Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen describes life and food in 20th century Russia, the Soviet Union, and former Soviet republics. Born in Moscow in 1963, Anya and her mother Larisa moved to Philadelphia in 1974. By telling the stories of her grandparents and parents, Anya describes each decade of the 20th century, along with the food popular then. Her Jewish grandmother Liza was from Odessa on the Black Sea, her grandmother Alla was an orphan born in Turkestan and raised by a Bolshevik feminist in Uzbekistan. Her grandfather Naum was an intelligence officer, and her father Sergei helped preserve Lenin’s body through science. Through visits to family with her mother and later travels in the former republics with her boyfriend, Anya immerses the reader in the food and culture of each place and time. Trained as a pianist at Julliard, she became a James Beard award-winning food writer. We learn that standing in lines in Moscow could be a social event, as was the case when her parents met in a line for ballet tickets. The alternating availability and scarcity of various foods, such as bread and corn, could make anyone obsess over food, especially if forced to use a communal kitchen or eat caviar in kindergarten. While I don’t know if I’ll be trying any of the recipes at the end of the book, Anya’s memoir really kept my interest.
Since You’ve Been Gone by Anouska Knight
Holly Jefferson’s life basically consists of working at her bakery with her assistant Jesse, walking the dog, sleeping, and visiting her sister’s family once a week. That’s all she can manage since the death of her husband Charlie almost two years ago. Their partly renovated cottage is unchanged, and Holly is completely uninterested in a social life. A series of unusual cake commissions and deliveries lead to memorable encounters with handsome Ciaran Argyll and his hilariously rude father, wealthy developer Fergal, completely shaking up Holly’s boring routine. I quite enjoyed this charming British romantic comedy.
Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg
Molly, a food writer, marries Brandon, a graduate student in music composition. Brandon has lots of interests and ideas, but Molly is surprised and somewhat dismayed when his dream of owning a pizzeria becomes reality. They both love wood-fired pizza, but Molly prefers to cook at home for friends and family. This engaging, honest memoir gives the reader a close look at the challenges and accomplishments of finding, renovating, and opening a pizzeria in Seattle. Molly starts out as the salad and dessert cook, but finds the pace overwhelming. Cooks come and go, servers become friends, and Molly and Brandon learn to be true partners in Delancey, their restaurant. Molly writes a very popular blog, Orangette.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I really enjoyed reading this heartwarming romantic comedy. Australian genetics professor Don Tillman, who may remind readers of television’s Sheldon Cooper, has been on many first dates but no second dates. Striving for more efficiency on the Wife Project, he compiles a questionnaire to weed out women who smoke, drink too much, are often late, and are vegetarians. His friends, fellow professor Gene and his psychologist wife Claudia, encourage him to be more open-minded. Don likes routine and efficiency, and clashes with his Dean when a student plagiarizes an essay. Then along comes Rosie. She smokes, is late, works in a bar part-time, and only eats sustainable seafood. She is not at all suitable, but is intelligent, beautiful, and very good company. Rosie asks Don to help her find her biological father, and they initiate the Father Project, which even takes them on a trip to New York City, where Don discovers baseball. Don is frequently clueless but often charming, and struggles with the idea of love, while unpredictable Rosie is more than she appears at first. This first novel is a thoroughly engaging read.
Blackberry Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke
In the 17th culinary mystery by Joanne Fluke, Hannah Swensen and Lisa, her partner at the Cookie Jar bakery and coffee shop, haven’t had a mystery to solve in four months. While Lake Eden, Minnesota, is a small town, Hannah has a gift (or curse) for finding bodies. Unfortunately, an accident during a thunderstorm leaves an unidentified man dead. The only identifying feature is a diamond on one tooth. Hannah, along with her family and friends, try to identify the man. Hannah wins a large and unexpected prize in a raffle, which fascinates her cat, Moishe. Also, Hannah and her sisters Andrea and Michelle are trying to plan their mother Delores’ wedding to longtime beau Doc, but Delores changes her mind about the menu, flowers, and dresses every couple of days. Along with recipes for blackberry pie, blue apple muffins, and triple chocolate cookies, the reader enjoys another charming visit to Lake Eden. If you like to start at the beginning of the series, look for Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, but I think you can start with any of her books. Each book has several recipes, and there is also a companion cookbook, Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook. Enjoy!
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien is back home in west suburban Franklin, Illinois, working at a Vietnamese restaurant with her mother and grandfather after college. She has finished her Ph.D. in American Literature but hasn’t yet landed a teaching job. Her mother is never satisfied, while her brother Sam wants money and freedom instead of taking over the restaurant. Lee’s grandfather tells stories about life in Vietnam, and of an older American lady named Rose who visited the café there and left behind a gold pin engraved with a house on a lake.
Lee has always been fascinated with the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially as her family moved frequently around the Midwest, and wonders if the lady was Rose Wilder Lane. Maybe the pin really is the one mentioned in These Happy Golden Years. She impulsively decides to look into the writings and life of Rose and her mother Laura, and travels from Iowa to Missouri, San Francisco to Connecticut, looking for answers about Rose, and about her own dysfunctional family. She meets a man who may be the (fictional) grandson of Rose. There is much about Vietnamese food, Asian buffets, and the life of a young academic who’s finding her place in the world. Having recently read another well-researched novel about Rose, Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, it was fascinating to read about other parts of Rose’s life and her writings. The author, a Vietnamese immigrant who goes by Beth, is married with two children and has written two other books, but clearly remembers well the uncertainty of life after college, wondering about future careers, family, and home. I’m putting her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on my list of books to read.
On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Chinese American food writer Jen Lin-Liu, founder of a cooking school in Beijing, is looking for her next project. She decides to travel the Silk Road from China to Europe, eating noodles, meeting chefs, and researching the origins of pasta. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China, but both countries have similar noodle dishes. Jen has recently married American writer Craig, and isn’t sure how her desire to travel will affect their marriage, and where they will settle down to live as a couple. Traveling to western China, she asks two chefs from the cooking school to accompany her, and they eat and cook their way west. On the rest of her journey, sometimes her husband accompanies her, and for a while his parents, but the rest of the time she travels alone. Her journey includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. She meets hospitable people almost everywhere, and enjoys many home-cooked meals and access to restaurant chefs and kitchens. A variety of regional foods are vividly described, and a number of recipes are included. While the spices and meats change, many of the dishes are quite similar. Unexpectedly, rice and flat breads replace noodles for a good part of the trip.
As much a memoir as culinary travel narrative, Jen is curious about the role of women in the different countries she visits, and how they mix work, marriage, and raising a family. She learns that even seemingly modern men expect their wives to be very traditional, and that mother-in-laws rule in Central Asia. There is a funny scene when Jen doesn’t take her Western mother-in-law’s good advice, and is sorry the next day. In Iran, Jen and Craig feel uneasy, partly because they are required to have a government sponsored tour guide. After reaching Istanbul, they fly home to Beijing for the winter. Jen returns in the spring to visit Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where Craig joins her for the end of the journey. No questions about the origins of pasta are resolved, but many excellent meals are enjoyed along the way.