In Winter’s Kitchen

In Winter's Kitchen

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. It’s like listening to podcasts or audiobooks, reading nonfiction puts me to sleep. I blame all the articles and books I had to read in my masters and doctoral programs. Nonfiction is like I’m making myself take a class in something that I also have to teach myself and sometimes I’m tempted to highlight what I’m reading but I CAN’T IT’S A LIBRARY BOOK AMANDA GET IT TOGETHER.

If I’m being honest with you I bought this book thinking it was fiction. I am a sucker for a book with food at the center. One of my favorite books from the first year of this blog was Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. He blurbed In Winter’s Kitchen, so I didn’t ask questions, I just bought it. Let me be very clear that I have no regrets.

Beth Dooley begins her local food/memoir tome by describing the first Thanksgiving that she hosted for her family away from their traditional New Jersey home. She attempts to make the meal only from the ingredients that she obtains from either the local farmer’s market or local farmers and makes a total mess of things. The bird is too small and dried out, the potatoes aren’t quite right for the sweet potato dish, and she uses this intial food illiteracy to launch into a series of chapters that focus on individual parts of the meal: potatoes, wild rice, turkeys, apples. Each chapter introduces us to a food source and shows us the reality of being a local or organic farmer in that industry.

You’ll make cheese by hand, harvest wild rice with beaters, and slaughter turkeys in a schoolyard. I was shocked at how many different kinds of apples there are as well as how many there used to be, and it being one of my favorite fruits meant that I wanted to immediately fly to Minnesota and demand 5 kinds I’ve never had before. I was most surprised by the corn chapter. Even though I knew how plants are pollinated and grown, I hadn’t had the time to consider how a GMO field’s pollen would be blown far enough to infect and alter the organic crops grown by locals, which means they would no longer be able to label their produce organic through no fault of their own.

As I moved through this book I felt my poor self competing with my progressive self. I appreciate the need for local and organic farming. There is nothing better than an excellent farmer’s market or driving to a local orchard or dairy farm to get your food. You feel connected to your community and often the food just tastes better. I hate that here in Florida there isn’t a decent farmer’s market to go to.

But then the reality that there are BILLIONS of people in this world to feed and that the US provides pretty large percentages of the world’s food supply in certain areas reminds me that large scale farming and creating crops that are resistant to pests is so important to making sure that people have enough to eat. In addition to quantity, we also want to make that food affordable, and buying small scale from local growers is not necessarily cost effective.

The question I kept coming back to while I was reading, and keep coming back to whenever this conversation comes up, is is a balance possible? Can we find a way to separate large scale growing and local production while maintaining soil and environmental health and sustainability? The only answers I could find included a shift in the Farm Bill that provides funding to farmers to support the shift to organic, and increased regulation in zoning commercial farms to avoid cross-pollination with local and organic crops. But I would like you to think about the likelihood of either of those things passing within our current political reality and then think about whether we’ll have a solution soon.

Recently a climate change report was released by the United Nations that outlines a dire future if we don’t get things under control in the next ten years, but the people who run the American government refuse to believe in climate change and continue to fund and encourage the expansion of the fossil fuel industries because they are able to line their pockets in return. If we can’t manage to make big changes to save our existence on a large scale, how are we going to prioritize sustainability on a small scale here at home? Anyone with the power to make any kind of change just turns away and laughs all the way to the bank.

Sorry, that got bleak there for a second, but the concern and question is ever present in this book. Woven among the concern is the warm comfort of good food and home cooked meals. Families passing down knowledge from generation to generation to create a tradition of raising food and sharing that tradition with their communities, to the point that they become a linchpin in the local economy. That closeness of family and tradition warmed my cold, angry heart and made me wish I had those kinds of traditions for myself. My kingdom for a decent farmer’s market!

Dooley brings it all back together at the end with another Thanksgiving dinner, but a more successful one now that she has obtained all the knowledge necessary to handle these local offerings with care. You can almost smell the chestnut stuffing, taste the cranberry jelly, and see the marshmallows melting over the sweet potatoes. Her preparation of the meal seems less stressed and harried than how she opened the book, and pleasure is laid over all her efforts.

This was an enjoyable, delicious, and informative read. If you like to read about food take my advice and seek this book out. If I enjoyed it and made it all the way through, you can too. Go get you some.

