I don’t remember the last time I sat down and read a multi-generational family novel. So after reading about this book in Alimentum, a food and literature journal, I had a reader’s craving.
Laura Kalpakian’s American Cookery is a contemporary novel with a timeless quality that draws you in. Over the course of 432 pages, the main character Eden feels like a close relative that you at once admire and wish to wring her neck. If you’re homesick, or perhaps grew up in a world centered around strong flavors and even stronger women, this is a story you’ll relate to. Prepare for this as you would a family holiday, knowing there will be plenty of annoyances, but overall a hearty meal with a bitter sweet ending.
It’s 1926 and Eden Douglas is growing up surrounded by her Mormon family in a California railroad town. She’s a young girl with a penchant for singing her mother’s favorite dirty songs in school, and a knack for scrounging couch change to buy her family dinner from enterprising neighbors. Her mother, Kitty, is a harmless, but lethargic woman who exists mostly in a fictional world starring herself. Her father, Gideon, lives for his personal projects, the polar opposite of his spirited, capable mother and sisters. It’s clear right away that Eden is a do-er, a lone wolf in her immediate family.
As a teen, Eden’s family heads for false fortunes in a dusty town in Northern Idaho. It’s here that her childhood movie star heroes are replaced by real heroes, women writers who travel the world. She takes what she sees is the first step towards this dream and gets a job typing obituaries for the local paper. Meanwhile, her unhappily married father takes up a new geneology project and devotes himself further to his religion. He –
felt like a man stranded in his own life.
Finding little to hold on to in her new town, Eden invokes what the Douglas women are well known for (in addition to their cooking skills), their “get up and go”. Having big dreams outside the home makes her reluctant to cook because she sees the skill as a shackle to the kitchen, not a means to independence. She resents when the duty of cooking for her siblings and parents falls to her. It’s a battle of useful knowledge versus splendid dreams. And since Eden did not write down the recipes of her childhood, she has only her senses and instincts to guide her.
To write down a recipe is to attempt the impossible: To revel in the pleasures of the season or the moment, and then pick up the pen and preserve that moment for some other reason.
We stay with Eden as she joins The Women’s Army Corps, becoming one of the first women in combat. It’s in London, having dinner with a charmer while bombs go off around them, that she tastes her first apple tarte tatin. A month later the restaurant is bombed, but the memory and its recipe will live on through Eden, along with the other stunning meals gathered throughout her years.
Every chapter ends with a recipe and a snapshot of one of the characters or notions. The recipes are written in prose, like a story. Some include a brief history, others the creator’s voice and odd notes. There’s one snapshot called ‘The Constructs’ about how love is enough to give “reason to go on”. Not that Eden is particularly lucky in love, which brings me to where my love for this book waned.
The first half is a joy because it’s about Eden making her way in the world during a time when most woman relied on a man for security. She loves her family while rejecting her father’s Mormonism and her mothers life-by-daydreaming approach. I wanted to savor the whole story, but soon found myself judging her choices because they conflicted with the strong, spirited character I liked so much. During the last half, I felt like I’d wandered off to a chick lit horror where the heroine marries a cheating dud and vowels to make it work for her family, sacrificing her own happiness and dreams. “Noooooooo”
It’s funny how quickly a great read becomes a struggle when the story steers where you don’t want it to go. DO NOT SKIP THE EPILOGUE. It completes the whole journey. In fact, I’m not sure why it wasn’t the last chapter. The epilogue soothed my urge to unfriend Eden. Overall, I’m glad I read this book. Many of the chapters made me want to roll up my sleeves and cook my own weird version of grandma’s goulash. A book that can do that stays with you long after the annoying bits fade from memory.