Even the best cooks and bakers among us know that not every attempt at food preparation turns out to be the way it was intended. Part essay collection/part cookbook, writer and creative-director Alison Riley’s “Recipe for Disaster: 40 Superstar Stories of Sustenance and Survival” (Chronicle Books, 2023) folds in humorous and heartfelt tales to satisfy almost every appetite.
A culinary combination of first-hand experiences and interviews, “Recipe For Disaster” features contributions from Riley’s musician wife Meshell Ndegeocello, as well as Samantha Irby, Bowen Yang, Simon Doonan, Michael W. Twitty, Sarah Silverman, Alice Waters, and Chelsea Peretti, to name a few. Riley recently made time to answer a few questions about the book.
Gregg Shapiro: Alison, what can you tell the readers about the genesis of “Recipe for Disaster: 40 Superstar Stories of Sustenance and Survival”?
Alison Riley: I was mulling over the phrase “Recipe for Disaster” for a while before I was approached about collaborating with Chronicle Books. I knew it was something; it’s a good fit within my general sensibility around making the most, and the best, of the worst, but I wasn’t sure what until then. Once I started talking with the editor there, the shape of the book came together pretty quickly, though I had no idea how diverse the responses would, or could, be. It really shaped itself once the contributors started contributing.
GS: What was involved in the process of soliciting contributors for “Recipe for Disaster”?
AR: Many, many, many emails and phone calls, a lot of rejection, some plain silence, significant ego-checking on my part, and so much patience and gratitude.
GS: Was everyone you solicited able to contribute an essay or interview?
AR: Absolutely not! I probably asked over 100 people, if not many more, and these 40 are those who agreed.
GS: “Recipe for Disaster” features many LGBTQ contributors – Meshell Ndegeocello, Bowen Yang, Samantha Irby, Michael W. Twitty, Jacqueline Woodson, Simon Doonan, Becca Blackwell, and Kyle Abraham. As a member of the community yourself, please say something about the importance of having those voices represented.
AR: Well, honestly, I didn’t have to think very hard about it. I would personally not be interested in something with a multitude of voices that didn’t include a myriad of perspectives. And all those people that you’ve named, as well as Gabrielle Hamilton and Fran Tirado, are all totally different from one another. I hadn’t tallied the queers myself but now considering that list, it is nice to see that even among “the community” there is such a diversity of people there and they share a wide range of stories, from the AIDS crisis to family rejection to the universal tale of not being nice enough to your mother.
GS: I recently interviewed Samantha Irby about her new book “Quietly Hostlile,” which also features essays about food. Her essay “Rejection Chicken” is a perfect way to open the book, with its combination of humor and food. What does it mean to you to have an essay by Samantha leading off your book?
AR: Thank you for asking that because it means so much to me, actually. I admire Sam’s humor and style very much, and her willingness to be part of the book was a personal victory and a huge compliment. Seeing the beauty, the humor, or the value in something sad and terrible, especially while it's happening, is something I treasure in a person whether I know them or not.
GS: Your wife Meshell’s essay is heartbreaking, but the conclusion in which she writes about clarifying her priorities – “friendship, musical integrity, people and partners that made me better, clean food and decent coffee” – ends on a hopeful note. Please say something about her contribution to the book.
AR: Meshell is my hero in that very sense - she has consistently made the choice to follow her own musical voice and not to capitulate to industry expectation or to the narrowness of genre, and she is one of the most authentic musical thinkers I know. I was grateful for her sharing a glimpse of how difficult it has been to stay true to herself and describe how little respect the music industry had (and certainly still has in plenty of ways) for an out, queer, black, woman before there were very many in the public eye.
GS: There are a series of essays near the center of the book that take a serious turn, touching on 9/11, the bombing of Belgrade, and the pandemic. Please say something about the inclusion of those types of pieces.
AR: I didn’t prescribe tone or topic for anyone I asked to contribute to the book (though I didn’t want it to become dominated by COVID) and those responses were honest and immediate responses to my prompt. Disasters, like everything, span a continuum and I was glad to have stories along all points.
GS: Have you tried any or all the foods and recipes mentioned?
AR: I am far more fluent in low points than I am in food so, in all truthfulness, I don’t cook much. That said, I have tried many, some just to be sure the recipes made sense. Having a recipe for Alice Waters’ vinaigrette was worth doing the whole project.
GS: Could there be a “Recipe for Disaster 2” in the works?
AR: We’ll see! I had a great time putting this book together, it was more fun and more work than I could have imagined and would love to do it again.
GS: Alison, I’d like to end with a quote from the Justin Vivian Bond essay: “If I feel like I need to cheer myself up, or if I want to show somebody I love them, I say, ‘How about if I just fry us up some potatoes?’” Would you agree that food preparation is one of the ultimate expressions of love?
AR: Of course, it is! I don’t show my own love that way, and no one wants me to because of my sorry culinary skills, but it certainly is a tried-and-true way to care for another person. One of my favorite parts of this book is how many of these recipes are about feeding oneself and the importance of caring for yourself when disaster strikes. We often forget to do that, and if this book does anything besides make people a little less afraid and a little more prepared to take care of themselves and each other, I’m satisfied.