The Satanic Mechanic (Tannie Maria #2)

Satanic Mechanic

What an amazing surprise these books have been. To think that if I hadn’t just wandered into my library to pick out some books based on sight and instinct I would have never come across these delightful novels.

In the second installment of Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria Mystery series, Maria is getting closer to the police detective Henk after her kidnapping in the last book, but her abusive (dead) husband comes back to haunt her (figuratively) in the form of intimacy PTSD. Her friends and Henk encourage her to seek counseling. The first person she sees suggests she go on a diet (I will have some words about this in my next podcast as well as an essay coming in the future about the humanity of fat people) but then her friends say that’s bullshit (hooray!) and suggest a support group led by a former satanist from Hotezel (“Hot-as-hell”) and when she goes she finds safety, support, and murder.

There are two murders in this book, and they link together in an interesting way. What I found most enjoyable about this book was the support offered to Tannie Maria, almost to the point where I felt like I was reading a fantasy book instead of a murder mystery. No one judged her for her mental struggles? Everyone was so supportive? At one point I cried a little because reading this book, at times, made me feel like I was wrapped in a warm blanket eating chocolate frosted choco-coffee cake with everyone telling me that everything was going to be okay and that I am loved. That I am fine the way I am and that I have things to offer the world. Tannie Maria is so loved, and it was a joy to read a book where a woman is so encouraged and supported.

I have also never thought about traveling to South Africa, but now I want to see the sights, hear the language, taste the food, and hear the wildlife. Andrew’s descriptions are so vivid that you will see the kudu, hear her chickens in the yard, smell the citrus dessert as Maria pulls it out of the oven. The scenery, the sunrises, the culture…South Africa sounds amazing.

I wish that I knew about these books when they came out so that I could be as excited for them as I am for the third book that is on its way. Ms. Andrew Tweeted at me that she is about 80,000 words into a draft and I could not be more delighted. That’s an advanced reader copy that I would love to have and review ahead of its release. *fingers crossed*

If you are a busy woman who handles 95% of your world and deep inside knows she is taken for granted, that wishes she had more time to hang with friends or pursue her passions, please go get these books. Live vicariously and deliciously through Maria and dream of a time when you might whip up a four course meal in an afternoon while smartly sniffing out murderous intentions and making love deep into a South African night. These books are both a fun romp and a soothing balm for the female soul. Go get you some.

Recipes for Love and Murder

recipe for love and murder

There is a soft spot in my heart for books that also serve as cookbooks. In Recipes for Love and Murder, we see the story through the eyes of Tannie (Aunt) Maria, an older lady in the Klein Karoo area of South Africa who is an amazing cook and writes a cooking and recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. But one day her editor, Hattie, has to let her know that the powers that be have demanded an advice column, and Tannie Maria’s column is to be cut to make room. Maria counters by saying she will write the advice column, and add food to go with her advice. A true cook’s negotiation, blending the ingredients to make something new. It is this advice column that brings our titular murder to her doorstep, and it is here that our story gets very good.

Is the murderer the abusive husband? The girl-friend who has recently declared her love? The company trying to buy up land for fracking? Our story takes us on an amateur’s sleuthing mission to try to get to the bottom of who would kill this lovely woman only trying to escape her abusive husband. The answer will surprise you.

There are so many awesome things about this book. Sally Andrew’s writing is so descriptive that you will swear that you can smell the food and hear the chickens clucking in the yard. The South African language and slang was so fun to learn, and there is a glossary at the back along with the recipes for the foods mentioned in order to help you acclimate yourself. I am also a sucker for older characters, especially older women, because in our culture older women become invisible and I love to see one brought into the spotlight to have adventures and find love. Her back and forth with the police detective is 100% cute 10/13 would cute again. The story is believable and, honestly, kind of scary at times. It’s a book that truly brings all of your senses together for a full experience. I am so glad I discovered this book, and you should too!

Now, I did want to mention that I would not have found this book if not for just going into my local library and deciding to browse the New Releases shelf, choosing books by their covers. I picked up a book called The Satanic Mechanic, not realizing that it was a book 2, which caused me to order up this first book from the handy dandy holds list. So now that I’ve devoured book 1, it’s on to book 2. 🙂 I’m sure it will be as enjoyable as the first.

