Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter

By Jael McHenry

New York, Gallery Books, 2011

272 pages, Fiction

The Kitchen Daughter is the first published novel by Jael McHenry, and it appeared in bookstores earlier this month. This is a novel about cooking, family, and Asperger’s Syndrome. But more than that, the book explores the differing ways in which individuals cope with grief and loss.

Ginny and her sister Amanda have just lost their parents in an unfortunate accident. Amanda, a young mother of two little girls, lives about a half hour away from the family home. Ginny, her sister lives in the house where she was born in Philadelphia and has never strayed far from home. Although it is undiagnosed, she suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and doesn’t relate well to those she doesn’t know well. Ginny does relate well to food, and over the years, she has become the family cook and the keeper of the family recipes. She also thinks in terms of food—her sister has an “orange juice voice,” for example, and whenever Ginny is particularly agitated or upset and needs to calm herself, she thinks of recipes and cooks them in her mind.

The book is as much about Amanda as it is about Ginny. The cataclysmic event that caused their parents’ death weighs heavily on Amanda. She feels that she must become the caretaker of her sister, and in her extreme grief, she comes across as overbearing and domineering, which is greatly resented by Ginny, who is suffering in her own way and believes that Amanda is intruding on her sheltered life. While she understands intellectually that her life is going to have to change, she cannot express in words what those changes should look like. So she cooks.

In describing Ginny, Jael McHenry says: “I wanted to write a character who was passionate about cooking but had never used it to connect with people—I feel like food plays this great role in connecting people, especially family, and a character who cooks just for the process of cooking and not for the end result was really intriguing to me.” As Ginny cooks family recipes, she conjures up the memory of the family cook who made that particular recipe. The memory appears to be strong enough that the ghost of the cook appears as the smell of the food fills the kitchen.

Recipes are shared throughout the book. One interesting aspect is that a family recipe for Ribollita, a bread soup, both begins and ends the book. The recipe at the beginning of the book is Ginny’s grandmother’s recipe, and when Ginny makes it, the ghost of Nonna appears to her. At the end of the book the recipe for Ribollita is Ginny’s own, symbolizing that she is finally coming into her own and taking charge of her own life. As Publisher’s Weekly notes, "The Kitchen Daughter is “an intelligent and moving account of an intriguing heroine's belated battle to find herself.”

More than anything else, this is a book about grief and loss and the differing ways in which individuals cope with that loss. Having lost my mother a few months ago, I related well to that aspect of the book. My sister and I recently had a dinner party for our children to celebrate our mother’s food and our mother’s life. We made pasties, a Cornish meat pie, and one of my mother’s signature dishes. The women in the family chopped the meat, potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, and onions (along with broccoli and cheese for the vegetarians in the crowd). Instead of making pie crust, we used the refrigerated version (please Mother, forgive us!). Then, we let each of the 20+ guests make and bake his/her own pasty. Even the three-year-old great granddaughter was able to put her own pasty together. As my nine-year-old granddaughter was making her pasty, she looked up at me with shining eyes and said, “Oh, Grandma! Let’s do this every year.” And just like that, my mother was there in the room with us.

The Kitchen Daughter appeared on bookshelves last week; I received my copy from the publisher. I can envision a book club reading the book and either making the recipes in the book, or better yet, have each book club member bring a cherished family recipe to share at the book club meeting.

Jael McHenry’s website:

Her cooking blog:

The book’s Facebook page:

An interesting interview with Jael about the process of getting a book published:

1 comment:

Jael said...

Miriam, not only is this a lovely review, but I have to tell you I had tears in my eyes at the end -- my family is Cornish on my mom's mom's side and my great-grandmother's recipe for pasties is treasured in our family. I didn't include that one in the book since it doesn't match up with the character's family and background, but when I think of family recipes that are important to me, pasties are at the top of the list! What a wonderful way to celebrate and honor your mother, and maybe make a new family tradition.