Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: "Writing the Meal: Dinner in the Fiction of Early Twentieth-Century Women Writers" (2002)

In Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding,' the bride herself is described as a piece of cake: she wears 'a white dress trimmed with stripes and bows of coloured ribbon, giving her the appearance of an iced cake all ready to be cut and served in neat little pieces to the bridegroom beside her' (706).

Synopsis: Fascinating look at female Modernist writers and disordered eating in fiction.

Throughout the book, the author pushes and pulls against Patricia Moran, who is a seriously big scholar in Modernist Food Disorders, and also happened to be an undergrad professor of mine. McGee loves what Moran has done with Virginia Woolf's fiction, but seems to be quite bitter about her analysis of Katherine Mansfield. And there's this lovely cattiness to the whole interchange that is hella amusing.

I was excited to see that not only does the author whale away at Mansfield and Woolf, who are the standard-bearers of this field, but she also looks at Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston, which was refreshing. Elizabeth Bowen didn't make the cut, but you can't have everything.

I'm still waiting for a comparison of male and female Modernists in this area, though.

Huh. Something tells me I'm going to be waiting for quite some time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: "How to Cook a Tart" (2003)

the cover of How to Cook a Tart
Of all the herbs, Jasmine thought, basil was her soul mate. She rubbed her fingers over a leaf and sniffed deeply at the pungent, almost licorice scent. Basil was sensuous, liking to stretch out green and silky under a hot sun with its feet covered in cool soil. Basil married so well with her favorite ingredients: rich, ripe tomatoes, a rare roast lamb, a meaty mozzarella. Jasmine plucked three leaves from her basil plant and slivered them in quick, precise slashes, then tucked them into her salad along with a tablespoon of slivered orange rind. Her lunch today was to be full of surprises.

Synopsis: Tired of the DC diet scene, her anorexic teenager's backtalk and her husband's secrets, mid-list cookbook author Jasmine March embarks on a quest to make fat fun again. Which in no way explains the corpse on her kitchen floor.

I loved it.

Even if it hadn't had a mysterious inscription on the flyleaf, I would still have loved this curious, over-the-top little novel.

At the beginning of the book Jasmine is presented to the reader as an object of pity: the fat wife of a handsome man, the awkward mother of a lanky, beautiful teenager and a cookbook author hopelessly out of touch with the current trends in beautiful, low-calorie fusion foods.

But the measure of a great character is how they respond to adversity, and the worse things get, the more Jasmine gets her shit together and stops accepting other people's excuses. She continues to take refuge in her great love of food and cooking, but as she accepts it as her strength, she also learns to wield it like a weapon.

Other reviews I've read of this book take it to task for Killham's style ("Everything about How to Cook a Tart, the debut novel from Washington Post food writer Nina Killham, is too much." --amazon review) and it's definitely a dense, almost overwrought style that takes some getting used to. You'll either love it or you'll hate it. It reminded me quite a bit of Caitlin Kiernan and Jean Rhys, so I loved the hell out of it.

Another review complained of the "basil is her soul-mate" sentence up above, which I get; there are a couple of other oddities along those lines, including the Yodaesque, "Almost afraid to move, so shattered she felt."

But for my money they're greatly outnumbered by more lush and beautiful constructions:

--"Handled well, Jasmine thought, a good sharp knife was more useful than beauty."

--"In her bathroom, Careme washed the blood from her face. She watched it curl toward the drain like a red whisper."

While the book is stuffed to the rafters with food, it contains no recipes, at least not ones that require spelling out; Jasmine simply isn't that kind of cook. Just as she isn't that kind of heroine. Her lessons are more organic and pulled together out of the type of knowledge you just can't find in any cookbook. At least not one that's not like this one.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In progress: "How to Cook a Tart" ( 2003)

Look, I understand that the reviews of this book were less than positive but seriously:

What a disastrous start to the day, Jasmine March though as she stared down at her husband's nubile lover, dead on her kitchen floor.

