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Category: Books

Give a Girl a Knife by Amy Thielen

Girl a Girl a Knife book cover

Book Review

I have seen several reviews of Amy Thielen’s new cheffy memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, comparing it to last year’s restaurant memoir Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. I find the comparison odd. Other than both of the authors of the memoirs are women who worked in restaurants, I see few other similarities.

Don’t get me wrong, I read and enjoyed Sweetbitter.  But, this memoir described the author’s time in New York as a bar back in a fine dining restaurant which included many boozy nights with coworkers at local bars after the restaurant closed. Give a Girl a Knife describes the time when two twenty-somethings were trying to find the balance between chasing their professional dreams in the city while living a simple, unencumbered rural life.

The book is full of examples of Amy and her boyfriend-then-husband Aaron’s commitment to eschewing material pleasures in order to pursue their art (his sculpture, hers food) while living a necessarily frugal life. Their trajectory bounces them between New York City and rural Minnesota where they take ‘living off the land’ to a new level which would be unimaginable to most of us.

Amy Thielen’s writing is lovely. Let’s be clear, this not a merely memoir of a celebrity chef. I first learned about Amy Thielen was via her short-lived Food Network show Heartland Table. The show came out about the same time as Amy’s cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, which was awarded a James Beard award. Amy’s style of food and writing is down to earth with a touch of wit and charm.

Thielen did her time in some of New York’s finest kitchens. She and Aaron squatted in buildings in New York during many of those years. In the summer, they would pack up and return to rural Minnesota. Where they would plant a large garden at the small home that Aaron built in the woods.

That home initially had no power, no water, and no indoor plumbing. They subsisted primarily on what they could grow in their garden. Thielen preserved what they didn’t eat. In the fall, they packed up and went back to New York to work during the winter. They would earn enough to sustain them through the next summer in Minnesota.

I enjoyed Give a Girl a Knife very much and appreciated their determination to live their dream. It wasn’t easy, their family and friends didn’t always understand, and sometimes Thielen herself had doubts. But, in the end the story is a powerful one of relentlessly pursuing the life you want to live.

Deep Run Roots: Cookbook Review

Deep Run Roots

Fans of the PBS series, A Chef’s Life, will recall Vivian Howard’s story about being a chef in New York City whose parents offered to finance a restaurant if she opened it in their hometown in Eastern North Carolina. So, Vivian and her husband Ben packed up their New York life and moved back to Vivian’s hometown, Deep Run, which Vivian swore she would never return to when she left home.

Watching the show, I fell in love with Vivian’s style of cooking and the relationships that she built with local farmers and experts in southern methods of cooking (holla to Miss Lillie). She focuses on seasonal, local-sourced ingredients at their restaurant, The Chef and the Farmer.

Deep Run Roots

The Cookbook

That commitment is also evident in her cookbook, which is a little meta as she was working on the cookbook in some episodes of the TV show. Vivian’s writing style is true to her personality: funny, warm, and a little bit type A. I love how she laughs loud and often. In both her show and cookbook, her skill as a storyteller and historian of southern food draws me in.

Deep Run Roots is voluminous, coming in at over 550 pages. Each chapter features an ingredient including stories about how that ingredient plays a part in southern cooking, educational tidbits, and many recipes highlighting that ingredient. Vivian’s instructions for each recipe are clearly written and easy to understand. A beautiful photograph of the finished dish accompanies each recipe.

Deep Run Roots

Oysters

I was thrilled when I saw that Deep Run Roots had a chapter on oysters. I love oysters; I mean LOVE them, crazily so. I crave their briny goodness. One episode of A Chef’s Life featured oysters and we were entranced by the party Vivian and her family and friends held in their outdoor pavilion. In this episode, they steamed oysters on a piece of corrugated tin over a fire. I was truly envious. My sweetie and I even scrounged up a piece of corrugated tin with the intention of our own oyster party one day. That day has not come yet but it is good to have goals, right?

While we have not had a backyard bonfire oyster party yet, we have had many oyster parties with our dear friends. We lovingly refer to these get-togethers as Oysterfest. We order several dozen oysters from our local fish shop and get together and the girls drink wine and the boys drink beer and we all devour those oysters like it is our job.

I had picked up a copy of Deep Run Roots just before our most recent Oysterfest (Oysterfest 7 for those of you who are counting) so you know I had to try out a few of the recipes from the cookbook that night.

Deep Run Roots mignonette

Slurping down raw oysters on the half shell almost always includes some type of vinegar-based mignonette sauce. One the recipes in Deep Run Roots was a mignonette sauce which featured a sliver of orange segment and rice vinegar instead of the typical red wine vinegar. I made a batch of this mignonette but subbed out the orange with a blood orange, which was in season. The vibrant red color of the blood orange was spectacular visually, don’t you think?

