Who doesn't like food and love, together or apart? Together, they are magic, and whether it began with Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate, "foodie fiction" is hot. Three new choices are showcased below: all centered on a female character at or near 40, all tending toward the literary rather than strictly romance or chick lit. Each one is a sensual exploration of foods simple and complex, homey and exotic, and above all, slow. Slow food allows time for the invocation of vivid and luxuriant metaphors (a food is said to be something else: a particular feeling, wet autumn leaves, a magnolia petal, a lover's lower lip, the smell of a mahogany desk and so on). Some descriptions are so inventive they verge on outright cross-sensory synesthesia. And be forewarned—each of these novels will make you very, very hungry.
A pinch of humor
Nancy Spiller's Entertaining Disasters is aptly titled. The double entendre captures the plight of the unnamed narrator to a tee. A freelance food writer, she makes it her business, literally, to orchestrate exquisite dinner parties and record every detail for newspaper and magazine articles. Unfortunately, her journalistic output belongs not under "Style" or "Living" or "Food," but firmly under "Fiction." She makes it all up. Why? Because, without exception, every dinner party she has actually sponsored was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. As a result, her social anxieties have escalated into party paralysis. So, for 10 years she has conducted only imaginary gatherings: sparkling dinner parties peopled by an anonymous and utterly fictitious roster of L.A.'s most beautiful.
Until now. Suddenly, her editor, who has no inkling of her secret, invites himself to her next soiree. Since he's a busy man, the first available date is five months off, which gives our narrator nearly half a year to obsess about one dinner party. Her borderline stream-of-consciousness, tangential terror splits into fascinating diversions about food and food history, and ultimately, about herself. Her past gradually emerges, pulled from silence by a smell, a taste, a touch or a memory of a particular ingredient. Now, at midlife, she is ready to examine the list of her own ingredients: who she is and what she wants.
A dash of romance
The central character of The Lost Recipe for Happiness, by Barbara O'Neal, is also starting over. Elena Alvarez arrives in Aspen poised for the professional opportunity of a lifetime: her own kitchen in an upscale, new restaurant. Poised, that is, with a broken body, a broken family and a string of broken relationships behind her. Thirty-seven, unmarried with no children, she is deservedly proud of her decades of slow, hard work up the kitchen ladder from slave to sous to chef.
Elena has been rebuilding her life since she was a teenager, when a horrific accident killed her boyfriend and several family members. Elena alone survived—albeit with horrific injuries—and she remains haunted by her past. So much so, perhaps, that she is in danger of missing a different opportunity: the possibility of true love. The unlikely candidate is Julian Liswood, who is not only a four-time-divorced hotshot film director, but her new boss, as well. The story alternates between third-person viewpoints of these two, and as the intricacies of each is revealed, the plot thickens quicker than a béchamel sauce. A nice touch is the bit of magic realism O'Neal (aka novelist Barbara Samuel) throws into the mix, giving Elena a bit of ghostly guidance and a sixth sense that serves her well.
Mix with friendship
In The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, eight people are brought together in a monthly cooking class with an intuitive and slightly mysterious chef, Lillian. With the exception of one couple, all are strangers to one another and to a certain degree, to themselves. Lillian's slow but startling method of instruction spills over into their inner lives, gently nudging each to explore what needs to be examined. Along the way, of course, they cook. True to Lillian's style, they cook without written recipes, guided by senses, memory and instinct.
Perhaps the most satisfying character study is the glimpse of Lillian's own genesis as a chef, and her earliest attempts in the kitchen. As a damaged child, she begins with little more than sheer will. With patient, methodical, focused experimentation (and a little help from a Wise Woman archetype), she begins what can be described as a journey of faith. Transforming basic ingredients into new works becomes a type of spirituality, a religion. With it, she saves her own mother, finds her own calling and masters her profession. Delicious.
Joanna Brichetto is trying to slow down.