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Delectable New Anthology Sheds Light on Human Lives through Food
If there is a universal language in this world, Elaine Chiew is quite certain that it has something to do with food. Why else would the London-based writer have assembled an anthology of 16 short stories about how the right meal can be so much more than just ingredients?
From the outside, Chiew's anthology, called Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World looks like a light summer read, something that balances cookbook recipes with quirky little stories for an enjoyable, feel-good collection. The cover is a vibrant red, with a simplistic yet clever design that creates a circle out of both kitchen utensils (spatulas, grill forks, whisks, etc.) and writing utensils (pens and pencils) to surround the book title. Between the eye-catching aesthetic and the mention of "food fiction," Cooked Up draws you in before you even read the first word.
Then again, though, you should never judge a book by its cover. While the 16 different stories in Cooked Up are united by how they revolve around food, food is never the only focus of these narratives. This isn't the literary version of food porn, in other words—though there is a story about two porn stars baking bread together (and that's not a double entendre). Rather, Cooked Up gives 16 different writers a chance to explore weighty themes like family, clashes of culture, love and divorce, war, death, and more through the lens of the kitchen.
Indeed, each of these stories brings something completely new to the table (pun intended). In "How It Used to Be and How It Always Was," a story written by United Kingdom-based writer Nikesh Shulka, food is the device that brings back the pulse of a loved one after they've passed on. In "Unredeemed," a short story penned by Susannah Rickards (another writer hailing from the U.K.), food is symbolic of the crushing, lonesome distance that exists between a pair of divorced parents at Christmastime. And in "Mrs. Dutta Writes A Letter" (penned by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who resides in Texas) food is the cultural bridge that allows an old Indian woman to connect with her American-raised grandchildren.
Particularly striking is "Fat," a story from South Korean writer Krys Lee where the protagonist and narrator stuffs himself with pizza, fried chicken, stew, cheese, and all manner of other foods in an effort to gain weight. For this character, overeating isn't a symptom of depression or self-loathing, but a means to an end. He speaks repeatedly about his "goal," which is to hit the weight exemption limit for South Korea's "Conscription," or compulsory military service.
The story is many things—from a commentary on a law with questionable human rights implications, to a satirical look at the lengths to which some men will go to avoid the military. At it's heart though, "Fat" is about the relationship between a father and a son. The father, who served in the military in his younger days, speaks of duty, responsibility, and honor—seeing none of those things in his son's plan. The end of the story twists the knife with bittersweet and darkly comic irony, as the father and son reconcile amidst news that the government has outlawed the weight exemption anyway. Along the way, the story raises a major question about what honor actually means. Is it honorable to do something difficult just because you are forced to do so? Or is it more honorable to stick to your principles and live your life the way you want to live it—even if that means bringing shame to your family?
"Fat" isn't the only story here that raises thought-provoking questions about life and the human condition. On the contrary, these tales are sometimes anguished, sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, and sometimes all three, but they always leave an impression. In the introduction to Cooked Up, Chiewe explains that she always wanted the anthology to be "about the story," even if the unifying theme and the primary draw for readers was going to be the food angle. "Food had to play an integral thematic role," she writes, but "I didn't want stories that basically perform the function of armchair tasting." "Good stories have 'bite'…appeal to our senses, move us, make us think or live through the eyes of another."
Said another way, Cooked Up was really never about the food, but about the people. It's an anthology about the way that different meals and different types of food can span cultural lines, or fight the horrors of war, or resurrect the dead, or bring back times that can't come back because no one's cracked the secret to time travel yet. And in that sense, it's a riveting read—whether you digest it one bite at a time, or all at once.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.