Sourdough by Robin Sloan
(MCD, 2017, 272 pages)
I enjoyed Sloan’s previous book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, so when I heard that he had a new book coming out I immediately added it to my “to-read” list. Then it seemed like it was getting blurbed and buzzed about all over the place so I grabbed it off the shelf when I was at the public library (#librarylove). Sloan has a knack for writing unique books with a quirky twist and his sophomore novel only proved that.
Our protagonist is Lois, a software engineer whose life is pretty dull. She works and then she sleeps. Her job has gotten monotonous and she’s not really even seeking out pleasure in her life. But then one night she decides to try delivery from a “restaurant” in her neighborhood. It offers 3 things on the menu, a sandwich, soup, and then a combo called the “double spicy.” It’s as if the food changes her life. She starts ordering it every day and fosters something of a relationship with the two brothers who run the operation. When their visas expire and they have to leave, they make the decision to leave their sourdough starter with Lois, their “#1 eater.”
Lois has never made bread, but the responsibility of keeping the starter alive prompts her to start. At that point there’s no turning back. The bread is amazing and as she gradually introduces it to the people in her orbit she is encouraged to try selling it at the local farmers market. When she auditions for a spot she finds herself selected for an underground market that’s not open to the public. People are doing all kinds of experimental things with food down there… and her contribution is her sourdough (compliments of the unique starter that was gifted to her) and the robot arm she tries to program to help her make it.
It’s hard not to just try summarizing the book. But at the same time, the book isn’t the easiest to summarize. Sloan has a way of deconstructing our society and the things that fascinate us that intrigues you and keeps you reading. If you’re looking for an entertaining read Sloan is your guy. If you also happen to love reading about things that are food-related (which is ALWAYS me) you’re in for even more of a treat (and some sass toward “foodies”).
For a more in-depth breakdown of the book you can check out this review from the LA Times.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South
by Michael Twitty
(Amistad, 2017, 464 pages)
The premise of Twitty’s book is to explore how African-Americans influenced Southern cooking as we know it today. He uses his own family history to trace this influence. It was interesting to learn about slaves being sent abroad to learn French culinary techniques so they could cook the cuisine their owners wanted. I also appreciated learning a bit about how slaves adapted to their new surroundings by seeing what was comparable to food they had back home or by finding ways to introduce their own culinary traditions to the new world they were a part of.
This book had received such acclaim and it dealt with issues I love reading about (food and race) that I was eager to finally pick it up. But it didn’t deliver for me. There are people that thoroughly enjoyed it, I just think it was billed as a different book than what it actually is. A considerable amount of the book was spent going through Twitty’s genealogy. Unfortunately, it read pretty dry to me and I felt like more time was devoted to figuring out his heritage (valuable, to be sure!) than talking about the culinary component (the whole reason I picked up the book).
Like I said, some people loved this book. I didn’t find the writing particularly compelling. The focus of the book should have been more on the food than on Twitty. I did learn some new things, but it was a slog trying to get through the book.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain
(Harper Perennial, 2001, 302 pages)
Junkie chef telling great stories.
How to Cook a Moose by Kate Christensen
(Islandport Press, 2015, 298 pages)
A culinary celebration of Maine.
Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi
(Ecco, 2016, 324 pages)
As a devoted Top Chef fan there was no question that I’d be finding the time to read Padma’s memoir. It wasn’t quite as food-focused as you might think, though it’s clear that food has always played a pretty central role in her life. In this memoir Padma opens up about her family, her love life, and the joyful surprise she received when becoming pregnant with her daughter, Krishna.
The whole time I was reading this book I heard Padma’s voice in my head – I think that if I had listened to the audiobook I would have enjoyed the book as much if not more. She has a very specific cadence and tone so maybe I’m just partial to it after hearing it for so long… Regardless, I appreciated that she actually wrote this book. I hadn’t realized she had written articles for magazines prior to this publication. I knew she’d authored a few cookbooks, but that’s a very different writing experience.
I think I was most eager to learn about her love life since she had been married to Salman Rushdie. It was somewhat surprising to learn that she has (and makes a point of acknowledging it in the book) something of a father complex when it comes to the men she’s drawn to. The two main loves of her life both happened to be significantly older than her. Combine that with the surprise pregnancy and not initially knowing who the father was… I came away from this book knowing a lot more than I’d bargained for. That being said, I found her writing style to be relatable and I finished the book feeling like I knew and liked her a lot more than I thought I would.
I definitely recommend this book, but I think you’ll appreciate it a lot more if you’re already a Padma/Top Chef fan. And I realize I left out a substantial part of the book which was Padma addressing her battle with endometriosis. That’s a central aspect of the book and her life and she’s made a concerted effort to raise awareness about it.
Wedding Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke
(Kensington Books, 2016, 370 pages)
Wedding Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke is another novel in the Hannah Swensen Mystery series. In this novel, Hannah and her sister are making a trip to New York to participate in the Food Channel’s dessert chef contest. When Hannah wins the first round, the dessert chef contest with its contestants and four judges is moved to Hannah’s hometown of Lake Eden, Minnesota. Unfortunately for Hannah, one of the four judges is murdered in Lake Eden. As usual, Hannah is determined to help find the murderer.
One of the ongoing storylines in the Hannah Swensen Mystery series is if/who Hannah will marry. For the majority of the series, there have been two suitors. In the previous novel, Double Fudge Brownie Murder, a third suitor was added. In Wedding Cake Murder, Hannah finally marries.
Even though the Hannah Swensen Mystery series always contains a murder mystery, I keep reading the series to find out what happens to Hannah and her family. Now that the suitor question has been resolved, I wonder what the next book in the series will reveal. Will there be more “mystery” in the murders or will a new plot line be developed? Will there be even more recipes? I guess I need to read the next book in the series to find out.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
(Knopf, 2016, 368 pages)
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Sweetbitter. There has been a lot of buzz about this title, and it was certainly well-written. Set in New York we come to the city along with our protagonist, Tess. A young woman from the Midwest, Tess feels like she can finally embrace the future she’s envisioned for herself. She is pleasantly surprised when she’s offered a job at one of the top restaurants in New York. She starts low on the ladder but she is quickly taken under the wing of Simone (a server who has been at the restaurant for decades) and just as quickly Tess finds herself falling for the distant but appealing bartender named Jake.
Jake and Simone have a unique relationship and as Tess tries to find her place with the two of them, the reader learns the ins and outs of the restaurant business along with her. I think Danler does a great job catching the inner workings of the restaurant scene. It wasn’t as food-focused as I’d thought it would be, but Danler did an amazing job depicting the excitement of the world of wine.
Look for more buzz this month – the book has a pub date of May 24th.