Today saw the demise of a great intellect; a man with an insatiable appetite for experiencing life and informing ours, and he did so with sass and class.
While I often find myself thumbing through his film books, poring over his blogs and lists, and the articles he shared on twitter, the most recent book of his that I read was curiously about 'the mystery and romance of the rice cooker'. You might think cooking and Ebert are ill-matched, but it is the only cookbook I have read cover to cover in one sitting; and his rice cooker has gone with him to the Sundance Film Festival and has therefore been legitimized and hallowed by the film world.
I grew up in South India where rice is the predominant staple food, and it continues to be a major part of my diet even today; and when it is not, I am either dreaming about rice and salivating copiously or reading about it; only now, when I cook rice, it is sometimes infused with herbs and vegetables I didn't even know existed. My rice cooker also cooks other grains and pastas, including oatmeal, and my food is served with the kind of wisecracks and anecdotes that he collated in his lifetime. But, when I bought the book, I never intended to try Ebert's recipes as much as enjoy the book for his sake; the scrumptious recipes and health insights only came as a surprise bonus. I picked up Anna Thomas' Vegetarian Epicure, only because he called it "the most influential cookbook in the history of modern vegetarian cooking", and added Marie Sharp's Exotic Sauce and House of Tsang sauces to my condiment arsenal, only because he swore by them, and I do now.
The most intriguing thing about the book for me is the way in which he incorporated the readers' comments from one of his blogpost about rice cookers as a chapter somewhere in the middle of the book, and they flow seamlessly with the rest of the content, as if they were in response to the content in the earlier chapters of the book. This is the only meta-cookbook of this sort that I know; and is telling of Ebert's openness to experience, who after having lost the ability to eat due to cancer was only able to enjoy food vicariously or by way of nostalgia.
The rice cooker allows me to sit at a table and leaf through a book while it does all the cooking. Coincidentally, it is this luxury of leisure that cookers make possible that Ebert too enjoyed about it, and it is this type of relatability in small moments that he brought to his writing that made him appealing. While we both grew up in different worlds and eras, we seemed to have so much in common, and it didn't all boil down to rice, movies and living in our heads. Somewhere, our thoughts manifested our reality in some form or the other.
He wrote this cookbook after he stopped eating ("when it became an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion"), he tweeted after he stopped talking; I know he will live on after he has stopped breathing… for me, this is every time I watch a movie, or use the rice cooker, or do a thumbs up or down.
I had been meaning to read his autobiography for a while now. I'll pick it up today, although I know it won't be the same reading it after he has laid down his life as if I had read it before. The book is called Life Itself: A Memoir.
New York Times: Ebert Was a Critic Whose Sting Was Salved by Caring