You will develop a palate.
A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.
These are the first lines in Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, and they neatly introduce the coming-of-age theme of the book.
Tess, 22, has left behind a mundane, provincial, lonely upbringing as the only child of a widower to move to New York and find herself. With no experience, she uses her possession of the 51 percent (a never-fully defined quality valued by the restaurant owner) — and her good looks — to land a job as a backwaiter at a top Manhattan restaurant. The novel follows her through her first year in the city as she is educated in Champagne, oysters and chanterelles as well as cheap and cheerful authentic Chinese food and dive bars. Running parallel to and sometimes intrinsically tied in with this are lessons in love, lust and heartache. (Not just the obvious girl-meets-tattooed-badboy-bartender-and-falls-in-lust kind, but the sort that develops between a younger, impressionable and hopeful woman and a glamorous rep-lipsticked worldly wise mentor.)
Stephanie Danler’s own twenties followed a very similar path to Tess’s experience. When asked in a Vanity Fair interview why she chose to write a novel and not a memoir, Danler says:
My story is at once a lot more boring than Sweetbitter, but also a lot more complex and sad and personal. I got to put my experiences in [the novel], which are all authentic — the falling in love with New York City, the falling in love with the restaurant industry — but I got to create characters that were these composites of all the incredible people that I’d met.
It’s a different muscle, and I did not have the memoir muscle. I also don’t remember a lot; I was 22 . . .
The image of Tess that I had in my head while I was reading was nonetheless Danler, encouraged by the author photo in the back of the book.
The first chapter is punctuated by delicious descriptions of sour, salt, sweet and bitter, and signed off with a summary from cantankerous ‘Chef’, who is never given a name in the book, describing the importance of these flavours to the balance of taste, and his belief that the sign of good taste is the appreciation of bitter as much as sweet.
Having worked in the hospitality industry myself, I recognise the characters in this book— the ‘good-humoured’/sleazy kitchen staff and the older, highly educated coworkers who never quite got around to leaving and getting a ‘real job’. It can be an intoxicating environment — and in Tess’s case it is literally, as we follow her nights out on coke and hungover shifts eased with ‘treats’.
Many people in their early twenties move away from home to see what the wider world has to offer — some within countries as Tess does, and some to the other side of the world, like many New Zealanders do — so many readers will relate to her exhilaration at finding herself in a fast-paced, diverse, no-holds-barred metropolis like New York. And the city is definitely a major character in the book, if not the main character. If you’ve ever been to Union Square, the novel will easily transport you back to the park bench where you sat and people-watched.
The odd description or characterisation felt a little cliched, but in an industry full of cliched characters and experiences it would be difficult to avoid them, and it’s in keeping with the way a 22-year-old might romanticise things. A good book requires contemplation while reading it, and on several occasions while reading this I had to put it down and just savour a description or event.
This was the Guardian/Observer’s best food book of 2016, which was how I came across it. Not bad for a first novel.
Sweetbitter: a novel by Stephanie Danler (Alfred A Knoph, 2016)
Nota bene: From a production point of view, it’s pretty spot-on. The blush pink and hand-lettered font on the cover of the hardcover edition couldn’t be more on-trend (I’d say they made quite a few sales on that alone), and the uncut, or deckle, edges of the pages give it glorious texture and add that book-as-art factor. A friend admitted to having bought both the paperback and the hardcover just for the design.