What a great book season this has been for me! My rep friend, Tom Leigh at MacMillan sent me this advance copy — did you know I’d get such a kick out of it, Tom?
Set in the early 1800s, and told through the journal entries of a man named Owen Wedgewood, this is a pirate story, a history lesson, and an adventure in culinary delights all rolled into one.
Wedgewood is an artiste. Highly trained, he works as the personal chef for a wealthy and powerful man. But when that man is murdered in a surgical land strike by a flamboyant red-tressed pirate named Hannah Mabbot, Wedgewood is taken captive onboard the Flying Rose, and is later informed that he would cook for his life, literally. Captain Mabbot wants him to cook for her on Sundays, “...the finest supper. You will neither repeat a dish nor serve foods that are in the slightest degree mundane…”
As can be expected, supplies onboard the pirate ship are less than gourmet, and the equipment is worse. The beleaguered Wedgewood despairs of surviving, but sets to the task, and creates a really amazing meal from weevil infested cornmeal, hardtack, jerky, and fresh caught seafood. Meanwhile, he gets to know the crew, including the first mate, Mr. Apple, a giant of a man who spends his free time knitting, the Chinese twins who serve as Mabbot’s bodyguards, the syphilitic cook, the deaf cabin boy, and many more. He also begins to learn more about Captain Mabbot and the mission the Rose is on — the pursuit of a mysterious pirate named The Fox and eluding the agents of the Pendleton company. Along the way, he also learns something about world politics, religion, and human suffering.
If you follow my reviews, you may know that I do love a good battle scene, and this book does not disappoint! Flying cannonballs and gunpowder abound, there are bloody battles, bloodless raids, and plenty of booty. There are dastardly villains and dastardly good guys, and a few people that are harder to define. Other action includes bar brawls, underground labrynth chases, men overboard, lost limbs, squalls, and sabotage. So much fun!
But the very best parts of this novel are the cooking scenes. Week after week the Flying Rose and her crew sail the seven seas in pursuit of the elusive Fox, and Wedgewood outdoes himself with the dishes he brings to Captain Mabbot’s cabin each Sunday. Other reviewers have compared this part of the story to Scheherazade’s stories, and this is an apt analogy. As Wedgewood acquires new ingredients like miso paste and fresh papayas, he applies a certain genius to his own kind of alchemy, which Brown describes in exquisite and philosophical details. He makes bread leavening from scratch, nurtured in a little can he carries on his person at all times, builds equipment from scraps, and even uses a cannonball for a rolling pin . Here is how he prepares an eel that one of the pirates catches for him:
“The eel I handled thus: after cleaning it, I rubbed salt and a little honey into the body cavity and coiled it on the grill of the improvised smoker above a small pile of red-hot embers.These coals I covered with a handful of steeped tea leaves. The lid I left slightly ajar and returned every ten minutes to add more coals or tea until, with the daylight waning, the eel was finally done. The honey had caramelized into the meat, which came easily from the bones, As for the smoke: when one has been on the road, tired and rained on, and catches, long before seeing any sign of a house, the faint but unmistakable odor of a chimney and with it the promise of drying off next to a fire–that is the feeling that the tea smoke imparts, not the actual arrival, but the comforting nearness of home.”
I’m not sure how I feel about eel, but I think I’d eat anything this man made!
So, all ye foodies, adventure lovers, and historical-fictionados, this is your must get beach read of the summer!
review by Annie Leonard