Audiobook: Crying in H Mart

by Michelle Zauner
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There are some swear words, including a few F-bombs It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This is basically Zauner’s homage to her Korean mother, who passed away from cancer in 2014. She goes through her childhood, how her relationship with her mother developed and struggled, and through her mother’s sickness and her death to the year or so afterward. The thing that ties everything together is Korean food. Her mother’s home cooking, the tastes and smells that accompanied Zauner all through her childhood trips to Seoul to see her mother’s family, and through to watching Mangchi on YouTube after her mother’s death, in order to learn the food traditions that she didn’t want to be lost.

It wasn’t a gad book, and Zauner wasn’t a bad narrator. But, I didn’t quite love it either. At times, Zauner felt like a whiny brat, and I just wanted to shake her. I suppose she was just being honest, and so I can admire her for that. The things I liked best were near the end when she starts learning how to cook Korean food. The chapter where she learns to make kimchee was fascinating. And I understood her pain (sort of? I haven’t lost anyone I was incredibly close to, really) or at the least, I understood that this was how she was processing her pain.

I can respect this book, at least, even if I didn’t love it.

Audio book: Taste

by Stanley Tucci
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mild swearing, and then a handful of f-bombs that kind of come out of nowhere. It’s in the Cooking Reference and Biography sections of the bookstore.

Ah, Stanley Tucci gave me a wonderful gift: two of my favorite kinds of guilty pleasure books — celebrity memoirs and foody books — in one delightful listen. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

It’s basically a brief overview of Tucci’s life — not really in any depth, but more of an overview — highlighting on the role food played (and it played a big role) in his life. Italian food is his heritage, and the connection he feels to it (and opinions about it) is great and fascinating. It’s interesting to listen to his stories about food and family and meals he remembers, and he doesn’t spend much time dishing about the “business” or his personal life. It really is all about the food for him, which is something I can’t complain about. Plus: there are recipes! (And at least one I want to try.)

He’s a good narrator, too, making the listener feel as if he’s there telling you his story. It was the perfect listen for me right now, and I’m glad I did.

Audio book: Eat a Peach

by David Chang and Gabe Ulla
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is talk of suicide and mental illness. There is also lots of swearing, including many f-bombs. It’s in the Cooking/Food Reference section of the bookstore, but would also work in Creative Non-Fiction or Biography.

Chang starts his memoir stating that he’s too young to write a memoir, that this all feels too pretentious. And yes, in a way he’s right: he’s only 43, and his life — well his work life — has been a mix of luck and obsessively hard work. That said, since the only thin I know about him is Ugly Delicious from Netflix (which I really enjoyed), I was fascinated to learn all about Momofuku and the path that Chang took to where he is today.

It’s not an easy path. Chang had an okay suburban childhood, but not an especially happy one. And while he went to college, it wasn’t an especially good experience. It was when we worked in Japan (for a year? I think?) that he finally got an idea of what he wanted to do: he wanted to bring excellent food to the masses, and recreate the experience of Japanese noodle bars. And thus, Momofuku was born.

I really appreciate what Chang is doing: pushing the boundaries of food, mixing cultures and inspirations to come up with something wholly new. I really would love to eat at one of the restaurants, just to see what he and his team have created. I also appreciated that he was super candid about his mental health. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and was frank about the ups and downs and the medications. He’s his own harshest critic and is adamant that failure is an important part of growth. If one doesn’t fall down, then one can’t grow. And I get that.

And as a narrator, he wasn’t bad. He kept me pulled up to the table (metaphorically) to listen to his stories. I just wish I could have had a plate or two of his excellent food as I did.

The Chicken Sisters

by KJ Dell’Antonia
First sentence: “The hit TRC series Food Wars is back!”
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Release date: December 1, 2020
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First, some background: in Pittsburg, Kansas, there are two fried chicken places: Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s. There is some bit of controversy over which is better (I’ve eaten at one, but I don’t remember which) and they’re both pretty famous. Dell’Antonia is taking that idea — of two fried chicken places in a small Kansas town — and spinning a story around it. This time, there’s a feud between the two places, going back generations to the two sisters who started the restaurants: Frannie and Mimi. The feud has gotten so bad that when Amanda, one of Mimi’s descendants, marries Frank, one of Frannie’s she’s disowned, practically speaking, from her own family. And so, when on a whim, Amanda invites Food Wars to town to judge between Frannie’s and Mimi’s she has no idea what she has unleashed.

