Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wednesday, May 29, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Cinnamon & Gunpowder

FSG: Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

FSG: Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

Sarah Crichton Books: Sparta by Roxana Robinson

Sarah Crichton Books: Hour of the Red God by Richard Crompton

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

by Eli Brown

Any author who combines wildly disparate topics in one plot takes a risk. The resultant effect is either that of flint and tinder or that of oil and water. Eli Brown (The Great Days) combines a swashbuckling piratical adventure with gourmet cooking, and his risk pays off--the two go together like filet mignon and red burgundy for a scrumptiously entertaining romp on the high seas in the year 1819.

When renowned chef Owen Wedgwood accompanies his longtime employer Lord Ramsey to a business meeting at a seaside summer home, his greatest worry is the condition of the pantry inventory at their destination and his lack of support staff. Although Wedgwood manages to create a fine feast as usual, it turns out to be his master's last: pirates crash the dinner, murder Ramsey at table and take Wedgwood captive. Although he vows to escape, Wedgwood knows how desperate his situation truly is, for his captors are not just any pirates but the crew of the Flying Rose, captained by the ruthless pirate queen Mad Hannah Mabbot. While beautiful, flame-haired Mabbot possesses untold charisma, she rules her crew with an iron hand and a predilection for bloodshed. Furthermore, she will allow Wedgwood to remain alive on one highly specific condition: he must whip up a delicious meal for her every Sunday. Like Scheherazade's stories, each meal will buy Wedgwood more time on this earth. Unfortunately, the Flying Rose's galley has little in common with the well-stocked pantry Wedgwood needs. Weevil-infested flour and hardtack aren't the stuff of gourmet meals. With his life at stake, Wedgwood must draw on his own resourcefulness and the few fresh ingredients he can gather from the sea or the ship's infrequent ventures into port. With little chance of escape, his greatest hope for rescue is Laroche, a privateer hell-bent on blowing Mabbot out of the water.

But Wedgwood slowly learns Captain Mabbot's murderous actions aren't without purpose. Lord Ramsey owed his wealth to a large stake in the Pendleton Trading Company, a tea empire akin to the East India Company, which owes much of its profits to the opium trade choking the life out of China. Mabbot yearns to bring the company down, but first she must catch up to the elusive professional thief known as the Brass Fox, a difficult prospect even when one isn't being pursued by English warships. To make matters worse, the Flying Rose has a saboteur aboard. While he's glad for her troubles at the outset, the more time Wedgwood--whom Mabbot takes to calling "Wedge"--spends with the eccentric captain, the more he comes to understand and sympathize with her. He also begins to forge alliances with her oddball but effective crew: Mr. Apples, an enormous, gruff warrior and devotee of the manly art of knitting; Feng and Bai, Mabbot's twin martial artist bodyguards; and Joshua, the deaf cabin boy who becomes Wedgwood's surrogate son. Eventually, Wedge must choose whose side he's really on: that of a society contributing to the suffering of millions of people, or that of the lawless pirate with whom he's falling in love.

Brown's culinary/piratical epic is meant to be savored like--and if possible, with--a rich meal and a fine bottle of wine. Admittedly "obsessed with food" himself, Brown creates an engrossing first-person narrative as Wedgwood stretches his prowess in the kitchen not merely to stay alive, but because of a deep and enduring passion for the profession of nourishing the body with delicious, wholesome food. The prose particularly shines during Wedgwood's descriptions of his successful meals, such as "basil-beef consomme... with its rainbow sheen of delicate oils trembling on the surface and a flavor that turned the tongue into the very sunlit hill where the bulls snorted and swung their heavy heads." Wedgwood and Mabbot's relationship is nurtured by his respect for her love of food: "When she ate, I saw in her a radiant life, a deep hunger, and an almost pious reflection on each moment." Readers hungrier for action than romance will find plenty to satisfy their appetites as well, with bloody battles, narrow escapes and gunplay galore.

For pure escapist pleasure, Cinnamon and Gunpowder has no match. A word of counsel, though: with passages such as "The saffron warmed all together as sunlight through stained glass blesses a congregation, while the shrimp sauce waved its harlot's kerchief from the periphery," you'll want to have a napkin on hand so you can dab your watering mouth. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, hardcover, 9780374123666, June 4, 2013

Sarah Crichton Books: The Devil in Her Way by Bill Loehfelm

Eli Brown: The Pirate Queen and the Chef

photo: Melissa Michaud

Eli Brown lives on an experimental urban farm in Alameda, Calif. His writing has appeared in the Cortland Review and Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader. His first novel, The Great Days, won the Fabri Literary Prize.

Food and pirates: How did you decide the two belonged together?

I think the key to a really juicy story is bringing two disparate worlds crashing together. I was excited about taking an adventure with a pirate queen and seeing where that would lead, but I wanted to write about food at the same time and I thought, Why not? It hadn't been done before, and a begrudging chef would be a wonderful lens to see that world through. There is also the fact that I'm the kind of guy who packs a sandwich for a trip down the block. Maybe I just didn't want to get on the ship unless I knew there would be good eats aboard.

How do you write these magical descriptive passages about food that make the reader drool?

You could say I'm obsessed with food. In all seriousness, I could listen to people describing their lunches for hours. Very few topics are as engaging for me. Tell me about the grain of the bread, how long the peppers were roasted, what kind of vinegar you used.

