Most foodies are familiar with Anthony Bourdain’s irreverent look at the world of chefs from a nonfiction point of view, but they may not know he has also written a handful of novels with chefs as the protagonists. Bone in the Throat (1995) is one of three such works of fiction and, as with all of his novels, relies as much on criminality and corruption as it does cooking. Bourdain tends to have mobsters, wise guys, loan sharks, con men, and murderers mingling with waiters, chefs, bartenders, busboys, and dishwashers in the restaurant world.
This story is about Chef Tommy following his culinary dreams in an attempt to escape from his binding family tree rooted in organized crime. Harvey, the owner of the restaurant where Tommy cooks, struggles to keep his business afloat in the competitive New York restaurant scene, but it doesn’t help that gangsters are continually surrounding him, to be paid at any cost.
Amid the dark and macabre storyline, Bourdain never fails to describe in great detail the activity in a restaurant kitchen, because it is what he knows best. Having been in the thick of it himself, his words paint pictures of an active restaurant, as when describing Tommy de-boning and filleting a salmon before making a fish stock — it’s not integral to the plot, but an important portrait of what the character does on a regular basis to make him who he is.
In The Cookbook Collector (2010), author Allegra Goodman introduces us to two sisters, Jess and Emily, surrounded by a cast of assorted characters caught up in some way in the newfound wealth in Silicon Valley during the Internet technology revolution. Unlike her sister, Jess is not attached directly to dot-com companies, but rather works in an antiquarian bookstore for George, who has been asked by elderly Sandra to appraise a cookbook collection for possible purchase.
Crammed into the cabinets of her kitchen, Sandra has 837 volumes of valuable, leather-bound cookbooks in various languages. During the appraisal process, George and Jess come across handwritten notes, menus, clippings, poetry, and sketches in the pages of the cookbooks. George is interested in the collection for its aesthetic and historical value and intends to display them as a collection in a museum-like manner. Jess is charged with cataloguing the books; as she delves into her new job, she yearns to learn more about the original owner, who is not Sandra after all, as the layers of collectors attached to these cookbooks grows.
There is a lot more to this story than perusing cookbooks, and the characters are peppered with a plethora of the complexities and hardships that life can inflict. As Jess deals with personal tragedies and rocky relationships, the story behind the cookbooks leads her to a life she would never have predicted, and their antique recipes come in useful for a very special occasion.
All things Chinese, including culinary traditions, are revealed through the eyes of Lindsey Owyang in The Dim Sum of All Things (2004) by Kim Wong Keltner. Raised in San Francisco, Lindsey generally scorns her ethnic heritage, but can’t get away from it at home, where her grandmother keeps recipes and customs from her homeland alive. Lindsey is also a closet meat-eater working as a receptionist for a vegan magazine, and we have to wonder where this incongruity will lead her.
The plot mostly revolves around Lindsey’s obsession with a romantic interest in her office, and even though Chinese food is not pivotal to the story, it is always present as a main player, such as in Chinatown restaurants and lavish banquets with shark fin soup and Peking duck prepared in traditional Chinese style.
The narrative of the story naturally reveals such Chinese eating customs as serving others first before taking food yourself. We learn about the traditional dishes of Chinese holidays, like neen-goh prepared specially for Chinese New Year, and mooncakes served during the autumn equinox. But even with Chinese culinary customs prevalent in her American household, Lindsey has her eyes opened further when she visits China with her grandmother. It is here that she learns that China is nothing like the pavilion at Disney World, and every meal was unlike Chinese food she had back home, except for some of those authentic dishes her grandmother recreated in their home.
Many important discussions occur at a dinner table while communing over food, but as Dutch author Herman Koch reveals in The Dinner (2013), they are not always light-hearted and good-natured. Amid the hubbub of a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam, Koch sets the stage for a horrific tragedy that links two couples. The tension between the diners is palpable, but the reason for their meeting remains buried beneath polite dialogue and the perusing of menus.
From appetizers to main course, the suspense builds during the progression of dinner, until dark secrets are revealed and the truth comes out during dessert. Between the delivery of meals and drinks, serious topics, family issues, and societal problems are discussed and chilling revelations that the couples share from their past are disclosed. The story is a thrilling page-turner, set amongst the normal but frenetic activity of a restaurant service. What starts out as an ordinary meal between friends evolves into a riveting and disturbing discovery wedged between the bookends of the aperitif and digestif.
My Year of Meats (1998) by Ruth Ozeki introduces us to Jane Takagi-Little, a controversial documentarian working on an unusual project with a Japanese television station. Travelling across the United States, Jane shoots episodes of My American Wife which features a series of women preparing home-cooked meals, allowing Japanese audiences to witness “traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.” The story is told through the eyes of two main women — Jane the filmmaker, and Akiko, a Japanese wife who dutifully watches the show and makes the recipes in her own kitchen.
The meat company sponsoring the show continually reminds Jane that “Meat is the Message” so that rump roasts, briskets, baby back ribs, and T-bone steaks are front and centre for Japanese housewives to see on their screen. There is a dichotomy to this message, however; Akiko is told to make the red meat dishes from My American Wife to feel healthier and provide the nutrients to help along her attempts at pregnancy, but as a documentarian Jane discovers that some American feedlots and slaughterhouses don’t always follow the rules.
The novel itself is a pseudo-documentary, disguised as fiction, full of social, environmental, medical, and personal issues that go far beyond cooking meat. Jane pushes the boundaries of her documentarian licence, but the meat company paying her bills has plenty to say about her indiscretions in trying to effect social change, rather than adhering to the mandate of advertising the cuts of meat on American dinner tables.
Set on the island of Sicily, La Cucina (2000) by Lily Prior tells the story of Rosa Fiores living on her family farm in a time when siestas were taken to break up the day and pasta was made by hand in a way that sounds more like a leisurely pastime than kitchen drudgery. Rosa says “La cucina … has formed the backdrop to the lives of our family, the Fiores, as far back as, and further than, anyone can remember. This kitchen has witnessed our joys, griefs, births, deaths, nuptials, and fornications for hundreds of years.” An ancient, oak table is as central to the kitchen as the kitchen is to the house. This is the table on which Rosa was born when her mother started labour while making pasta one day.
After the untimely, Mafia-related death of her first love, Rosa exiles herself to the kitchen to deal with lost love in what she calls her “culinary catharsis.” She finds solace in the kitchen by dabbling in endless food-making projects from the bounty of the farm — cheese making, pasta rolling, bread baking, vegetable pickling, fruit preserving, and livestock slaughter.
After many years, a mysterious Englishman who is researching ancient Sicilian cookbooks appears at the library where she works and a budding romance relieves her of years of grief. After years of mourning, and plenty of hard work in the kitchen to please others with outstanding Italian food, Rosa finds out that some dreams do come true and redemption can be achieved.
DARIN COOK is a freelance writer who lives and plays in Chatham-Kent, but keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.