Based on the instructions in Deep Run Roots, we also steamed a dozen of the oysters that we served on saltine crackers with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of Tabasco. The texture of the oyster changes a bit when steamed and becomes supple and almost creamy. Recommended!

We also tried Vivian’s recipes for Roasted Oysters with Brown Butter Hot Sauce and Bacon. These were delicious but sadly, we made these toward the end of the evening and I wasn’t as clear minded as I was earlier that night.. Thus, there are no photos of the roasted oysters but take my word for it, if you are an oyster lover, you will want to try this recipe.

Sweet corn

The chapter has me drumming my fingers while flipping through the calendar awaiting summer corn. I have bookmarked a few of Vivian’s sweet corn recipes to try when the farm stands start popping up on corners and the farmers markets are in full swing. Two recipes that I am excited to try are Cilantro-Lime Sweet Corn and Raw Corn and Cantaloupe Salad with Red Onion and Roasted Poblano.

The Cilantro-Lime Sweet Corn involves making a compound butter flavored with lime juice, zest, cilantro, and cayenne. Yum, right? Then, you cook the corn kernels in a sauté pan and finish with the compound butter.

The Raw Corn and Cantaloupe Salad with Red Onion and Roasted Poblano sounds so summery but I found it to be such an unusal combination of ingredients. I can see how well the sweet corn and cantaloupe would pair with their sweet juicy flavors. I am intrigued by the bite of red onion and the smokiness of the roasted poblano combined with the sweet ingredients. We will just have to wait until summer to see how these ingredients come together.

Hurry up summer!

 

 

 

 

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton

Book Review | Love Warrior | Glennon Doyle Melton

Love Warrior is a memoir which at its outset feels much like reading someone else’s diary.  The narrative is so intensely personal that it made me feel uncomfortable, as if I were a voyeur peering into Glennon Doyle Melton’s innermost thoughts and feelings. But, just as I was squirming under the weight of her words, I would read a passage that was so perfect and insightful that I would have to stop and read it again. So goes the reading of this Oprah’s Book Club selection.

This is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I have read recently. The first was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which was outstanding. You can read my review of The Underground Railroad here. Both books are well-written and thought-provoking, albeit, in very different ways. In Love Warrior we gain insight into the mind of woman who struggles with bulimia, alcoholism, and insecurities as she makes her way from her teen-aged years to early and middle adulthood.

Glennon Doyle Melton is able to overcome the hurdles of the eating disorder and alcoholism and find happiness in her marriage, children, and successful writing career. But, after a decade or so of marriage her husband drops a bomb on her that sends her plummeting down to rock bottom again. What follows is Melton’s path directly into the pain rather than retreating from it as she had in the past with food and alcohol.

As I mentioned earlier, the raw emotion conveyed in the memoir may be uncomfortable for some who are not used to bearing their souls but I encourage you to get outside your comfort zone. Go for it and read Love Warrior.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

Forgiving past transgressions is hard. Forgiving your own past transgressions can be impossible.  The novel Faithful by Alice Hoffman tells the story of Shelby who is barely living under the weight of her guilt. She walked away from a tragic accident that ruined her best friend’s life. The novel follows Shelby from her dark, reclusive basement-dwelling teenaged years after the accident through her twenties. Shelby’s struggle to create an identity for herself beyond the confines of the accident are painful to observe.

She alienates nearly everyone and everything only letting dogs get close to her physically and emotionally. Shelby is a fairly unlikable character when we first meet her but we get to see glimpses into the woman she is and realize before she does that that she is both capable and worthy of love.

I loved reading this book and found the story and characters engaging. I found myself reflecting about the damaging effects of living with regret and how powerful the ability to forgive yourself is in order to move on.

This is the novel of Alice Hoffman’s that I have read. I know The Marriage of Opposite and The Dovekeepers are also popular novels she has written. Have you read anything by Alice Hoffman? Are you a fan?

Note: I read an Advanced Reader Copy of Faithful but the publication date is set for November 1, 2016. If you are a member of Goodreads (which you should be if you love to read) they are hosting a giveaway of the book until October 12, 2016, You can enter to win it here.

Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

book review small great things by jodi picoult

“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way”

Martin Luther King Jr.

The title of this novel comes from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote which Ruth’s mother says to her the night before she leaves for college.

Ruth is a labor and delivery nurse, and by all accounts, a very good labor and delivery nurse with twenty years of experience. One morning Ruth goes on shift and starts caring for a newborn baby like she has done hundreds if not thousands of times before. But, this baby’s parents, Turk and Brit, are white supremacists and Ruth is African American. The events of the next twenty-four hours will change the lives of Ruth and her son Edison, Turk and Brit, and Kennedy McQuarry, the public defender assigned to represent Ruth.

