The Seasons on Henry’s Farm by Terra Brockman
If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like on a family farm, Terra Brockman’s book will give you a good idea. The Brockman family has farmed in central Illinois for most of the time since the 1880s. The fifth generation of Brockmans is growing up, helping on two of the extended family’s three sustainable farms. Terra lived in New York City and Japan for many years, but finally came back to write, and to work on brother Henry’s sustainable vegetable farm, among other pursuits. The days are long, but no one seems to work longer hours than Henry himself. His Japanese wife and three children, a longtime farmhand, a couple of apprentices and extended family plant, grow, harvest, and sell just about every vegetable imaginable. They use plastic hoop houses to extend the growing season, and Henry intensively tracks which varieties do best in which fields and what sells best. I enjoy shopping at farmer’s markets, and I wondered what happens to the leftover produce. Imperfect vegetables and fruit and leftovers go to feed the farmers, with much of it frozen for the winter. Although Henry’s detailed analysis of crops and sales probably doesn’t make for too many leftovers. I liked the arrangement of the book, starting with November, when garlic is planted by the thousands of cloves and moving through the months of the year until the end of harvest in late October. Terra won’t scare you away from farming or intensive gardening, but you will get a good sense of what it’s like to work in the intense cold or heat, and what the long hours feel like when you’re middle-aged. The children and animals on Henry’s farm provide some lighter moments, including Lucky Tom the turkey. More moving passages describe the declining health of Henry and Terra’s father and grandfather, and their father’s surgery and aftermath. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the farms at different seasons and times of day, learning about the politics of plastic bags and farmer’s markets, and especially the simple recipes and photos throughout the book.
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.