There’s more to the story; Amanda is distant from her older sister, Mae, who has made a career in reality television as someone who can clean and organize the heck out of everything. It doesn’t help that their mother, Barbara, is a hoarder. Or that Amanda’s husband and father-in-law died in a crash about 15 years prior, and so Amanda’s basically been holding on, raising two kids on her own.

It’s a sweet little book, nothing to deep or out of the ordinary. Just two sisters and their families trying to figure out how on earth they got where they are, and maybe, just maybe, they can figure out how to fix it.

A perfect summer read. (Also, I really want some good fried chicken now!)

Kitchen Confidential

by Anthony Bourdain
First sentence: “Don’t get me wrong: I love the restaurant business.”
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Content: There is a lot of talk about drug use and a lot of swearing (including many, many f-bombs. Kitchens are not “clean” places to work.) It’s in the Creative Non-Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is one of those books that I’ve said to myself many times over the years (it was first published in 2000) that I need to read it. I like food books. I like books about restaurants and I have heard nothing but good things about this one. Why haven’t I read it before?

Good question. And I’m glad I fixed it. And for the record: I read the original hardcover (because that’s what the library had) and not the updated paperback.

This is, essentially, Bourdain’s personal story of how he became a chef in New York. It’s not a pretty story. He wasn’t a nice guy. But, he worked hard, and he was a reliable employee, and so he climbed the ladder. And, after he went to the Culinary Institute of the Arts, he moved to New York and began making a name for himself. It was an up and down process, the downs fueled mostly by his drug use, but eventually, he landed a decent stable chef position. He talked about the people he met, and all the jobs he worked, and the dynamics of the (mostly male) kitchen. It’s crass and vulgar and foul, but I loved reading his stories. It made me slightly nostalgic for the time I worked in a restaurant kitchen (worked my way up from dishwasher to prep cook), because there really is a family dynamic to working in a kitchen. I was glad I didn’t pursue it as a career, though, because I don’t think I had the stamina it takes to actually make it in the business.

But this was a fun trip through the New York City restaurant world of the 1970s and 1980s and I really enjoyed Bordain’s version of it.

Audiobook: Save Me the Plums

by Ruth Reichl
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I adore Ruth Reichl and have since I read Tender at the Bone a very long time ago. (While I was listening to this, I was wondering if I knew who she was before she became the editor in chief of Gourmet, or after. I’m still not quite sure.) She has a way with telling a story (granted: I have not read her work of fiction) and with writing about food. And this book — the memoir of her time as Gourmet editor in chief from 1999-2009, when the magazine folded — is no exception.

Reichl weaves the story of how she became the editor in chief and her experiences with Condé Nast with memories of growing up and her family, both her parents and her husband and son. She tells stories of how stories came to be, of working with editors and art directors and photographers and chefs. As someone who once studied journalism and who has an affection for the profession, I adored this. I loved seeing the inner workings of a magazine (and was wistful: in another universe, I am a food and travel writer, I think) and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she talks about food.

I know some of my co-workers haven’t enjoyed this as much as they liked her other books, but I disagree: this is quintessential Ruth Reichl, talking about what she knows best: food and community.

I especially loved it on audio: she is a fantastic narrator, and knows how to make you feel like you’re sitting with her as she spins these tales. I absolutely loved it and am very sad that it’s done.

With the Fire on High

by Elizabeth Acevedo
First sentence: “Babygirl doesn’t even cry when I suck my teeth and undo her braid for the fourth time.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, one almost sex-scene, and frank talk about teenage sex. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Emoni is many things: Afro-Puerto Rican. A mom. A senior in high school. And most importantly, someone who loves to cook.

As she starts her senior year, she’s navigating her world: co-parenting with her ex, Tyrone, and taking more responsibility for their daughter. Her relationship with her abuela and her absent father. And her final year at high school. She wasn’t really expecting any challenges, but she is thrown for a loop: her school has just added a culinary arts class. And she wants to take it, but will she be able to handle the pressure from a working chef.

