in this book more than in my poetry? A friend told me they found this book very comforting to read. I thought that was wonderful. I don’t think books and reading should be intimidating. And I don’t think food should be intimidating. I’m not a very fussy cook. I cook fairly straightforward food, I use store-bought pie crusts, and I think the best writing is lucid and not too complicated.

Q: What do you value in a cookbook?

A: I look more for notions in cookbooks than actual verbatim recipes. Then I take it from there and try to make it my own. I love Ina Garten – beautiful recipes, very clear and beautiful pictures of how it is supposed to look when it’s done. I use Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook” all the time. And it’s the best indexed cookbook you’ll ever find. It’s brilliantly indexed. There is no major ingredient or technique by which a recipe is not indexed and easy to find. There are some very fun, quirky recipes in Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking.”

Q: Do you ever cook to avoid writing? Or to help you over a writing hump?

A: I cook as therapy all the time. When I am not feeling productive otherwise, I am pretty sure I can put a dish together. It’s one thing you can control, and it’s instant gratification to turn out a nice dish.

Q: A silly question. If you could invite a writer or celebrity to dinner, who would it be and what would you serve them?

A: Of all the writers I could invite? That’s an ambitious one. Maybe Laurie Colwin? My husband likes David Brooks and Mark Shields, from “NewsHour” on PBS. What would I make for Brooks and Shields? They take right and left positions on everything, so it’d have to be a crowd-pleaser. I’d like to have Ann Patchett. I heard her speak, and she’s just delightful. I’d have to be very inventive. She’s just so creative, and she goes all over the map. It’d have to be something international. If I could cook from the book, it’d be the fish tacos with all the exotic trimmings.


From Marcia F. Brown’s “Well Read, Well Fed: A Year of Great Reads and Simple Dishes for Book Clubs.” This is the dish she gives for October, a month in which she suggests book clubs celebrate “A Shiver in the Air,” reading such books as “Gone Girl,” “Interview with a Vampire,” and “Edgar Allan Poe: The Complete Tales and Poems.”

Serves 6

2 (13- to 15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed in cold water and drained

Chicken broth to cover, about 11/2 cups

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup coarse bread crumbs or croutons

1 tablespoon sherry

3 tablespoons good red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon powdered thyme

1 pound baby spinach leaves

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 to 5 eggs, optional (1 per person)

Fresh thyme, for garnish

Place the chickpeas in a large pot, add the chicken broth – enough to just barely cover the beans – and heat through on a low burner.

While the beans are warming, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the minced garlic and brown lightly over medium heat, being careful not to burn the garlic. Turn the bread crumbs or croutons into the cooked garlic and crush with the back of a spoon to make a coarse paste. Scrape the paste from the skillet and set it aside. In the same skillet, add the sherry, vinegar and spices and whisk all together to deglaze the pan.

Add the spinach to the chickpeas and broth, stir to submerge the spinach and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the garlic-bread paste and herbed vinegar mixture, and stir all gently together. Season sparingly with salt and pepper, if needed, to taste. Keep the mixture hot on a low burner.

Optional (but Brown thinks this makes the dish memorable): Heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet. Break eggs, 1 at a time, into a shallow dish and slide them into the hot oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper and cook just until set.

Serve the Spanish Chickpeas with Spinach in large, shallow bowls, topping each serving with a fried egg, and garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme or other kitchen herb that may still be holding forth in your October garden… Follow the meal with good coffee, those wonderfully crisp Bosc or seasonal pears, and vanilla wafers.


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