Aimee Nezhukumatathil set to release new book of food essays

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OXFORD — Aimee Nezhukumatathil has combined the flavors of food and memories into a delightful book of food essays, "Bite by Bite: Nourishments and Jamborees," releasing April 30.

The New York Times bestselling author and professor at the University of Mississippi has written about food in her poetry for decades but found major success with a 2020 book of nature essays titled "World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments."

The pandemic and subsequent years have been tough for everyone, Nezhukumatathil said, leading her to ponder what calls to people and makes them feel connected beyond the outdoors. What she mourned most during that time was gathering with loved ones and the sociability of bringing people together to share a meal.

"I was just trying to think back to what nourishes us and what makes us feel at home and comfortable, and what makes us feel excited about being in this world," Nezhukumatathil said. "Often, the answer came down to food.

"When you make room for people at your table, it becomes this intimate and cherished situation," she added.

The earliest essays included in "Bite by Bite" were written about five years ago, but the book really began to gel as she dug into the topic over the last couple years.

Readers unfamiliar with Nezhukumatathil's work may be surprised to find that as much as the writing is about food itself, her essays are centered on personal, poetic reflections and memories related to food.

Compiling a book of ruminations on the characteristics and histories of foods foreign and domestic came naturally. Nezhukumatathil credits her parents with nurturing her curiosity, both intellectually and in practice.

Gathering information for this collection was some of the most enjoyable research imaginable, Nezhukumatathil said, whether from friends, loved ones, books or personal observation and experience.

"If you want to get the exact taste of a juice of a fruit, you eat it," she said. "You could read about it all you want, but when you're actually eating it, that's the best research ever."

All of that is wrapped up in the pages of "Bite by Bite," and Nezhukumatathil hopes that, as the pages turn, the hunger for knowledge is contagious.

The essays in "Bite by Bite" comprise stories from Nezhukumatathil's childhood through adulthood, up to the present day.

Some started with a memory, while others began with a specific food in mind.

For example, while thinking of when she missed her mom the most, she remembered how she'd get gyros with her dad on paydays while her mother was in another state for work. Cases in which the food directly inspired the essay were during extraordinary first experiences, like when she tried a mangosteen in Hawaii with her husband.

"More often than not, it was just thinking about those times where I felt nourished and what food happened to be present in my life or reminds me of that moment, and just where I felt happy too," Nezhukumatathil said.

"I grew up not ever seeing Asian Americans gathered around a table or enjoying themselves while they're eating, and I wanted to showcase that," she added. "I wanted to say, 'There's lots of room at the table.' You don't have to be a chef, or you don't have to be an expert foodie, to have stories about food."

Everyone has a favorite memory of gathering around a table, Nezhukumatathil said.

A sense of place often influenced the essays just as much as food.

"It makes a world of difference if you're having a juicy mango on the beaches of a tropical island," Nezhukumatathil said. "It's not better or worse, it's just very different than having cubed mango cut up in the parking lot of a street fair. Both can be amazing, it's just that what you smell, what you hear in the distance, all gets changed and also sears into your memory what you were doing, who you were with."

The book of bite-sized essays — which features dozens of colorful illustrations by Fumi Nakamura, a Japanese American artist in New York City who also created illustrations for "World of Wonders" — takes readers on a gastronomic tour around the world

"In order to do that as a writer, you've got to be able to set the scene and world build so that the reader feels, 'OK, I've never left Mississippi, but now I feel what it's like to be walking down the streets of a village in India, or to be in a jungle in India, or to be eating halo-halo in Memphis," Nezhukumatathil said. "I really wanted to show that these are not exotic locations. You can find joy and nourishment wherever you go, including Mississippi."

Still, her writing is much more than an exploration of nourishment. It's also an invitation.

She hopes the book will inspire people to ask questions next time they're at a farmer's market or talking with relatives — questions like, "Where is this food coming from?" or "Who taught you to make this incredible pie, mom?" or "Where did great-grandma get this ingredient?"

"After a period of so much isolation, I really want this book to showcase, you can start small and just think back to what you're putting in your body and also who you're sharing that with as a way to feel connected again," Nezhukumatathil said. "One book is not going to change everything, but it's going to at least be small steps to get back to feeling connected again."

The launch event for "Bite by Bite" will be hosted at Off Square Books in Oxford at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30, featuring Nezhukumatathil in conversation with Afton Thomas, the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture's associate director of programs. The event will include a reading from the book, a question and answer segment and book signing. Food samples will be served by Manila Skillet, and cocktails will be served by Bar Muse.

Next month, Nezhukumatathil will visit Tupelo for Page & Table at Reed's GumTree Bookstore at 6 p.m. on Monday, May 13. Tickets are available online and include a copy of the book.