- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

AMERICAN COOKERY: A NOVEL

By Laura Kalpakian

St. Martin’s Press, $24.95, 432 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

“American Cookery” sounds like a cookbook, and with around 30 intriguing recipes, it could certainly get readers heading for the kitchen. But the recipes appear as codas to chapters of what is really a family saga — an ancient genre that’s invariably gripping, even when, as now, it’s not exactly the height of literary fashion.

The family at the center of Laura Kalpakian’s tale are the Douglasses. They are Mormons who we meet in 1926 living in a Californian railway town, where the matriarch Ruth rules the family as well as the town’s best restaurant. Remote and intransigent, Ruth has a big family of grown children, one of whom, Afton Lance, is her moral heir and destined to be the lodestone of the family after her death, while others are definite disappointments.

Among these is Gideon. Rarely able to hold down a job, Gideon spends his time working on an unending “Timetable of History.” At home his slatternly wife Kitty lies around most of the day reading romances. With neither Gideon or Kitty really able to raise a family, the task falls to their daughter Eden. Fortunately, she has inherited the gene of the Douglass women: “Their instincts were to preside, to direct, and when necessary to defend.”

Eden is the heroine of Ms. Kalpakian’s tale. She joins the WACs during World War II and serves in England, where she falls in love with an American serviceman. But when she returns to California, she never hears from him, and she is well into her 30s when she marries Matt March, the owner of a ranch that is used for shooting Westerns.

Matt adores this most American of all movie forms, and he and Eden succeed in making a popular television series. But his financial sense is weak and his vision is so all-consuming that it blinds him to changes in taste. When is business fails, the effects are cataclysmic.

Thus, by 1976 when “American Cookery” ends, Eden, like her grandmother Ruth, is running a popular restaurant. Her three teenage children are ready to fly the nest, but fate has yet more in store for her, and at this point readers know that she will rise to the challenge as she has risen to everything else that has happened to her because she has always followed her Aunt Afton’s dictum: “There’s a recipe for everything in life … A recipe is a license for invention. You take what you have and you turn it into what you want. It requires imagination.”

This idea threads through the novel, powering a narrative that chronicles events in Eden’s life rather than exploring her character. With settings in California, Idaho and Washington, Ms. Kalpakian evokes the bare scenery and ambiance of the west, capturing the disappointed mining towns of Idaho, the Cannery Row toughness of California in the 1920s and then its confident energy in the ‘50s as the television era got seriously underway.

Ms. Kalpakian moves Eden easily into the worlds of newspapers, television, westerns and restaurants. She even sketches a credible picture of wartime London. She is also good at evoking the people in Eden’s life: her well-intentioned but ineffectual father, her romantically besotted mother, her dynamic but unreliable husband and a whole supporting cast drawn from three generations of uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins.

But Eden herself is not a complex character. A few epithets define her: capable, responsible, energetic, kindly but tough. Though she first appears as a child being sent home from school for some infraction, basically she is always, always right: more sinned against than sinning. Indeed, her sins are not even venial; they are cute. Generically she is a sentimental heroine: Ms. Kalpakian enlists readers on her side in a way that not only excuses her from blame, but actually washes out detail that would have made her more multifaceted and interesting.

Yet notwithstanding Eden’s slightly boring virtues, the experience of reading “American Cookery” is one of variety. This is the effect of two structural features of the novel: the recipes and a series of brief narratives called “Snapshots,” which follow the road not taken by the main narrative by giving back-story information about the characters. Thus we learn of Kitty’s youth in Liverpool, of Eden’s daughter’s future success as a university teacher, of her sister-in-law’s Armenian background.

The recipes provide instructions for lots of interesting dishes. For example, the Figs Napoleon made by the Chinese cook of Ruth’s restaurant sound utterly delicious: figs poached in amaretto and served with vanilla ice cream and honey. Kitty’s Resurrection Pie made of smushed up leftovers, Annie’s Sweet and Hot Picnic Chicken, Peppers Ernesto from Matt’s film-star uncle are yet more treats, as are the Copper River Salmon with Strawberry Lemon Sauce and the Christmassy Cranberry Apricot Pie that Eden makes at the Cafe Eden she opens in the Skagit Valley of Washington. Readers who cook will certainly try some, at least, of these recipes.

But the recipes do more than suggest good things to eat. They open a door onto a different kind of writing because technically they are of unique form, softening instructions with overtones of the pastoral which extols the soothing impulses of the simple life. In their own way they are a kind of fiction weaving a lurex-like strand through the home-spun narrative of Eden’s life. Combined with the Snapshots, which appear right after the recipes in the text, they enrich the narrative by offering extras that differ from the chronological history of Eden’s life, but yet fully contribute to her experience.

Ms. Kalpakian handles her varied material deftly. She writes recipes with the genial “you can do it tone” of the good food writer. Equally, she moves through the locales and incidents of Eden’s life with all the assurance of an omniscient narrator. Her “American Cookery” is not one of the great family epics, but it is an interesting read that is also instructive on many levels.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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