by Laura Kalpakian
St. Martin's Griffin, 2007
Review by Rosanna Keyes
I’ve been thinking about choices a lot lately. It seems that we as humans are continuously inundated with multiple options and varieties. From the grocery store to coffee shop to library, we’re given the freedom to choose what we think will be the best option: going to the movies, dinner out or in, the best thing, crime novel versus romance, bar versus liquid soap, or the best food, peanut butter, latte, cappuccino, mocha, that will make us happy in that moment. But for many of us there is a duality that arises when we find ourselves facing a more challenging choice, such as a big move or a career change. In those situations we often feel the pressure of outside forces, such as family values and societal expectations, shaping the decisions we ultimately make.
In American Cookery, Laura Kalpakian’s tenth novel, she explores ideas about choice and how we reinvent ourselves through the life experiences of Eden Douglass. The book, mostly set in the town of St. Elmo in southern California, spans the 1920s-1970s and follows Eden as she grows from child to adult.
Eden’s early home life is turbulent , characterized by poverty and a lack of adequate food, yet she finds solace and support in the home of her aunt Afton, a strong, devoutly Mormon woman, who raises multiple children, helps to run the farm and holds the extended family together with an iron will and a bountiful table. Sunday afternoon meals were a chance for the family to share “pork loin roast, the slices studded with lemon, rosemary and peppercorns…great heaps of beets and mashed potatoes, corn salad, tomatoes [and] biscuits with homemade peach jam.” Afton’s table was a gathering place and offered a time to set grievances aside and simply enjoy the gift of good food.
Early in the book Afton tells Eden, “there is a recipe for everything in life.” She goes on to explain that “a recipe is a license for invention. You take what you have and turn it into what you want. It requires [adaptation and] imagination.” This is a challenging concept for the young Eden to grasp. As the novel progresses, Kalpakian explores the idea of reinvention so much that it begins to feel like the overarching theme for the entire book.
As I neared the middle of the book, I found that I began to think about my own life in terms of the foods I was brought up on and still make. In the beginning I followed recipes passed down from my mother but now I make my favorite dishes—tofu vegetable pie with mushroom gravy, apple pie with flaky homemade crust, buckwheat, fried potatoes and steamed greens fresh from the garden—from memory alone. And based on my ingredients and my mood, I can recreate them in a myriad of ways. One could say that, metaphorically, we are given a set of ingredients and allowed to choose what we will do with them. Some people will thrive and use all of their ingredients to their full potential, and others will falter a bit and make false starts, or even fail. It all depends on what each person is able to do with what they have, and what sort of changes and adaptations they can learn to make.