Each chapter of this novel is told from the perspective of Ruth, Turk, or Kennedy. Through Ruth’s narrative we learn how despite doing everything ‘right’ like getting an education, living in a ‘good’ neighborhood, and being a respectable professional, she is ultimately unable to escape the color of her skin and the stereotyping that people of color face.

Turk and Brit’s perspective made me think about how growing up in an environment of racial prejudice could impact your views of people. If you are told from childhood how important it is to protect the purity of your race and how people not of your race are lesser than you then that must have a profound effect on shaping your thinking.

Finally, from Kennedy we see how even a liberal do-gooder can be oblivious to the white privilege that she benefits from on a daily basis.

I found this novel to be thought-provoking and liked the story unfolding from the varying perspectives of the three main characters. This is the first book by Jodi Picoult that I have read and I liked it well enough that I will definitely add more of her books to my ‘to read’ shelf.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Underground Railroad image

If you are a book lover, you most likely have heard the buzz about The Underground Railroad. The book was originally scheduled to be published in September 2016 but during the summer, Oprah announced that the book would be her pick for the Oprah’s book club (her first pick in a year). The publisher pushed the release date up to August and ordered several additional printings of the book.

This lyrical work of fiction uses a metaphor of an actual physical train to describe the Underground Railroad with train cars, rails and tunnels. The term Underground Railroad was used as far back as 1840s to describe the network of black and white individuals who helped slaves escape captivity in the south.

The novel tells Cora’s story, a teen-age girl enslaved on a Georgia plantation. Her grandmother died in those fields picking cotton and her mother Mabel escaped from the plantation when Cora was 10. When Cora is 16, or maybe 17, she doesn’t know for sure, another slave, Caesar, suggests to Cora that they run away from the plantation.  Their escape via the Underground Railroad begins a liberating, terrifying, and sometimes brutal journey north toward freedom.

Cora first arrives in South Carolina where she finds domestic work for a white family. Running is dangerous but staying put has its own share of perils so Cora moves on with stops in North Carolina, Indiana and Tennessee. These perils include cramped, unsafe living quarters, bounties offered for the return of escaped slaves, beatings, and public lynching.

Cora is pursued mercilessly by slave catcher Ridgeway who has a chip on his shoulder because he failed to capture Mabel and return her to the plantation when she escaped years before. Ridgeway’s maniacal obsession with capturing Cora and returning her to the Randall Plantation shadows over Cora every step of the way.

Cora is a fierce woman. Whether she is protecting her garden plot or fighting off attackers Cora’s toughness is present throughout the story. It’s inspirational. She is a character that I won’t soon forget. I would highly recommend that you read this book. It’s important. The struggles and atrocities experienced by African Americans that are described in the book are still relevant today.

But in addition to the topic being important the writing is terrific. Whitehead is a wonderful storyteller. You should consider picking up a few extra copies to give as gifts to your literary minded friends and family too. President Obama has The Underground Railroad on his summer reading list too.

New York Times book review

A different take on the underground railroad in this New Yorker article

Colson Whitehead’s website

 

Book Review: The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni

Lightkeepers Pin

In this novel, Abby Geni tells the story of Miranda, a nature photographer, who has been granted yearlong residency on the wild and isolated Farallon Islands which are located thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. The only other human inhabitants on the islands are the few biologists who live and work on the archipelago. The Farallon Islands are home to over 400 species of seabirds including puffins and cormorants.  The resident biologists also study the seals, sea lions, great white sharks and humpback whales which congregate on or pass by the Farallons.

Miranda initially finds herself socially and emotionally isolated from the six biologists.  The isolation is a feat given the fact that they live in close physical proximity to one another while sharing the one habitable cabin on the islands. In fact, the biologists mistakenly call her Melissa instead of Miranda during her stay on the island and she never corrects them. Through a series of letters to her deceased mother, we learn of Miranda’s past and how her mother’s untimely death twenty years earlier when Miranda was 14 has affected her relationship with her father. We learn that her adult life has been spent traveling and photographing the world; a satisfying albeit solitary existence.

The writing is sparse and dramatic which matches both the landscape of the islands and the unfolding events of her time with the biologists. This novel was not at all what I expected. I was drawn to the novel because of my interest in nature photography but enjoyed learning much about the wildlife that the biologists were studying. This isn’t your typical summer reading beach read though.

You will quickly realize that there is more going on than meets the eye. Foreshadowing kept me on edge as this thriller progressed. I found myself thinking that I knew what was coming as the mystery unfolded but I was kept enough off-kilter that I was compelled to keep reading. I thought the writing was beautiful and the story engaging. I recommend that you add this book to your reading list.

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