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Eat, Drink and be Merry with these Books

Savannah Dorsett
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Books related to cooking

Savannah Dorsett from Houston Public Library recommends some fiction titles immersed in culinary delights. 

Hello, all! It’s December. Fall is winding down and we’re moving into winter which means cooler temperatures (or cool for Texas), shorter days, the holidays...and I don’t know about you, but this time of year makes me hungry and usually has me on an epic cooking binge of soups, stews, cookies, cakes, and warm fresh-baked bread. Admit it, we’re all on a big comfort-food kick, aren’t we?

With that in mind, I’m going to share with you some fiction titles that are all about the theme of eat, drink and be merry. Not so much the how-to of cooking, although some titles do feature recipes, but about the feelings that good food and good company can evoke in all of us, even if for some of us, big family gatherings sadly may not be possible this year.

In these books, you can almost smell the aromas and taste the kitchen delights - and maybe hear the arguments over who makes the better dish or how that’s not the way Mom used to do it. So, let’s dig into some works that are immersed in culinary culture. A note, though: If these books make you hungry and inspire snacking while reading, please don’t get crumbs or stains on library books!

Our first title is a modern classic, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. A bestseller when published in Mexico in 1990, it was translated into English two years later and was also adapted into a popular film. This work, set on a ranch on the U.S Mexico border during the height of the Mexican revolution, is cleverly structured in monthly installments featuring recipes that corresponds to the protagonist's life. Tita, who is forbidden to marry due to a family tradition that the youngest always stays home to care for her mother, must watch as her beloved Pedro weds her sister Rosaura and cook and keep house for the couple.

Attempting to make the best of things, kindhearted Tita pours out all her emotions into her cooking - literally. For example, when she’s forced to cook Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding cake, her tears in the cake batter and crushing sadness makes the wedding guests physically ill. The novel, a bittersweet and richly detailed tale of  forbidden love and complicated family dynamics set against a sweeping backdrop of a tumultuous period in Mexican history, is truly an exemplar of the magical realism genre in which magical elements are woven in among real life modern events with one review describing it as “a fairy tale, soap opera romance, Mexican cookbook and homemade remedy handbook all rolled into one.”

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim. In this work, Natalie Tan returns to her native San Francisco following her mother’s death. They’ve been estranged for years following a fight over Natalie’s dreams of becoming a chef and her mother’s declining mental health. The plan is to settle affairs, pack up the house and thank the neighbors who helped care for her mother in the end. But then Natalie learns she inherited her grandmother’s once-famous Chinese restaurant and she’s tempted to stay and attempt revitalizing the struggling neighborhood with the power of her grandmother’s recipes...that may have magical properties.

This book is a lovely and oh-so-heartwarming tribute to a close-knit community and the power of food to evoke memories and bring people together. And there are recipes! Meals mentioned in the book are further detailed with funny little notes and comments written in the main character’s voice. This book is sweet, funny, has juuust the right little sprinkle of magical realism to it - and the loving descriptions of meal prep and the power of good food in my opinion makes it ideal for a story to screen adaptation. Lim already has another title out to please foodie fans - Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop. Food plus Paris? Sounds like a perfect combination.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown. It’s the year 1819, the Age of Sail with international trade and naval warfare at its height, and personal chef to the nobility Owen “Wedge” Wedgewood has just been kidnapped by notorious pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot (that’s right, a lady pirate) with an offer he really can’t refuse - cook a different delicious meal for her every week using whatever is available on hand. Think: moldy potatoes, gruel and rat meat, if he wants to live. Hey, even notorious lady pirates enjoy good grub. Wedge rolls up the sleeves of his chef’s coat and gets to work, learning to forage, beg, borrow and maybe even steal what he needs, slowly winning the respect of the crew and the dangerous, but also rather charismatic, captain.

This is a fast-paced swashbuckler of a tale that is rich in period detail and tons of character depth. Brown does not shy away from the harshness of life on a ship in the 19th century and while some of the actions of the pirates may be shocking, there’s an even handed discussion of why some may turn to such a life and it’s fascinating watching Wedge grow and learn about the various shades of grey to his world with one review describing the book as a coming-of-age tale, even though the main character is middle aged.

Of course, where the book truly shines is the descriptions of the food. Wedge is a true sensualist and while the whole constant threat of death is kind of terrifying, he responds to the challenge with enthusiasm. His ingenuity in creating mouthwatering multi-course meals, all lovingly described in detail, with little more than scraps is amazing, and you’ll want to keep reading to see how he tops himself. His slow bonding with Mad Hannah over their mutual love of food is another unexpected delight.

Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali De. This is the second title in Dev’s “The Raje’s series,” which are contemporary romance adaptations of Jane Austen novels featuring a close-knit immigrant Indian family. The first book was last year’s Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors. In this book, chef Ashna is trying to build up publicity for her family’s restaurant so she appears on a cooking reality show where she’s paired up with Rico Silva, a star soccer player...AND her ex-boyfriend. The two of them try to keep things professional and focus on the food, but the chemistry is still very much there (enough that there is soon a shipper name for them and tons of gushing posts on social media).

Of course, if they’re going to have any chance of a future, they need to address the issues that lead to the break up in the first place - this means being open and honest with each other. Emotional vulnerability and partners communicating: That’s my version of swoon-worthy! This is a smartly-done homage to Austen bringing the original source material into the modern era with a diverse cast, reality show shenanigans, Twitter handles and swapping in chaotic kitchens for ballrooms. Even with all the changes, the emotional connection that makes Persuasion such an enduring work - the complication of love and romance getting tangled up with family obligations, are still there and the characters are wonderfully complex. You’ll be rooting for Ashna to find her voice and her own happiness with her two great loves, cooking and Rico.

Still hungry for more? Just ask your friendly librarian. The Houston Public Library is available via email, phone and chat reference. You can also request a custom book list from us. You tell us what you enjoy reading and we’ll send title suggestions based on your likes and interests. How cool is that?!

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