Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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November 2001

Matter of Taste

What to read while the cake’s in the oven

by Isabel Allende
Flamingo, 2001

When Aurora del Valle—heroine of Chilean novelist Isabel Allende’s latest novel Portrait in Sepia—is born on an autumn afternoon, in 1880, in San Francisco’s loud and bustling Chinese quarter, the stage has already been set for an eventful and turbulent life. Aurora’s first breath coincides with the final sigh of her mother, while a gaggle of relatives gather in the wings waiting to lay claim to the infant. At first, it seems good fortune is on her side. Tao Chi’en, Aurora’s Chinese grandfather, becomes her protector and, for a few years, the two exist in a private paradise of mutual adoration and affection.

But when Tao Chi’en dies, five-year-old Aurora is summarily dispatched to the home of her vulgar, wealthy paternal grandmother, Paulina, who begins to reinvent the child’s life according to her own world view. As the mighty Paulina reclines in her huge Florentine bed, counting her fortune on the fingers of one hand and nibbling at pastries from the other, Aurora sifts through a kaleidoscope of friends and relatives trying to discover who she is.

“Memory is fiction,” she notes wryly of her search. “We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives.” This statement neatly encapsulates what Allende’s writing is all about. In much the same style as her previous five novels translated into English the author draws us into a bright, larger-than-life world peopled with gorgeous, wretched, sophisticated, hideous characters.

The drama and passion generated by these individuals would surely have produced syrupy melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer. Allende, however, keeps the action rolling with a light and humorous touch. When Aurora’s Uncle Severo comes home from the War of the Pacific sick and minus half a leg, his young bride cures him with a sophisticated, week-long sexual marathon: “Severo had no idea that such acrobatics were possible, and he was sure they were not Christian but that did not prevent him from enjoying them immensely.” When Paulina decides to return to her native Chile, the British butler coolly proposes he go along as an imposter husband. “‘In truth, he looked like a member of the British nobility,’ thinks Paulina. Just imagining the faces of her relatives in Chile, and the envy of her sisters made her laugh.” The benevolent gaze with which Allende observes her wayward cast demands a complicity from the reader that is hard to decline. Readers should bear in mind that Portrait in Sepia’s cheesy cover art is no indication of the delights that lie beneath.

by Nigella Lawson
Chatto and Windus, 2000

Nigella Lawson currently tops the best-loved celebrity list in Britain, where her television cooking series Nigella Bites has achieved cult status (the show will also be launched in the U.S.). Not only is she beautiful to look at but she bears a surname familiar to everyone in Britain—her father, Nigel, was a high-profile member of the Thatcher government. Her style is both approachable and eloquent and it is this that makes reading and using How to be a Domestic Goddess a pleasure.

If it is your aim in life to recline on plump, tasseled cushions dreaming of fragrant pastries and delicious sweetmeats, this is the cookbook for you. If, on the other hand, you aim to spend your life in the kitchen—donning the obligatory housewife uniform, a twin set and an apron—preparing dainty morsels for your loved one, then the book is also for you. Couch potatoes will enjoy drooling over the how-to guide’s exquisite food photography, while would-be chefs will appreciate Lawson’s easy-to-follow recipes and funny, laid-back style. The author’s selection of recipes covers cakes, biscuits, pies, puddings and breads, baking for children and making preserves. A special section on Christmas includes a gold-encrusted Christmas crème brûlée, one of the highlights of the book. Though most of Lawson’s recipes are for “sweet tooths,” she includes a solid selection of savory dishes featuring Cornish Pastries, Steak and Kidney Pudding and Pizza Rustica.

If a cookbook can be said to have a message, then this one has two—and very simple they both are. First, though most of us balk at the idea of spending time in the kitchen creating comfort foods, the rewards are disproportionately high: the wonderful scents that fill your home, the appreciative responses from your nearest and dearest and your own sense of accomplishment. Second, Nigella does not hide her gluttony: “For the lemon-syrup loaf itself, double the amount of syrup stipulated: you want the cake drenched, not merely doused. In fact, you only need half the cake, but you can’t actually make half a cake, there will be some left over—hardly a problem.” Though attractive, she is far from slim. So, we figure, if that’s okay for her, maybe we can ease up on ourselves and enjoy cooking and eating without the guilt that has sadly become “à la mode.”

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