Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Eva Thorvald, daughter of a chef and sommelier, is a culinary genius. Raised by her underachieving aunt and uncle after her mother leaves and her father dies, Eva does not have any social or economic advantages, but she does have her late father’s cookbooks, which introduce her to the culinary world. This novel in short stories follows Eva from her mother’s pregnancy, to a precocious childhood where she grows hydroponic habeneros as an escape from bullies at school, to an adolescence spent befriending chefs, to her successes in adulthood. Each chapter could function as a stand alone short story and focuses on a specific food like sweet pepper jelly or dessert bars or venison. In the end, each of the foods and characters come together perfectly. I enjoyed Stradal’s writing, and the characters were well-developed. Some of the characters were more likable than others, but they all had unique voices and points of view.
Luscious Lemon by Heather Swain
After 10 years of working in restaurants, Ellie (Lemon) Mannelli has opened a successful and hip New York restaurant. Soon after her restaurant’s one year anniversary, Lemon discovers that she is pregnant. Her boyfriend, Eddie, wants to get married and for Lemon to scale back on her workaholic ways. Lemon, who has never seriously contemplated motherhood or marriage, doesn’t know what she wants, even as she falls in love with the baby she is carrying. This is wonderful: fresh and original voice, great characters (Lemon’s family, in particular, is wonderful), and is, by turns, funny and sad. The only downside to this novel is that Lemon is a bit unlikable in the first few chapters, but the reader won’t be able to help but love her by the end. Highly recommended. Read with a box of Kleenex. Trigger warning: miscarriage
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
This is a novel for foodies who also enjoy magical realism. Structured with recipes, Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of Tita, a passionate home cook whose emotions spill into the foods she prepares. Tita and Pedro are in love, but Tita’s mother, Mama Elena, refuses to allow Tita to marry, citing an old family tradition where the youngest daughter remains unmarried and cares for the parents. To remain near Tita, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister, Rosaura. Tita puts all of her pain and passion into a family meal, where she incorporates petals from a rose that Pedro once gave her. Tita’s rose-enhanced meal is the catalyst for the events of the novel, and when Gertrudis, Tita’s other sister, eats this meal, Tita’s emotions fill her and she runs away with a soldier. This family epic is full of love, loss, betrayal, and revolution.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala
When Lila gets into a fight with her ex-boyfriend, Derek, in her aunt’s restaurant moments before Derek drops dead of unknown causes, she becomes the top suspect in a small town murder investigation. Seeking to prove her innocence and restore the image of the family restaurant, she conducts her own investigation, unearthing small town feuds, a corrupt health inspector, and drug trafficking. As a second generation American, I related to the younger characters who grew up with very traditional expectations, yet I wanted to see more of the older Filipino generation. I felt that Tita Rosie and Lila’s grandmother should have had more of a role, and I kept getting Lila’s many godmothers confused. As Arsenic and Adobo is the first of a series, hopefully these characters will have their opportunity to shine. Entertaining and page turning, Arsenic and Adobo is a must read for both cozy mystery fans and food lovers. I’m not even familiar with Filipino food, but reading this book made me hungry and wish Tita Rosie’s Kitchen was located in my town.
Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan
When Polly’s graphic design business goes bankrupt, she loses her dreams and her long term relationship. Depressed by the rental options in her hometown of Plymouth, Polly moves into a severely neglected rental on Mount Polbearne, a not-so-fashionable beach town. Whatever her rental may be lacking (central heat, charm, a reasonable landlady), it is located over a now-shuttered bakery, and Polly loves to bake. As Polly makes friends with quirky locals, cares for an injured baby puffin, and bakes bread obsessively, she feels contentment for the first time in years. Unfortunately, her landlady, the owner of the other bakery in Mount Polbearne, is threatened by Polly’s baking and threatens to evict her for competing with her business. I probably wasn’t the target audience for this, as I’m not typically a rom-com reader and it was a bit sweet for me, but I did enjoy it. It was page-turning, I liked the quirky characters, and it did make me want to bake bread. This is a fun read for people who enjoy Hallmark movies and for people who need a breezy read to throw in their travel bag.
