Sweetbitter: a novel

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.

Thriftiness two ways

This week I’ve made a couple of very simple recipes from two books that look at preserving and thriftiness, making use of inexpensive or free foods.
Preserving: Conserving, Salting, Smoking, Pickling by Ginette Mathiot is a slightly reworked translation of a 1948 book. Mathiot was the Julia Child of France, with her Je Sais Cuisiner (translated by Phaidon for a later English edition as I Know How to Cook), first published in 1932, selling over 6 million copies to date. This collection contains everything from simple jams to charcuterie, for those lucky souls with home-kill meat to preserve. Published at a time when wartime food rationing was on its way out, but economy and thrift were still at the forefront of every housewife’s mind (it’s very much aimed at an assumed female readership), today’s readers may not have the same financial need to preserve foods, but nonetheless ‘bottling’ is a handy option when presented with a glut of autumn feijoas or a special on pickling onions.

That’s just what I had – a lot of baby onions – and being a pickle fiend, I decided to give the pickled onion recipe a go. Of course you don’t really need a recipe for something this simple, and could just use vinegar, salt and maybe sugar, but where it comes in handy is the different take on flavourings. After soaking the onions in boiling water, peeling them and putting them into a sterilised jar (a lovely heavy vintage brown glass Agee number I’d been saving for just such a use), I scattered black pepper corns, chilli flakes and a couple of sprigs of tarragon in around the onions and then covered it all with warmed malt vinegar, salt and a little Great Barrier honey. The honey was not in the recipe; I stole the idea from a pickled onion recipe I found online. I also added a bay leaf for good measure.

The onions will now sit on the kitchen bench looking pretty until sufficiently pickled in two months’ time. And next I’ll try one of the more ambitious recipes – maybe the duck rillettes.

The Seaweed Cookbook: Superfood Recipes from the Sea, by Xa Milne, is less obviously about preserving and thriftiness, but is essentially a collection of recipes that utilise an under-appreciated ingredient that anyone who lives near an unpolluted shoreline can source for free. Seaweed has been on my mind a bit since we were last in Scotland, where there are piles and piles of the stuff sitting round making the beaches look a little less pretty. We’d wondered if there wasn’t something that could be done with it – and I have since found out via a TV doco that there is at least one company turning it into skincare products, and others processing it as a food. The Scots actually have a long history of using seaweed as a food source, with dulse being a staple part of the diet of crofters throughout the North West coast, often eaten with oatmeal in a thick broth, or simply boiled and served with butter. Funny, as my Scottish husband is not fan.

Not only is seaweed a low-sodium, umami-rich food, containing natural glutamates (what MSG mimics), it is also packed with nutrients and phytochemicals, apparently containing all 56 of the minerals and trace elements that our bodies need to function. I found wakame and karengo growing around the rocks at local Enclosure Bay (also Neptune’s necklace, which I dismissed as ‘too seaweedy’) and dried them before grinding them in a coffee grinder. I decided on a simple recipe to begin with: seaweed sprinkle, or furikake, as they call it in Japan, where they sprinkle it on rice and fish dishes. Not so much a recipe but a list of ingredients to mix together. The recipe calls for kombu, but I substituted this with my dried karengo and wakame, and combined it with toasted white and black sesame seeds, a pinch of celery salt, paprika and chilli flakes and some crumbled dried nori from the Asian supermarket. It’s now sitting in my pantry ready to be sprinkled on whatever could do with an umami kick.

There are many more substantial recipes I want to try from the book – Thai pork balls with seaweed and chilli, crispy pork belly with fennel and seaweed, grilled sea bass with tarragon, lemon and seaweed and seaweed popcorn with maple syrup to name a few. The recipes use some varieties of seaweed that might not be available here, but as with anything, you can substitute. I borrowed the book from the library but I’ll buy a copy as I know it’ll get used.

Preserving: Conserving, Salting, Smoking, Pickling by Ginette Mathiot (Phaidon, 2015) and The Seaweed Cookbook: Superfood Recipes from the Sea by Xa Milne (Michael Joseph/Penguin Books, 2016).