Satanic Mechanic

The Secret Ingredient of Wishes

wishesI am a wicked sucker for stories about people who just leave everything they know and start fresh someplace else. One of my favorite books, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God is about a woman whose husband dies, and she takes the life insurance money and sells her house and goes to grieve someplace away  from all the old memories and finds new friends and a new life in the process. I absolutely love stories like this, probably because it makes me dream about what it would be like to do something like that myself. To have that kind of financial freedom and safety to go on that kind of a soul-searching adventure.

Rachel is what we might call a witch, but with very specific magical powers. She can grant wishes. If someone wishes for something close enough to her, a small piece of paper will appear nearby and if she reads it and even thinks the wish, it will be granted. When she’s young without understanding how her ability works, she wishes her brother would “get lost” when he destroys her Lego castle – and he does. No one remembers he existed and she is sent to therapy and the psych ward at the local hospital for being so insistent that he did exist. She experiences very negative consequences at a very young age, and so develops the belief that her ability is dangerous and tries to squelch it.

After a long time without seeing any papers, she accidentally grants the wish of her best friend’s daughter on her birthday, Rachel decides that she would rather leave than hurt anyone she cares about, and ends up in the magical town of Nowhere. Her car suddenly runs out of gas and she is taken in by Catch, a local piemaker who has magical gifts of her own. She takes Catch up on her offer of staying in the attic, beginning a months long stay which will change her life and the lives of the people in that town forever.

This book had everything I love: redemption, discovery, hot make-out sessions, friendship, forgiveness, in-depth pie smell descriptions, new beginnings, and above all understanding and acceptance for who a person is. The kind of relief that comes from someone loving you for who you are, being able to be yourself without hiding or holding back, that’s relief that touches deep in the soul. I love reading a story that shows me that this kind of love or friendship might be possible. It’s like watching a flower unfurl, feeling safe to open up toward the sunshine.

I loved this book, and to be honest I was reading it at a time when I needed to see these things happening for someone, even if it was in a fiction novel. If you need redemption, if you need hope that you can start anew, if you need to believe that wishes can come true, pick up Susan Crispell’s The Secret Ingredient of Wishes. You will not be disappointed.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Cover Kitchens of the Great MidwestThere are books that I read and remember. There are books I read and forget. But occasionally I read a book that I love so much that I feel like I need to own it, and then lend it out to all my friends so that they can see how amazing it is.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest was and is one of those books. By the time it ended I didn’t want it to end and I wanted to sign up for Eva’s famous dinner and would be willing to wait just for the tiniest chance of meeting her. This desire is planted, grown, and nurtured through a book that is only briefly told through her own eyes. Her presence is felt through the kitchens of the midwest and we see her through the eyes of those that love her, know her, and in some cases are strangers to her. In the chapter “Bars” you will find yourself seeking her out while still enraptured in the story, and you only really see her for one sentence.

The subtlety of this book is one of its best attributes. The author doesn’t smash the idea of a girl rising from tragedy into success over your head, and you will be so thankful for it. Tragedy is also presented in very quick, yet meaningful ways, and as you move through this incredible journey you see Eva as a celestial body, pulling the good souls out of their own darkness into her path to success, happiness, and acceptance. Her movement through the world seems to also separate the wheat from the chaff, and you will feel so satisfied when Eva’s enemies get NOTHING (or the something they deserve).

I was surprised how J. Ryan Stradal had me feeling things before I realized I was feeling things. When I read books it’s like I’m programmed to predict what is coming next, but Stradal provided me with a book that was refreshingly unpredictable but not unsettlingly so. When I reached a point where a few things came together my psyche just said “Of course! That’s perfect! I’m so happy!” You’ll feel so many emotions moving through this book, some positive, some negative, but all satisfying. The ending of the book resonated especially with me, but you may form your own opinions as the experience may not be your own or something you grapple with. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.

This book also reminded me how much I love books that take the trouble to include recipes. It engaged my senses so that I could taste the french onion soup, feel the oily peanut butter bars, and develop a healthy fear of spicy pepper oil. I was so sad that I had to return the book before I thought of writing down the recipes, but luckily Minnesota Public Radio did an article on the book and included them here.

Please take a journey with J. Ryan Stradal through the American Midwest through this character-driven, sensory wonderland. You will be glad you did.