Measuring Up

by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu
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Content: There is some pressure on a character by a parent, which may be triggering for some. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Cici and her family live in Taiwan. She’s happy; she has her A-ma there to keep her company while her parents work and to teach her how to cook. So when Cici’s parents take jobs in America, Cici is heartbroken. Especially since A-Ma isn’t coming. Life in America is strange, and Cici wants to find a way to help A-Ma visit, so she enters a cooking competition for kids. The only problem is that Cici only knows how to cook Taiwanese dishes, and not “American”. She learns about Julia Child (yay!) and practices and practices to become better. And yet, she doesn’t want to lose her own identity and heritage.

What a delightful book! I loved the meshing of the immigrant story and food. There is a huge metaphor about how immigrants have to balance assimilation and their own heritage. There’s also a theme about finding your own path and not the one that your parents set out for you. I loved the characters, and how Xu drew them. She also met the challenge of drawing food and cooking, which isn’t easy.

I adored this one.

Love & Saffron

by Kim Fay
First sentence: “Dear Mrs. Fortier, I hope this letter finds you well.”
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Content: There’s really nothing objectionable. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I haven’t read a good epistolary novel in a long time, and this one fit the bill: short enough to read in an afternoon, and charming enough to keep me entertained.

The correspondence takes place in the early 1960s between two women, Joan – a 27-year-old single woman living in LA, and Imogene, – a 60-something woman living in the Seattle area. They start corresponding because Joan writes a fan letter to Imogene who writes a column for a national magazine. From there, they develop a deep friendship that lasts years, sharing details about their lives and bonding over food.

It really is a charming little novel. I know the title is “Love & Saffron” but it made me hungry for tacos. It’s a love letter to food and friendship and definitely worth a couple hours to enjoy.

The Heartbreak Bakery

by A. R. Capetta
First sentence: “The splintered crack of my egg of the counter sounds like an ending.”
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Content: There is talk of sex, and a couple of f-bombs with some mild swearing It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book hits all my buttons: it’s a book about food and baking — Syd our main character, loves to bake as self-expression; it’s a book about Austin (which I really do love to visit); it’s a book about friendships and finding love; it’s a book that truly embraces the entire rainbow of LGBTQIAP+ life and culture.

The plot is simple: Syd goes through a bad breakup, and bakes heartbreak into brownies, which get sold at the bakery, and which cause everyone who eats them to break up. Syd, feeling guilty and miserable — the owners of the Proud Muffin bakery where Syd works are one of the couples — sets about with Harley, the delivery person at the bakery, setting things right. There are lessons Learned and Love along the way, along with a smattering of magical baked goods.

Syd doesn’t have pronouns, and identifies as agender, which to be honest, has made writing this really difficult. One doesn’t consider how much pronouns are a part of life until one tries to write a review not using them.

But the book is still cute and light and frothy, following the paces of a foody romance, with an LGBT+ spin. I did like that this one felt Queer in incredibly inclusive ways (I think the only cis/het characters were Syd’s parents); I felt like (as an outsider) that the whole rainbow was represented. As a baker, I love the idea of magical baking, and some of the recipes Capetta includes sound amazing.

I don’t think tis is going to be my favorite book this year, but I am so happy that a book like this exists in the world.

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.