Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats by Jane Brocket

Question: What makes a good book even better?
Answer: Good food to go along with the story!

Question: What makes good food taste even better?
Answer: A good story to go along with it!

So what happens when you find out that there exists a book about the food of your childhood stories? If you’re me, you go slightly bonkers! You feel like an energizer bunny—with enough enthusiasm to bounce right off the walls! You fervently plead with your Inter Library Loan Services to please, please, please locate the book! You cannot decide whether you should read the whole thing in one go or should take breaks in between to test out all the delicious sounding food!

cherry cake and ginger beer jane brocketIn case you missed all those exclamation points—this book hit my sweet spots in the sweetest of ways!

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats is a journey through the literary food worlds of Enid Blyton, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Noel Streatfeild, Susan Coolidge, and other favorites of children the world over. It discusses, dissects and most important of all GIVES RECIPES for the best macaroons, and jam tarts, and currant buns, and apple cakes that one has only ever read about so far! It invokes in the mind’s eye rolling countryside, and in the ear’s drums insects buzzing and the quietness of a warm summer afternoon. I could easily say for this book what Jane Brocket says for Enid Blyton’s The Circus of Adventure:

As I read, I am transported to a cosy, homely kitchen table with pots of geraniums on the window sill, a red-and white-checked tablecloth, a warm oven and a smiling hostess. I picture this beautiful still-life of food, colors, shapes and textures, and can feel myself getting hungry.

There’s food for elevenses, and food for tea-time. There’s aromatic baked delicacies and sturdy comfort food. There’s food (lots of it!) that I want to make RIGHT THIS MOMENT and food that makes me scratch my head (I give you Sugar on Snow from The Little House in Prairie books that is apparently maple syrup on fresh snow—yeah, fresh snow falling down from the skies). There’s also an ode to fruit cake:

It comes in slabs, slices, hunks, and chunks. It is found in knapsacks, bicycle baskets, wicker baskets, hampers, tuck boxes. It is served at match teas, nursery teas, afternoon teas and high teas. It is dense, moist and perfectly portable. It goes with cocoa, lemonade, ginger beer, jam tarts, ripe plums, golden apples, and potted meat sandwiches. It is, of course, good, old-fashioned, reliable fruit cake and it pops up everywhere in children’s fiction. . . . It’s the workhorse of the tea table or picnic, the solid, filling cake that never lets you down.

Chalet School Apple Cake

My Chalet School Apple Cake as laid out in Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

This book mixes the joy of the many, many summer vacations that I spent tucked in a corner reading away with the very adult discovery of my love for food and cooking. It made me recall how much Fatty (from the Five Find Outers and Dog) loves macaroons and what a gourmand Snubby of the Roger, Diana, Barney, and Loony the dog gang is. It made me remember that I too “happily read all the German food references [in the Chalet School series] without understanding a word, and that this never once bothered me.” Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer made the stories of my childhood come alive in an all together new way.

I loved this book. However, it might not suit everyone’s palate. Brocket does nothing to balance the stereotypes encountered in the stories she talks about and if anything invokes a slight nobody-bakes-nourishing-treats-at-eleven-in-the-morning-anymore tone through the book. Which, as I said, might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I really do believe in what Alana Chernila says in The Homemade Kitchen: “Enjoyment might just be a nutrient in itself—in fact, it might be the most important one of all.” This book was pure enjoyment for me. If you love food, or any of the authors that are covered in this book, you have to give it a try!

Burned and Books that Cook: The Making Of A Literary Meal

Here’s a quick rundown of where I’ve been reading wise!

Burned by Karen Marie Moning

Ugh. Avoid. I’d read the first five books in the Fever series feverishly (clever! not.) And had thought that that would be the last I would see of Mac and Barrons and the sidhe-seers and the uglies (I mean the Unseelies of course) and the pretties (also known as the Seelies).

Turns out I was wrong. Miss Moning released a sixth book in 2012. Only it wasn’t really a sixth book. It was purported to be the first book in a trilogy set in the same world but following the travails and triumphs of Dani Mega O’Malley, a precious 14 year old who was one of the major characters in the series.

Fair enough.

I like Dani’s voice and enjoy the first book in the trilogy.

Only it wasn’t the first in a trilogy. No siree. Miss Moning backtracks and pronounces that Iced was actually the sixth in the series and a continuation of the first five. Ugh, what? I was left feeling slightly distrustful but mostly confident in KMM’s ability to tell a good story.

Or not.

Because the seventh in the series (!!) which was released this past January on the 20th of the month was a Disaster (yes, with a capital D).

Where do I begin?

First there’s the whining. Yes, Mac, the girl who’s become a woman through the first five books whines. Now, I don’t think that being a woman means that you’re done with insecurities forever but dear god, Mac’s moanings (see how clever I am being today?) makes her downright unbearable and BORING. Yes, dear reader so bored was I that I skipped large swathes of the book (majority of which were Mac’s inner chatterings) and finished the behemoth of the book (it was 500 pages plus) within four hours.

Then there’s Barrons and his nine whatever they are. I’ve already documented my love for Alpha Heroes but this was just Too Much Testosterone! And not necessarily in a way that appeals. The problem with getting into the details of Barrons and his entourage is that all of them come across as carbon copies of each other. I would rather have some mystery associated with them than have them become boring in their details.

The biggest infraction, however, is the short shrift that Dani’s character is given. The only way KMM can redeem herself is if in the next book she can explain why Dani’s character was developed the way it was.