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
Twenty four years ago, high school sweethearts, Eden Callow and AJ Linden, got into a car accident just outside their hometown of Wicklow, Alabama. Eden lost her memory of that day due to the car crash while AJ did not survive. AJ’s parents were quick to blame eighteen-year-old Eden for murder due to the mysterious nature of the crash. Once cleared of wrongdoing, Eden left Wicklow for good, with no one but her mother aware that she was pregnant with AJ’s child. When Eden’s daughter, 24-year-old Anna Kate Callow, arrives in Wicklow for the very first time to bury her Granny Zee, she finds she has inherited her grandmother’s business, the Blackbird Café, on the condition that she runs it for 60 days before it is legally hers. In Wicklow, she finds that no one knew of her existence, that Granny Zee’s pies were the source of local folklore, that bird watchers and journalists have descended upon the town searching for rare blackbirds, and the Linden family wants to get to know her. Over her 60 days as a café owner, Anna Kate befriends quirky townspeople, searches for answers about her father’s death, and determines to judge the Lindens for herself. Midnight at the Blackbird Café, a family drama with a touch of magical realism, is about loss, healing, and finding your family. Enjoy with sweet tea or a slice of your favorite pie.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Tess moves to New York City after her college graduation. She is hired at an upscale restaurant in spite of a terrible interview. In the beginning, her coworkers are hostile and refuse to call her by her name, instead calling her New Girl. Although she loses her name, she is reborn in the restaurant. She begins with a traditional Midwestern palate and no knowledge of wine, and on her journey, she becomes passionate and knowledgeable about both food and wine. She learns about other hungers–for partying and drugs, for friendship, and for sex. As a young woman with no close family or friends, Tess’ poor choices are numerous yet enthusiastic. Danler made the curious choice of presenting Tess as a blank slate when she arrives in New York. We know she has a father and that she attended college, but nothing is known about the relationships, choices, or traumas of her past. As Tess self-destructs, I kept wondering if that was what she had been doing all her life or if it was new behavior. Even though my response to this book wasn’t warm, it definitely left me in a pensive mood, and there is something very compelling about it.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (memoir)
As a child in rural Oregon, Michelle Zauner always wanted to be near her mother, to spend all her time with her, and she lived for summers spent in Korea with her mother, aunts, and grandmother. Later, as a chronically depressed adolescent, she dreamed of college on the other side of the country, feeling she could never get far enough away from her mother. When Michelle was a recent college graduate, stumbling awkwardly into adulthood, her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Suddenly, all Michelle wanted to do was return to Oregon and care for her mother. Her mother had expressed her love through food, so Michelle wanted to learn her mom’s favorite Korean recipes to express her own love and to help her mother recover from cancer treatments. Crying in H Mart is compelling for several reasons. The first is that Zauner’s writing is beautiful. As a songwriter, she undoubtedly learned the importance of finding the perfect words with no room for excess. People prone to making notes in the margins or highlighting significant passages will graffiti their copies. The second is her unflinching honesty. She portrays both the love and the cruelty of family relationships accurately, as she dwells on family belonging versus individuality and the generational and cultural factors that cause rifts between mothers and daughters. The third, of course, is the focus on food and how it relates to family and culture. Strongly recommended.
Plenty by Hannah Howard (memoir)
When Hannah Howard started her first restaurant job as a host, she fell in love with the food industry. Food had been a significant part of Howard’s childhood, but it quickly became her calling, and while she found success in her chosen industry, her obsession with food had a darker side: disordered eating had made food into a thing she both loved and feared. At the time of writing Plenty, Howard is a former restaurant manager turned food writer, and she has left binge eating behind but still struggles with body image. In this memoir, Howard not only tells her story, but that of women in the food industry. She writes about chefs, culinary teachers, entrepreneurs, and even a barge captain working in food-related tourism. Plenty addresses being a woman in a male-dominated environment, struggling with body image while working in food, and choosing motherhood while also chasing career goals. Trigger warning: miscarriage.
Black, White, and the Grey by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano (memoir)
When the Greyhound Station opened up in Savannah, Georgia, it was designed for the Jim Crow South with white and colored waiting rooms and restrooms. When New York businessman, Johno Morisano, purchased it in 2013 with dreams of opening a restaurant, the abandoned building was both a tribute to art deco architecture and a reminder of institutional racism past and present. A year later, Morisano opened The Grey with a new partner, up-and-coming chef Mashama Bailey. Black, White, and the Grey is the story of how two cofounders, one a White man and the other Black woman, learned to communicate and create a restaurant family in the modern South. It is the story of the love of food, common ground, and unconscious bias. A visit to Savannah–and to The Grey to try Mashama Bailey’s award winning cooking–is now in my future.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (memoir)
One of the most influential books on the restaurant industry, Kitchen Confidential follows Anthony Bourdain from his aimless adolescence to becoming a successful chef. Bourdain first entered the restaurant industry when he needed a summer job to fund his partying habits. Much to his surprise, it was more than a paycheck, as he quickly fell in love with the kitchen. He considered chefs to be rockstars, fearless and creative. The restaurant industry saved Bourdain, allowing him to develop his own work ethic and code of honor, but it also threatened to destroy him, in that it allowed substance abuse to go unchecked. Written with one part bravado, one part affection, and one part self deprecation, Kitchen Confidential introduces larger than life characters and reflects on the things we excuse for culinary genius. To be honest, this wasn’t my cup of tea as it’s a bit macho for my tastes, but I do understand why it is a much loved modern classic. Kitchen Confidential is a bit like a mob movie, horrifying and appealing all at once. If you want to read about food, but have zero desire to read about family recipes and the gentle memories they evoke, this is a good read for you.