That's one hell of a first line. Also, someone has written in my nice clean library hardback, in pencil on the flyleaf: "to dip into her culinary secrets" and I think I'd sleep with them for their beautiful handwriting alone.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Blood Bones and Butter:

This book looks intriguing, mainly because I am cheerfully ignoring the Anthony Bourdain quote and trying to figure out what the book's about all on my lonesome, but I'm amazed that we're at a place where individual books now require their own websites. If nothing else, the maintenance alone staggers the mind.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Review: Cooking Dirty: Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen, by Jason Sheehan (2010)

The problem with hiring mercenaries is this: As management, what you're looking for are guys who can do a tough, ugly job under bad conditions and survive long enough to make a difference. You hope for things like personal leadership, capability under fire, independence, guts. But when you get right down to it, what you're hiring are killers. People who like to kill other people. Staffing a kitchen is not a lot different.

Synopsis: Jason Sheehan was a lifer kitchen dude -- dishwasher, prep cook, expediter, chef -- until he went so crazy that even kitchens wouldn't have him. Then he became a restaurant reviewer.

I love back of the house stories. I really, really love them. Fiction, non-fiction, romance, all of them. That quote up there is true: people working in kitchens are mercenaries of a sort. They're very serious and they're usually very damaged and unhinged. What they aren't are experts at giving life advice. So.

What we have here is 225 pages of fantastic food service memoir and 75 pages where Sheehan attempts to give life advice. This is both good and bad. The food service memoir portion is fantastic: the rise and fall of so many kitchens in so many restaurants, the story of burning out after working too many 16-hour shifts night after night after night and all the substance abuse both those things entail.

As the fry cook narrator says in Lish McBride's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, "I tried to take some pride where I could. If I was going to be a dropout loser, then I was going to be the best dropout loser." It's a sentiment Sheehan lived wholeheartedly and relives through his storytelling.

There's the Chinese restaurant-cum-gambling parlor in upstate New York; La Cite, the French start-up that ultimately falls to nepotism and linguistic ignorance; a succession of New Mexico diners where Sheehan learns the true meaning of Xmas and hits rock bottom. And all of them are glorious.

As is Sheehan's telling of the roundabout way in which he met, lost, re-met, dated, was threatened by and inspired to keep his wife, Laura. That alone--the story of a fuck-up drug addicted loser who pulls it together enough to woo a woman as equally damaged and driven as he is.

Try falling asleep next to an angry woman who, just a couple hours prior, threatened to stab you with a barbecue fork. That's like taking a nap in the polar-bear cage. While nine times out of ten you might be okay--the bears might just totally ignore you--that tenth time you're going to wake up, open your eyes, and see her there, hovering over you, nose close to your nose, and she's going to say something like, "Do you have any idea how easy it would've been for me to kill you just now?"

Now, here's the part that doesn't work: especially in the earlier parts of the book Sheehan has a tendency to wax philosophical and imparts the World According to Sheehan, and Learn Thou, From My Experiences and it never quite comes together. I'm fairly sure that what the world doesn't need is another random dude telling everyone how to live their lives based on his extensive record of losing jobs and moving back in with his parents.

Wait, wait -- I'm not saying that someone with those experiences doesn't have valuable insight to impart, I'm just saying that Sheehan didn't impart valuable insight so much as those sections sounded forced and uncomfortable. They're sections that lack a tenth of the passion Sheehan brings to the sections where he's talking about working the line or falling in love. They're out of place, as if Sheehan wrote this great memoir and then got back a little note from the editor, "Btw: advice it up a little! Just like Anthony Bourdain!"

But Sheehan's not like Bourdain, a fact he readily admits.

And here's the thing: the kitchen memoir world's big enough for both of them. Gasp, shock, horror, I know, but here me out. I love back-of-the-kitchen memoirs and this one's one of the best.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dear Gastronomica,

Your online cart is insecure and your "Contact Us" link is broken. You are thwarting my attempts to purchase a subscription! Don't make me have to tromp around in the snow trying to find some store up here that carries you.

No love,
The Internet