The distance between books of recipes surrounded by personal stories and novels laced with recipes seems to be getting shorter every day. Savvy publishing house marketing executives seem to be willing to mine the "foodie" niche for all it's worth, including everything from a standard romance novel with a restaurant setting to culinary erotica to a thinly disguised roman à clef
by a successful New York restaurateur. While novelists such as Pat Conroy and James Lee Burke have long used food to establish a flavorful sense of place in their work, more and more fiction writers are bringing food to the forefront. Granted, this is not a completely new trend. The Seventies brought Nan Lyons' Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1976, out of print) about an intrepid pastry chef and her fast-food mogul lover who solve the mystery of who is killing Europe's master chefs, each in the manner of his specialty. One of my personal favorites is Heartburn (Vintage, $11 paper), Nora Ephron's first novel about the breakup of fictional food writer Rachel Samstatt's marriage to a philandering journalist. Both films were made into somewhat successful films that show up regularly on cable TV. Here's a rundown on some more recent titles:
- Like Water for Chocolate (Doubleday, $17.50 hard) by Laura Esquivel. This poignant, magical love story with its wonderful recipes was a bestseller in both Spanish and English and was made into a lovely, sepia-toned movie by the author's husband. The most popular recipe is for quails in rose sauce.
- Silvana (Signet, $5.99 paper) by Meg Berenson. A romance novel set in pre-WWII Italy and the fast-paced New York restaurant world of the late 20th century. The title character becomes a successful chef/restaurateur by introducing New York to the cuisine of Italian Jews. No recipes.
- Catering to Nobody (Fawcett, $5.99 paper) by Diane Mott Davidson. The first in a series of culinary mysteries starring caterer Goldy, owner of Golilocks Catering in Denver, Colorado. One reviewer described the author as a cross between "Mary Higgins Clark and Betty Crocker." It's up to the reader to decide if that's a compliment. Recipes included.
- How I Gave My Heart to the Restaurant Business (Ecco Press, $23 hard) by Karen Hubert Allison. Karen Hubert Allison is the former co-owner of the three-star Manhattan restaurant, Hubert's, who has left restaurants to become a writer. Her debut novel features eager, innocent cook Kitchie Kittridge, who dreams of her own country restaurant, and a fast-talking natural promoter named Gunnar. The pair unite to create a wildly successful Manhattan restaurant. Hubert writes about the restaurant business like someone who has lived it. No recipes.
- Eat Me (Broadway Books, $20 hard) by Linda Jaivin. This wildly successful Australian bestseller is being marketed in the U.S. as culinary erotica. The characters are four thirtysomething professional women who live and work in Sydney, Australia. They gather to gossip at the fictional Cafe da Vida in the Darlinghurst district, a chic neighborhood of trendy shops, cafes, bars, and coffee shops. Graphic sexual escapades are interspersed with long dish sessions where the ardent feminists discuss "empowerment" and debunk the oppressive "beauty myth." I wish the author was a skilled enough writer to demonstrate her character's empowerment without having to use the word. Explicit sex, but no recipes.
- The Debt to Pleasure (H. Holt & Co, $10 paper) by John Lanchester. English journalist Lanchester's first novel is a wickedly funny murder mystery hidden inside a faux cookbook/culinary memoir. Narrator Tarquin Winott embarks on a journey through France, recounting the story of his life with menus, memories, and recipes as he goes. The startling and sinister truths about Tarquin emerge slowly as the trip progresses. The author has a decidedly dark sense of humor. Recipes included.