Bread and Butter
By Michelle Wildgen
316 pages, $26
By Charity Vogel
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
We live in a “Top Chef” moment. People love to tune in to the TV show with Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, where cooks compete and get critiqued, and sometimes booted off the show, for their dishes.
The Food Network is a big thing, and even has its own magazine.
And the task of going out to eat in a restaurant has turned for some people into an event to be documented and shared, through pictures of plates and the like.
(Oddly, though, people seem to cook for themselves and their families less than ever these days. Do you bake as much as your grandmother? I bet not.)
So it’s natural that there will be books like “Bread and Butter,” as part of this ongoing fascination with the foodie world. It’s a tale of chefs and kitchens and menus, and the pressure that happens inside popular cafes – which are named, trendily, after vague one-word concepts or the fruits that grew in the chef’s parents’ yards – and the big personalities that go along with all of this.
It can be satisfying – to an extent.
Michelle Wildgen, author of “But Not For Long” and “You’re Not You,” and executive editor of Tin House, has delivered a novel that is as much as story of sibling relationships – in particular, those among brothers – as cooking.
Here we have three siblings – Leo, Britt and Harry – who are all immersed in the world of restaurants. Harry, the one who as a kid bought lamb’s tongue with his own money, has returned to the Pennsylvania town where his older brothers live to open a restaurant.
His older brothers run Winesap, a well-known restaurant in town – a place that is aging a bit. Harry names his place “Stray”: it is hip, with a zinc bar.
Menu discussions and restaurant construction follow, in detail. Much of “Bread and Butter” is about the ways that Britt and Leo come to adapt to the presence of their younger brother’s restaurant. There are romantic relationships that develop, along the way, but this story is more that of running, and being wrapped up in, restaurants.
“The ice cream trio arrived on a black plate scattered with fruit,” we read at one point. “A tuile, rolled at the edges like a potato chip, perched on top. The roasted pear was halved and opened, filled with something creamy; the sour cherry cake a little golden loaf in a pool of compote. The chocolate quills arrived tied up in a strip of orange peel and set in an upright bundle.”
Wildgen’s novel has some flaws; the plot at times seems to be moving very slowly. But really, if you’re watching cooking shows and reading up on recipes, you might enjoy this story - not so much of food, as of food culture.
Charity Vogel is a News reporter and the manager of The News Book Club.