This isn’t a novel in verse like Poet X is but it’s still just as lyrical. I thoroughly enjoy Acevedo’s writing, and her celebration of Afro-Latinx culture. I loved the food in this book, and though she touched on magical realism (I really love it when food makes people feel/do things) she didn’t really go there. I loved Emoni as a character, and her struggle to overcome the results — the baby — of a bad decision she made when she was 15. I loved the support she got from her abuela and friends, and I felt that Acevedo captured some very real emotions.

It was just a delight to read and I can’t wait to see what else Acevedo writes.

Audio book: Kitchen Yarns

by Ann Hood
Read by Nina Alvamar
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Listen at Libro. fm
Content: There is some mild swearing and one f-bomb. It’s in the creative non-fiction section of the bookstore, but it could just as easily go in with the cookbooks.

This is a collection of (previously published?) essays and recipes as Hood recalls her life, from her childhood in her Italian American family, through her first marriage and death of her daughter to her current marriage. It’s a very chatty book (which I liked a lot), and while it’s not incredibly linear (she jumps around in time and repeats herself some), it is thoroughly enjoyable.

I’m not sure what made me pick this one up… I do like foody books and memoirs and maybe the combination of the two? (And while the narrator was excellent, I felt let down that it wasn’t Hood narrating her own book.)

As for listening, while I enjoyed it, I might also want to pick up a paper copy, because I want to try out a couple of the recipes, and that’s difficult with just the audio version! But it was a delightful listen, being immersed in food, especially during these winter days.

Sourdough

by Robin Sloan
First sentence: “It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 5, 2017
Content: There’s several instances of swearing, including a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Lois Clary is a Millennial, stuck programming in a tech job in San Francisco. It’s a get up, go to work life, one that, while isn’t bad, isn’t fulfilling either. And then she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, and is in love. With the food. Run by a couple of immigrant brothers, it’s something that fills her soul. So, when they unexpectedly have to leave the country, they leave her the starter for the sourdough. It’s that small act that changes Lois’s world. She learns to bake sourdough, and discovers that the starter itself is a bit magical. But more than that, Lois finds a purpose in life, a meaning to everything. She becomes involved with an underground experimental farmer’s market, and works on teaching a robot arm how to cook. There’s a bit of conflict with big business and some over-anxious scientists, but for the most part, this is Lois’s story, her discovering there’s more to life than sitting in a cubical.

Which is really the point of this. It lies at the intersection of those who bake/love baking and those who “get” or are technologically savvy. There’s a strong sense of needing to get out of working with computers to find satisfaction in life, but there’s also a sense that technology is inevitable and working with it instead of fighting it is the way to go. It’s a fascinating balance, and Sloan handles it beautifully.

In the end, this isn’t a deep novel (then again, neither was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable one. Now to go find a good loaf of sourdough to eat! (Or, maybe I should find myself a starter and learn how to make one…)

Sweet Spot

by Amy Ettinger
First sentence: “Family dinners in my house were a death match.”
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Content: I think there might be some mild swearing, but nothing significant. It is in the Creative Non-fiction section of the bookstore.

I knew I had to read this one as soon as it came in, mostly because it hits all my buttons: it’s good writing, mixing history and contemporary observations, and it’s about FOOD. In this case, ice cream. Bonus.

And it was a delightful read. Ettinger knows how to make one involved in the book (not just with recipes!), finding the words to describe the experience of eating ice cream. She’s become, over the years, an ice cream snob, on a continual search for the perfect cone (and the perfect ice cream eating experience). That leads her all over the place, as she looks into the ice cream industry. And it was fascinating. She discovered that it’s pretty difficult for local artisan shops to make their own ice cream base (and most have it shipped in from somewhere else) because of the pasteurization laws She discovered that the best frozen custard, hands down, is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She looked at ice cream truck turf wars in Brooklyn, at the frozen yogurt industry as well as what it takes to make an ice cream sandwich. She looked at corporate ice cream and artisan ice cream. And it make me, well, want ice cream, and to go searching myself for that perfect cone experience. (That said, my ice cream making has gone up since I started reading this. I recommend the Ample Hills Creamery book.)

It really is a perfect summer read.  Just expect to go looking for a perfect cone when you’re done.