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  • When Food Equals Love: Sitting Down With Jennie Perillo

    A local blogger talks food, family, and her poignant new cookbook.

    By Christine Wei

    Photo by Christine Wei

    Many of us adopt wry or self-deprecating manners when we speak of how much we like food, but Jennie Perillo is completely earnest when she declares that food, in her eyes, equals love.

    “Cooking is a way to show the people that you love how much you care about them,” she says. “You literally take a blank canvas of ingredients, and you’re creating something for them.”

    Perillo is the lyrical writer and recipe developer behind In Jennie’s Kitchen, a popular Brooklyn-based food blog, and the newly released Homemade With Love, a cookbook intertwined with gripping vignettes of family life. A video producer in a past life, she was spurred by her father’s death in the late ‘90s to rethink how she wanted to spend her professional life. After a few years of honing her chops in personal cheffing, restaurant biz work, and event planning, she finally set out to become a food writer in 2007.

    I meet Perillo at the Union Square farmer’s market on a sunny spring morning—by lunchtime, the good stuff is usually gone, she shares in an almost conspiratorial tone. As we hop from favorite vendor to favorite vendor, the NYC foodie raves about how hydro-farming had provided fresh produce this past winter and rejoices over a beautiful head of lettuce that reminds her of some past Parisian market finds. It’s easy to see the pure joy she finds in great flavors as well as food’s prominence in the narrative of her personal story.

    Perillo first dipped her toes into cooking between her freshman and sophomore years of high school. In a household where convenience food had largely taken over the dinner table, she decided that while her mother worked as a supermarket cashier, she would use her free summers to take command of creating healthier family meals.

    In retrospect, it seems that a lot had come to hinge upon these dinners. “[Mine] was a bit of a tumultuous childhood, because my dad, unfortunately, was an alcoholic. But I always remember us sitting around the table, even if it was just TV dinners we were eating, no matter how crazy and hectic that family life was,” Perillo recalls. “That’s the thing that always stuck with me. My mom did that. And that’s one way that I connect with her.”

    Today, the local mom of two is fully conscious of the critical role that food plays in her own family. Cooking is a way to center oneself around what’s important—the people you cherish. “It’s the time when you talk, when you get to catch up,” she says of gathering around the kitchen table at mealtime. “My daughters are in pre-K and fourth grade. They’re in school longer than with me during waking hours, so dinnertime is a moment for us to just reconnect, for me to hear what’s going on in their day.”

    It’s a philosophy that seems to stick. “One thing that shows that a kid comes to understand the meaning of that is: after I ask about their day, my eldest, Isabella, will then say to me, ‘Mommy, how was your day? What did you do today?’” Jennie says proudly. Having the girls contribute to creating this time together by setting the table and clearing plates also gives them a sense of responsibility and independence, she adds.

    Jennie Perillo's lemon buttermilk doughnuts

    After our stroll through the greenmarket, we sit down at a nearby Turkish café to dig into Homemade With Love alongside quiche and coffee. In practical terms, the hardcover tome serves diehard foodies as much as it does novice chefs and busy parents. Filled with gorgeous photography and just the right amount of instruction, it takes a big-picture approach with tips for stocking the pantry and also deconstructs impressive-sounding dishes into manageable steps. Sophisticated but easily accessible in flavor and technique—think grilled cheese dressed up with apple and pancetta—the recipes require no fancy equipment and often include time-saving shortcuts.

    But more than a pleasant read with delicious ideas, Homemade With Love will strike a deep emotional chord with anyone who has ever loved and ever lost. Very much present in the cookbook is the life that Perillo had shared with her late husband, Mikey, who unexpectedly passed away two summers ago.

    “Mikey really believed in the goodness of people. He loved life, he loved laughter, he loved humor,” she says emotionally. Yet she can’t help but smile when reflecting upon how fatherhood had opened Mikey up. “I would come home on Saturdays from the farmer’s market, and it would be very common to find him in the room with our daughters playing dress-up with a tiara and a boa, having a tea party.”

    Whether referencing her late husband’s favorite ingredients or detailing how a date night at a restaurant inspired a sauce that turned their daughter on to mushrooms, the cookbook weaves together a moving tribute to Mikey and family life, to past and present. Readers see the way in which cooking not only wraps those you love tightly around you, it also becomes a means of navigating what life throws your way. For Perillo, it gave her a “sense of control in a world that seemed to no longer make sense.” Her visceral, nearly page-long account of putting Mikey’s favorite chicken pot pie recipe to paper—an extremely grueling small step toward closure—lies at the heart of this message.

    At this point in our conversation, I realize that, as much as Jennie’s perspective on food resonates with me, what I’m most inspired by is the purposeful spirit with which she’s come to view her projects. Jennie tells me that her cookbook was already in the works when Mikey passed away, which means she had to rediscover the creativity and spark she had usually found in cooking.

    Homemade With Love, in a lot of ways, is a goodbye. Every other recipe I’ve developed at this point in my life, even though they’ll remind me of Mikey depending on what ingredients I use, he won’t taste them,” Perillo says. “But it’s [also] a decision to move forward, as much as my heart would love to stay in the past.” Her cookbook—much as her blog—is a bittersweet token of her refusal to simply go through the motions as she takes care of her daughters and herself.

    Though Perillo admits that she’s thought of shutting her blog down and moving away with her girls, she can’t turn her back on the opportunity to make a positive impact. She cites a mom-to-be whose partner died after a car accident who now sees where Perillo is 21 months later and is given hope that she can get to that place, too. “That’s why I put it out there,” the food blogger says plainly.

    We take a minute to discuss why food is so strongly tied to our emotions—and such a great vehicle for bringing the family together. Food is a very sensory experience, Jennie offers, stimulating smell and sight before actual taste. “Homemade or not, food just hits that core, because it’s hitting all of those senses,” she says. And as that food is being created, so is a memory. “You’re leaving a lasting imprint on a relationship. Cooking for people, you’re giving them an heirloom; a recipe keeps a little bit of people alive long after they’re gone.”

    In a way, Homemade With Love is Perillo’s (and arguably Mikey’s) heirloom for their daughters and her readers. But the delicious guide to getting into the kitchen isn’t just a template for tested dishes; the passion and energy behind it will move you to create some family memories of your own. Just like a weekday morning chat with Perillo, sitting down with Homemade With Love leaves you thankful, energized, and hungry—for food and life and love.

    Jennie Perillo’s lemon buttermilk doughnuts

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