It's actually terribly difficult to describe tastes and smells with words. Our language isn't designed for it and maybe our brains aren't, either. A rose might be the color of a sunset and the texture of wet silk, and the smell of... well, it just smells like a rose. But odors and tastes are important to me, and I didn't let myself take any easy outs in those passages. Those descriptions were the hardest-won imagery in the book by far.

You've heard the phrase "food porn?" It's a crude term but it does point to the height of sensuality that food can bring us. I got a lot of pleasure immersing myself in those scenes, and I hope readers do, too.

Tell us about developing the violent yet compelling Captain Hannah Mabbot.

Mabbot is the red, beating heart of the story. For a character to come to life, the author has to fall in love a little, and with Hannah that was easy. I'm lucky to have had examples of strong women in my life to draw inspiration from. I also had a bit of a crush on Pippi Longstocking when I was little—that girl was in charge and didn't care what other people thought. So she's peppered in there, too.

But Mabbot has chosen (in as much as any of us choose our path) a bloody route, and discovering the source of her rage was key to understanding the real story of the novel. In a way she answers the question: How far can you push a person before she pushes back?

Owen and Hannah couldn't be more different, which makes their relationship so fascinating. Did you develop them separately or design them to play off each other?

They grew simultaneously as the story developed, but they are both really products of their pasts. Owen Wedgwood plays the foil for Mabbot, and because she's so charismatic sometimes he falls into her shadow. But it's his story, too, and we couldn't really know Mabbot without him. They test each other, they clash, and that clash creates a spark.

What's your relationship with food?

As I hinted at before, I'm heavily invested. I can use a computer without understanding how it works, and I wear clothes I couldn't hope to make myself, but when it comes to food, I want to understand every little detail. A big part of this is hedonistic on my part, I'm just into it. But it is also, to a degree, ethical. The way we eat shapes us and our planet, and we'd be better off if we better understood where our food comes from. I've been a vegetarian, a vegan and done brief spells of raw foods and low-carb lifestyles. In the end, I think I'm healthiest and happiest as an omnivore, but I'm deeply concerned about factory farming, and would much rather spend nine dollars on eggs that I knew had come from genuinely happy chickens (which are very hard to find.) That's just how much eggs cost, and if we're getting them cheaper, we're deferring that cost onto the soil and the animals and our own bodies. So my relationship with food is an endlessly changing experiment influenced by issues of health, pleasure, what I can afford and what I think the world can afford.

Tell us about life on an experimental farm.

There's a growing movement of people taking more interest in where their food comes from, and it's an exciting time to be alive if you like to garden or just like to have fresh herbs handy. My sweetheart and I live in a suburban house with small front and back yards that we've turned into vegetable and flower gardens. We have chickens, worm composting, rainwater catchment, gray water catchment, a bee hive, and use recycled materials such as sidewalk concrete to build raised beds. We also can our own tomatoes, make our own sauerkraut and kimchi, jams, yogurts and kefirs. It's experimental because we're really learning as we go, but every year we manage to coax more and more delicious food out of this little plot. We have kiwis, pineapple guavas, blueberries, apricots, lemons, raspberries, asparagus, figs... the list goes on and on. We love knowing how our food was grown, and there are few pleasures greater than stepping into your own backyard to harvest a basket full of broccoli or kale or garlic. One of the unexpected perks is that gardens like this help build community. Passersby are very eager to ask questions or swap gardening tips. The neighborhood kids love to come and visit the chickens, and nothing make neighbors happier than receiving a little basket of produce or a jar of honey.

What's your next project?

Once I find a good home for my work-in-progress cookbook (The Feasts of Tre-Mang), I'll be turning my attention to a new novel set in pioneer California, which draws its inspiration from folklore and mythology as much as from history. It's an epic story which has been bubbling in the back of my mind for years and I'm not sure how I'll ever manage to do it justice, but then, that's how all projects feel in the beginning: a ripe mixture of exciting and overwhelming. --Jaclyn Fulwood

From the Kitchen of Owen Wedgwood

Vanilla Rose Amaretti

Prep time 15 minutes. Total time 1 hour.

These simple delicacies are close to what Wedgwood prepared for Mabbot in chapter 20 of Cinnamon and Gunpowder--proof that one doesn’t need rubber spatulas or fancy appliances to make something special. Of course, poor Wedgwood was obliged to make his own rose extract from the flower scraps in a stolen potpourri. We’re lucky enough to find rose extract available in specialty groceries or online. In a pinch, food-grade essential rose oil will work as well--simply replace the rose extract with one drop of rose essential oil; a little goes a long way.

Vanilla Rose Amaretti are gluten-free, vegan and free of refined sugar--the perfect treat for any party.

1½ cup shredded coconut, packed
¾ cup almond flour, packed
½ cup maple syrup
3 tbsp coconut butter
1 tbsp almond butter
1½ tsp vanilla extract
1½ tsp rose extract
¼ tsp sea salt

Pre-heat oven to 350° F.

In a medium mixing bowl combine ingredients with a fork until well mixed.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Using your hands, squeeze dough into plum-sized dollops and distribute evenly on the tray. You may need to rinse your hands with warm water if they become too sticky.

Bake at 350° for 10 minutes.

Rotate tray for even cooking. Reduce oven temperature to 200° and continue baking for 25 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool before serving.

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