You’ve heard of armchair travelers? Many of us are armchair diners, enjoying familiar fare, faraway tastes, haute cuisine, and truckstop eats without venturing outside our homes — or even into our kitchens. Food-focused writing transcends genre.
Whether you enjoy mysteries, histories, romances, memoirs, or a combination thereof, you’ll find something to feed your interests at the upcoming (March 4-5) Tucson Festival of Books. From tales of make-do meals in prison to stories of dining at the White House, all have riveting narratives in common.
We’ll cover the cookbook authors appearing on the festival’s Culinary stage next week. The following is a roundup of books in which food plays an important role, but that won’t necessarily send you to your stove (though several include recipes).
Though California Soul is a powerful page-turner, it’s not always an easy read, tracing in unsparing detail the author’s struggle with drugs, gangs, and prison against a backdrop of institutional racism. Corbin ultimately becomes a co-owner and head chef at Alta, an award-winning soul food restaurant in L.A., but you won’t find a comfortable redemption narrative here; you’re left with hope but no guarantee that Corbin will succeed in vanquishing his demons. You will nevertheless be rooting for “Keith,” who might have been a school-loving nerd had the odds not been stacked against him, to win out over his alter-ego “Fresh,” the violent and street-smart boy-man who started cooking crack at age 13. From his grandmother’s generosity in feeding the neighborhood kids in Watts to his introduction to Whole Foods and the world of celebrity chefs, Corbin offers a unique perspective on an American dining landscape that many of us take for granted.
That Mia Mansala heartily embraces the cuisine of her Filipina heritage is clear from the titles of her cozy mysteries: Arsenic and Adobo, which won several awards for a first novel; Homicide and Halo-Halo, a successor that lived up to the author’s promise; and her equally enjoyable latest, Blackmail and Bibingka. The glossary of Filipino food terms at the beginning and recipes at the end are clues to the culinary focus too. This third installment in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series sees amateur sleuth Lila Macapagal baking treats with exotic ingredients for her newly opened cafe, sharing tsimis (gossip) in the restaurant of her grandmother and aunts – and, of course, helping to solve a blackmailing and murder scheme. Fans of her likable and/or relatable cast of characters (including the oft-outfitted dachshund, Longanisa) and mouth-watering food descriptions will be pleased to learn that her publisher has signed Manansala up for three more books.
Life in Coral Shores, an exclusive enclave near bustling Miami, presents many challenges for Miriam Quiñones-Smith. Among other things, the Cuban-American food anthropologist turned “abuela-approved” cooking show star has to juggle work, childcare, and a new pregnancy, while contending with the constant criticism of her snooty Anglo mother-in-law. Adding to Miriam’s chores: the need to get justice for several murder victims, including her country club’s head chef. The follow-up to Mango, Mambo, and Murder, the first of the Caribbean Kitchen cozy mystery series, this book is as fast-paced and smart as its predecessor, with cultural commentary that goes down as easily as a batida de fruta bomba (papaya smoothie). For readers who, like me, know basic menu Spanish and enjoy expanding their vocabulary, the sprinkling of untranslated phrases and short sentences – many of them food-related and most easy to puzzle out from context – is a bonus.
This “historical-musical-edible memoir” started out as a cookbook, according to journalist and Feels Like Home co-author Lawrence Downes. His road trips over several years with Linda Ronstadt and visits with her family members and friends in Tucson and Sonora, Mexico, led instead to this beautifully illustrated (by photographer Bill Steen) personal journey through the cross-border region the singer called home. Although the cookbook never materialized, 20 recipes — including one for albondigas de la Familia Ronstadt — survived the original concept, as did tales about family meals, such as the cookouts around a mesquite fire that typically turned into songfests. Parkinson's took away Ronstadt’s ability to type easily, but she was nevertheless very hands-on in this collaboration with Downes. The result: a celebratory, sentimental, political — Ronstadt doesn’t hold back her views about today’s charged border discourse — volume likely to be especially meaningful for those of us who live in and around her hometown.
As Alex Prud’homme writes in the introduction to his copiously researched and endlessly thought-provoking book, “A meal at the White House is never simply a meal: It is a forum for politics and entertainment on the highest level.” Prud’homme, who was inspired by reporting from inside the White House kitchen by his great aunt, Julia Child, also provides his readers with entertainment — and edification — on the highest level. He not only describes the dining habits of the presidents he includes, but gives us detailed historical context for their official state dinners, all in lively and evocative prose. Open the book at any page and you’ll find a sentence like: “Woodrow Wilson was a tall, thin neurasthenic who suffered chronic indigestion, preferred a bland stack of pancakes to lamb chops ‘done’ up in pajamas,’ as he put it, and appeared utterly disinterested in food.” Ten authentic recipes at the end include Martha Washington’s Preserved Cherries but not, happily, Dwight Eisenhower’s squirrel stew.
The opening chapters of the gripping new romance by USA Today bestselling author Kennedy Ryan find star-crossed lovers Yasmen and Josiah Wade divorced but still sharing the three most important things their marriage produced: their two children, Deja and Kassim, and Grits, the popular soul fusion restaurant in Atlanta that the couple nurtured to success together. Though she denies it, the fact that Josiah has begun dating Grits’ beautiful new chef spurs jealousy in Yasmen — and a questioning of her decision to end their marriage. Food and comfort as a way of bringing people together are major themes of a book that deals with such serious issues such as stillbirth, depression, and mental health. The emotional resonance of family recipes is made clear from the ones included in the back: Aunt Byrd’s Limoncello Pound Cake, Josiah’s Sweet Potato Pie Pancakes, and My Aunt Evelyn’s Corn Pudding.
You think eggs are expensive and hard to find today? During the California Gold Rush, a dozen eggs in San Francisco cost from $427 to $1282 (adjusted for today’s prices) – which gave rise to the Fallaron Egg War, an armed conflict fought on land and sea. This is just one of the many egg-related facts you’ll find in this delightful book, one impossible to categorize. It’s part memoir: The author’s impetus for writing was her decision to have her ovaries removed to head off hereditary cancer. Her descriptions of mornings spent experimenting with her father on egg recipes are deeply personal too. But it is the mythic, historic, and scientific egg lore that had me highlighting sentence after sentence. Unabashedly feminist, beautifully written, and often laugh-out-loud funny — even aside from the many egg puns, starting with the subtitle — this is a book likely to have you egging on your friends to crack it open.
To see where and when the authors of these books will be appearing, click on their names at Tucson Festival of Books 2023: Presenting Authors. You’ll be able to buy signed copies after each session.
Linda Ronstadt will appear at “Welcome Home, Linda Ronstadt" with co-author Lawrence Downes on Sunday, March 5 at 1 p.m. in the Student Union North Ballroom.
Three of these authors, Mia Manansala, Alex Prud’homme, and Lizzie Stark, will appear together at “Three Ways to Look at Food,” UA Mall Tent, on Sunday, 10 a.m. - 11 a.m., a panel moderated by yours truly.
The Tucson Festival of Books is taking place Saturday, March 4 - Sunday, March 5 at the University of Arizona. For more information, visit tucsonfestivalofbooks.org.
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Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...