READERS' FEAST

  • Article by: KATHE CONNAIR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2009 - 2:45 PM

Novels and memoirs with food memories and recipes have become all the rage. Here are four recent ones that serve up good stories, with lots of tasty details.

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Melucci

Ever since Nora Ephron whipped her emotions into mashed potatoes in "Heartburn" and Laura Esquivel's Tita let her passions boil over in "Like Water for Chocolate," food has been a centerpiece of countless memoirs and novels. Here are a few of the most recent:

I LOVED, I LOST, I MADE SPAGHETTI

Grand Central, 288 pages, $23.99

Giulia Melucci revisits her dating history in terms of the food she prepared. A jack of all trades in the New York publishing world, Melucci is a whiz at making a feast from humble ingredients, and she generously shares recipes for everything from her father's minestrone to "spaghettini in a white truffle oil peignoir." She's less successful at turning the authors, editors and television producers she dates into marriage material. Despite the disappointments, she maintains a sense of humor (sometimes hilariously bitter), as displayed in the directions for "[Expletive]-You Cakes": "Do not overmix, as this will make for tough cupcakes and you've suffered enough."

Eventually, she accepts that living alone is no reason to forgo cooking delicious food. Her "Spaghetti With Arugula and Pine Nuts" serves one, but she adds: "If you want to double this recipe and make it for a boyfriend, that's your problem."

Readers (single or otherwise) have another option: Quadruple the ingredients, invite friends over and offer a toast to a writer who knows the way to her own heart.

HOW TO COOK A DRAGON

Seal Press, 256 pages, $16.95

Where Melucci's tale is effortlessly engaging, Linda Furiya delves more deeply in her story. A Japanese-American, she grew up in Indiana and was beginning to feel a part of San Francisco's Asian communities. Then she decided to test her romantic future with an old friend by following him to China. For anyone, this course of action might be unwise, but Furiya's struggle to find and assert her identity was complicated by culture shock.

People mistook her for a native, but it was her white boyfriend, Eric, who was fluent in Mandarin. She felt resentful of his work, uneasy around his housekeeper, fearful of the teeming city streets and uncertain about her ability to find work.

In short, her move was not easy. Nor is the book. The recipes that follow each chapter seem as forced as Furiya's attempts to prove that what she and Eric shared was love and not co-dependence.

Still, anyone who's ever felt in the wrong place at the wrong time can admire Furiya's fortitude and efforts to not let misfortune keep her from appreciating unfamiliar surroundings.

ENTERTAINING DISASTERS

Counterpoint, 296 pages, $14.95

The unnamed protagonist in Nancy Spiller's debut novel is petrified of even the familiar. A magazine writer who enthralls readers with tales of her fabulous parties, she hasn't actually invited anyone to dinner for at least a decade.

Then a high-rolling magazine editor insists on being invited to her next soiree.

Spiller deftly reveals the family background (not just broken, but stomped on and disintegrated) that keeps the writer wavering between rising above and giving in to her phobias. She has diagnosed her condition as "adult onset obsessive dinner disorder ... my inability to breach the impossible distance between myself and the people I love. That's why I feel most at home and least at ease entertaining strangers at my table." But the whole thing comes off like a failed soufflé, with a light surface weighted down by dysfunction. The recipes also veer from the indulgent (Extreme Unction Raspberry-Glazed Cheesecake) to the vengeful (Zero Population Coleslaw).

THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

Putnam, 256 pages, $24.95

By contrast, Erica Bauermeister's first novel is as light as meringue, and sweet to the point of cloying. Lillian is a chef who's decided to make the most of her restaurant's slow Monday nights by offering cooking classes. Each chapter gives us a glimpse of another student, drawn to her nurturing environment by curiosity or nostalgia or a need for connection.

We learn about Lillian, too, about how she began cooking as a way to draw out her introverted mother.

In each chapter, the class learns to prepare a dish, and to indulge their senses. They start with honesty, killing fresh crabs themselves and roasting the spice-infused meat. Balance follows as they make a cake that weds air and structure, much as a long-married couple must allow space for individuality within their relationship. The steps of these lessons are given, but not the ingredient proportions -- a disappointment for those hoping to replicate the mouthwatering offerings. But the poetry of the writing is satisfaction enough.

Kathe Connair is a Features copy editor.

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