There’s just too much going on and not in a way that adds up to any coherent whole. Maybe KMM’s setting it up for the next two books but that’s no excuse for such sloppy storytelling! The world that’s been created in the series is compelling and is what might persuade me to read the next installment. We’ll see.

Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal
Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black, Melissa Goldthwaite, Marion Nestle

So I love food. And it has dawned on me that perhaps there is literature to be explored that celebrates food and explores food and discusses food.

Books that Cook was one of my first forays into this territory. Unfortunately because of its structure (it’s a collection of pieces, excerpted both from fiction and non-fiction, that focuses on food) I never got around to reading it in one sitting and was half-way through before I realized that I most likely would not finish it anytime soon and returned it to the library.

The bits that I did read I enjoyed quite a lot.

There’s what I call the talkative recipes from the 18th and the 19th centuries. No, the recipes themselves don’t become little monsters and start whispering in your ear while you’re stirring the ladle in what constitutes for the modern cauldron. It’s the way the recipes are written—preceded by exhortations to be an economical housewife and the admonition to learn the practical art of cooking which would mean a steady source of income at the very least that I found quite entertaining.

Then there was a piece about mushrooms which was quite lovely. It was a piece of non-fiction in which the author alternates between the mushrooms and his own doomed relationships. As he narrates his love for the edible fungus, alternating it with his account of a phobia of commitment and his discovery that he prefers the company of men to women, following his father’s death, the reader cannot help but feel the solace that the author derives from the image of life blooming into fullness amidst rot and waste. I loved how the writing was imbued with this sense of confluence, of the feeling that surely there would be a point of convergence between his two loves.

It’s a book that I’ll most likely be checking out again.

A Fantasy, A Regency, and A Historical or Madames Elliott & Heyer and Monsieur Lawrence Norfolk

Yes people I’ve been reading. So without further ado—does anyone have a replacement for this phrase? Hosts introducing moderators, and moderators introducing the panel “without further ado” left, right and center in the World Science Festival has left me feeling a bit exhausted with this phrase—here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been upto reading-wise.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

Oh how MUCH I love this one! It’s big, it’s complex, it’s meaty, it features two kick-ass heroines whose relationship forms the heart of the series and it also explores issues of free will.

I loved the romance that was explored in the series—I love how it’s allowed to simmer so that when things really come to a head between the two protagonists it feels so authentic, like a natural-next step for its two main leads. Then there’s the theme of ownership that was woven all the way through to the end of the story (with a plot twist that I hadn’t foreseen and that made me realize how I really SHOULD NOT jump to conclusions about others’ actions because I really DO NOT know the heart of their stories). I also really liked how one of the two main female characters was so kick-ass happy WITHOUT a strong, big hero in the offing. And I really liked how the ambiguous note that the series ends on politically reflects the one step forward, two steps backwards nature of sustainable, long-term changes in the real world (feudalism/capitalism/democracy/benevolent dictatorship and their ramifications are all discussed through the length of the story arc). And there’s a parallel Caribbean too! Oh just go get your hands on Cold Magic, the first in the series!

On Fantasy

So I went to the Fantasy panel with Deborah Harkness and Lev Grossman at BookCon on May 31. The thing that I like about both these authors is that their works straddle the real and the fantastical. Their magic skids along the edges of the world as we know it. And that apparently is, exactly the reason, why they write the sort of books that they do (rather than straight out fantasies like George R. Martin or Brandon Sanderson).

Grossman said that to him it’s not about the magic. He’s more interested in exploring how you live your life, and what you do with it, when you could conceivably have everything that you want at your finger-tips. For Deborah Harkness, magic is just another skill like being innately smart at studies or good at singing. In each case, how you feel about yourself as a person and your sense of self-worth is not a function of the skill you posses but more about what you think of and feel about yourself.

It was interesting to see some of my own thoughts about fantasy being reflected back to me by these two authors whose books I’ve enjoyed so much!

Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep

I really really enjoyed Black Sheep. I am NOT a fan of the rake to perfect husband trope and didn’t like Venetia, and These Old Shades, two other Heyer romances featuring a rake as a hero. The other two felt over-the-top to me whereas Black Sheep hit the sweet spot with both Miles and Abigail. This time around it also struck me that dialogue is Heyer’s tool of choice for fleshing out her characters. There are pages and pages of conversation between her characters with only a few words spared for the setting or descriptions of any sort.

I think that along with The Unknown Ajax Black Sheep has become one of my favourite Heyers. And now that I think of it both Miles and Hugh Daracott (the hero of The Unknown Ajax) are cut out of the same cloth.

Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast

If you love food and words, go grab the book! The setting is mid-17th century England. The plot is okayish. Indeed, the use of Christian zealot-ism as an integral part of the storyline is tedious. The characters are also nothing spectacular but they serve the purpose—the purpose being to devour the food–words that are dished up through the course of the story! The FOOD! Oh my! The description of the implements of cooking, the depth and breadth of the spices, the process of the ingredients being mixed up to serve utterly sumptuous feasts, the “recipe” that introduces each chapter, ALL of it had me salivating for more! The words are ornate, at times archaic (and I was really glad that I read this one on my iPad which made looking up the meaning easy), but always luxurious, especially the ones that have anything at all to do with food. The scenes that do feature food (and thankfully, there are a LOT of them as this is a story about a 17th century cook) are truly evocative. If you love cooking or eating, or perhaps enjoy both like me, then this is a book that you shouldn’t miss out on!