A Collection of Novels about Food, Kitchens, Chefs, and Restaurants for Summertime Reading
For those with a sweet tooth for both confectionary and storytelling, Chocolat by Joanne Harris (1999) does not disappoint. Vianne and Anouk, a transient mother-daughter pair, breeze into a French village at the beginning of Easter season. Living a gypsy lifestyle inspired by her own mother, settling down is not in Vianne’s blood, but she yearns to cling to a location long enough to give Anouk some permanent roots. By opening a chocolate shop to serve the village, she hopes to be accepted, but the locals are surprised by the magic she is capable of inspiring in their tired town. Chocolate-making involves plenty of alchemy that fits with Vianne’s magical sense of developing relationships with the townsfolk, not only through her chocolate, but her radical ideas and sense of freedom.
Some chapters are told through the voice of the village priest who is deeply troubled by his parish’s weakness during Lent in the shadow of Vianne’s chocolate shop. But not everyone in town shares the priest’s views and the luxury of self-indulgence may be just what the quaint village needs to release it from past sins. The war between Church and Chocolate becomes more palpable, dangerous, and delicious as the story unfolds over the days leading up to Easter Sunday.
“Food has a power … And though it can’t save me, it might help me, in some way.” These are the words of Ginny Selvaggio, the main character from Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter (2011), who compulsively turns to cooking to calm herself when thoughts about the recent death of her parents become overwhelming. The story takes on supernatural overtones when Ginny’s cooking of certain recipes conjures deceased ancestors back to her kitchen. How does it happen and what does it all mean? She continues cooking, to unravel the mystery, eventually realizing that recipes left in a deceased person’s handwriting, coupled with the aroma of the cooking, have magical powers to bring back the dead. The next question is to what extent should this power be used to pursue family secrets that have surfaced since the death of her parents and confront her meddling sister?
Ginny learns that not only does she deal with grief by summoning the flavours of her favourite foods, but it has been a coping method for her undiagnosed autism for years. She confronts the quirks of her autism to help develop a sense of self. Immersing herself in food and digging through memories from her childhood, she continues to search for what normal means and ultimately decides that it may not matter.
Two high school friends, Yummy and Cass, are reunited on a family potato farm in Idaho in All Over Creation (2003) by Ruth Ozeki. Yummy ran away twenty-five years ago and returns to reconnect with her estranged friend and confront the deteriorating health of her parents, Lloyd and Momoko. At the same time, a wandering band of anti-GMO activists arrive at the farm in their Winnebago, wanting to learn from Lloyd who has played a pivotal role in the fight between natural seeds and engineered seeds in potato farming.
Seeds are the heart of the story. Lloyd’s farm and Momoko’s garden have thousands of rare seeds, some of them the last specimens of their kind on Earth. They have been quietly nurturing, preserving, and distributing these natural treasures that might have gone extinct if not for their efforts. GMO plants can take over natural varieties, causing them to die out, but the activists and farmers come together to propel their anti-corporate sentiments throughout the farming community. Ozeki’s compelling story is equally about political and agribusiness issues, and personal relationships and the dramas that they spawn. An apocalyptic, yet touching, climax pays tribute to the importance of humans standing up for nature.
In Ruth Reichl’s book, Delicious! (2014), Billie Breslin finds herself in the midst of the New York food scene, learning everything she can from the cheese makers, butchers, chocolatiers, and food magazine editors she finds herself mingling with in her new job. Billie was a culinary prodigy who started a cake business with her sister at a young age, and seems to have quite a tongue for flavour. The story is infused with flavours and aromas that only a true gourmand and long-time restaurant critic, like Reichl, can relay. Billie fits right into the foodie lifestyle by visiting local farms, hunting for her own mushrooms, serving real Italian cheeses at a deli, all the while chiselling out a career as a food writer at an upscale food magazine called Delicious!
In the magazine’s office, Billie unearths a secret stash of mysterious correspondence originally written to James Beard. The letters were written during World War II, by a young girl who is very mature and astute in her societal observations; her writing about wartime food conditions and rationing juxtaposes the gourmet world of Delicious! The letters give a taste of what wartime cooking was like, conveying that even though U.S. citizens needed to sacrifice certain food choices, it did not stop them from being creative in the kitchen. Billie becomes engrossed in reading and cataloguing the letters and her new project shrouds other problems in her family life.
The food items paired together in Bread and Butter (2014) by Michelle Wildgen refer to the living that three brothers make in the restaurant business in their Pennsylvania hometown. The older two, Leo and Britt, are veterans in the industry with their joint restaurant, Winesap; they are supportive, but skeptical, of younger Harry opening up Stray in their small town. Working in tandem, the older brothers have their respective duties: Britt learns the dining preferences and aversions of regular customers at the front of house; Leo manages the kitchen crew. They’ve been in business long enough to know the rhythm of the kitchen and the flow of service which Wildgen describes in entertaining detail.
Compared to his brothers, who opened their restaurant after years of hard work, Harry is an adventurous experimenter in the kitchen who sets out to bring new perspectives of artisanal food creations to the sheltered scene of their hometown. Britt is jealous of Harry’s ease and randomness at moving into the business, but the three brothers share a love of the food industry. Wildgen writes with an eye for flavours that her readers can savour through words, and she expertly portrays the competitive and frantic lives of restaurateurs and chefs, coupled with a dash of sibling rivalry and off-duty romance outside the kitchen.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer who lives and works in Chatham-Kent, but keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants on London.