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.

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