Written by: Mark Kurlansky
Price: $16 (paperback)
Rating: four out of five bookmarks
Since this is the beginning of a brand new year, I've taken a little time to think about how glad I am to have survived 2010, and particularly surviving this past holiday season.
It's also made me think about the things that bring me and my family together: the discussions we have, the triumphs and tragedies we've experienced, the support and love we all share whether times are good or bad.
But what always stands out in my mind about the holidays, the uniting aspect that makes it different from the rest of the year, is the food. Everyone brings a little something to the table that we all can share, a little part of our hard work and love that can be passed around.
Maybe that was why I was drawn to a book all about the bonding ability of food, Mark Kurlansky's "Edible Stories."
"Edible Stories" is a collection of 16 shorts that are all connected by the theme of the power of food, how it can bring us together, divide us, change our view of the world and change our views about ourselves.
The first few stories appear to be completely separate events, but gradually the novel ties all the characters together as we follow their struggles and relationships, and how even something as simple as a bag of red sea salt can alter the course of a person's life.
The reader is introduced to a man who has lost not only his memory, but also his sense of taste and smell (eventually he gets his own chain of famous restaurants around the country), a mother whose sudden decision to become vegan causes some tense moments at her family's Thanksgiving dinner, a young man whose love of an orange drink leads to a political uprising in France, and a woman in Alaska whose dying heritage is preserved through an age-old recipe for fish soup.
It has been said you can understand much about a person by the food they eat, and Kurlansky's novel gives the reader some new and humorous insights into how food can influence our passions, hopes and destinies.
Kurlansky obviously has a strong attraction to the topic of food, as his other books include "Salt: A World History," "The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell," and "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World."
He combines a journalistic touch into his fiction, showing us how deeply certain dishes are rooted into the cultures and histories of people, giving them an identity that might otherwise be lost in our modern fast-food, instant-gratification society.
How we prepare our meals, the time and affection we give them, the alchemy of how we combine ingredients to make something altogether different, is what makes us essentially human.
The author is able to illustrate this humanity vividly in all of his characters, bringing out both the best and worst in them simply by their reactions to food and drink.
One woman divorces her husband because "he lost all interest in what I ate," and her presumed fate by the end of the book is ironic and disturbing, although admittedly I found it perfectly fitting for someone who bases her relationships around what others eat.
Kurlansky creates his characters and stories much like someone creating a grand recipe, and it all comes together delectably with a menagerie of flavors and ideas. It may make you think about the significance of a hot dog, or the maleficent force behind something as innocent looking as crème brûlée.
It may also make you think about what cooking traditions have been passed down in your family, and how it is a lasting legacy to where you come from, and how it may have affected who you have become today.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.