Sunday, February 15, 2009

Delicious, Just Delicious: Dear Julia by Amy Bronwen Zemser


 Lucida put on an apron...Then she chopped a slice of bread into ten pieces, all the while gazing into a camera and tossing her hair so abruptly that her director's hat fell off. Then, as part of a tap dance, she half sang, half spoke the words: "An Apple Charlene is one of the finest examples of French Cuisinart known to man. Since the dawn of the gorilla, prehistoric man has eaten Bavarian crèmes while flambeing the famous Molotov Cocktails." She pirouetted around the island counter, picked up the knife, and whacked at another slice of bread. She beamed and winked at the camera lens. She held a piece of bread underneath her chin as a final pose.

Elaine sighed. "You posses such natural gifts," she said," Only a true master of the stage could achieve such subtlety.

The words "modern fairytale" get tossed around a lot in Book Bloglandia, and usually mean that the fairies have piercings and the heroine defeats goblins with a letter opener or filking prowess.

Dear Julia, by Amy Bronwen Zemser, is the first book I've read that feels like a fairytale, but has absolutely no magic whatsoever--unless you count Elaine's preternatural gift for the art of French cookery. Our heroine dreams of becoming a master chef like her heroine Julia Child. Her congresswoman mother, who dreams of passing the Equal Rights Amendment, wants her to go to attend the family college and join the crusade. Elaine goes blithely on teaching her 5 brothers to cook and writing letters to Julia Child (which she never mails), but her world is turned topsy-turvy by the introduction of Lucida Sans--a girl whose gift is find out what gifts she lacks.

When the New Paltz Festival on the Green is shaken up by a disastrous performance of Romeo and Juliet, Elaine and Lucida become fast friends. Lucida's "rotten fig" of a boyfriend must be brought to justice. In their calamitous attempts at vengeance, they discover a contest that could rocket both girls to local stardom. Through slapstick sibling moments, dangerous spy missions, uncooperative Ducks A L'Orange and dreaded college interviews, Elaine perseveres and finds a way to achieve her impossible dream.

The narrative has a fable-esque quality I can't put my finger on, but draws you into the town of New Paltz and into the thick of its slightly odd inhabitants. Zemser has a gift for writing physical comedy, and many scenes were truly laugh-out-loud, sometimes at the expense of poor Lucida. However, she also evokes truth empathy for the characters and their friendship; Lucida is quirky but so generous and sweet that she endears herself to the reader, and Elaine is serious but not stoic or (worse) boring.

The Hamilton siblings are a motley bunch, and I especially enjoyed gender obscurist Chris, who steals Elaine's nightgowns and tells off his mother for letting him apply to women's college while forbidding Elaine. Lucida's moms were a nicely sympathetic, and I liked how they cheered both girls. While French cookery is a bit beyond my tastes, Zemser does convey the passion Elaine feels for the art and how it's become so much a part of her.

"Yes, I have an idea, but I can't do it alone. I need your help." Lucida opened a packet of sugar and added it to the ketchip in between the scalloped potato slice. Elaine opened a small jar of capers and spooned a few over the salmon flower so they fell over the petals.

"Croton wants to be as famous as much as I do," Lucida said,"...and I am going to beat him so good he'll never forget it."

Elaine sliced a cucumber lengthwise into paper-thin sheets, stacked them on top of one another, and diced the mound into little cubes. She drizzled olive oil over the dice and added some feta-cheese squares from another contained. She withdrew a baguette from her bag.

A heroine, a sublimely silly companion, a quest, a truly nasty villain, a meditation on modern feminism and the joy of cooking and even a surprise Deus Ex Machina--such is the stuff of fairy tales.  Dear Julia is a wonderful novel for those whose home is the hearth or the stage, who love slapstick and family drama, and anyone who wants a good foodie novel where dreams come true and life is--well--delicious!


*Linzer owls, terrarium cupcakes, and the best chocolate chip cookies in the world are the work of Bitterbutton

*AnnatheRed is known for her crazy-detailed geeky bentos, but sometimes she posts simple treats like these 1-Up Mushrooms

*Clare Crespo is the queen of whimsical cooking. On her blog, she shows off her treats, such as these Henna Hand cookies for a friend working on a one-man musical about India

*Need vintage cupcake toppers, edible glitter, or polka-dotted pastry suitcases? Bake it Pretty has the cutest cookwear, ingredients, and decorations ever. 

*The Muddy Cup, Elaine and Lucida's haven in Dear Julia, is a very real and very good coffee shop. There's even a Cup in my hometown!

*The Post-Punk Kitchen started out as a real cable-access cooking show and propelled Isa Chandra Moskowitz to vegan cooking stardom. Its blog will keep you up with the latest--including this Latchkey Lime Pie.

Clare Crespo shows off her stop-motion skills in Yummyfun Kooking. Those of you familiar with my picture book--that's what Amandine's show is like.


Lisa Chellman said...

Not that two books constitutes a trend, but I think it's funny that Dear Julia is one of at least two 2008 cooking enthusiast novels for this age group, another being A La Carte, by Tanita Davis. Both protagonists adore Julia Child and dream of having cooking shows. Funny!

I love the recipes from the Post-Punk Kitchen. Vegan biscuits and gravy are my faves.

Lisa Chellman said...

Ack, and I just read the jacket flap for Discovering Pig Magic, by Julie Crabtree (also 2008), and apparently there's a Rachel Ray wannabe in it!

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