The Books I Want to Write: Jael McHenry’s “The Kitchen Daughter” (and recipe for GA Peach Martinis)

In my continuing campaign to read the kinds of books I want to be writing, I stumbled upon Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter a few months back. I was looking for food novelists, partly to see what was out there, and partly to stack my proposed AWP panel with a fiction writer. Jael’s book spoke to me – it as well-reviewed, and I was intrigued by the use of a first-person narrator who has Asperger’s and begins seeing ghosts. I wondered, how could that possibly work? Aren’t we dealing with some double level of unreliability?

Somehow, it works. This book was just lovely. Jael McHenry tells us the story of Ginny, a woman who has Asperger’s, but doesn’t realize it. Her parents, for the first time, left her alone to take a vacation, and while out of town, died in a freak accident. Still reeling from the shock of their deaths, Ginny is faced with her sister, a very Type-A woman who attempts to diagnose and push Ginny into treatment for Asperger’s, all the while packing up the house and trying to sell it out from under her sister. Along the way, as they butt heads and have their battle of wills, Ginny finds that she has been given a gift:  when she cooks the hand-written recipes of deceased people, they visit her in the kitchen. Some of them carry cryptic messages, and others provide answers, but all of them change the way that Ginny thinks about food. And Ginny thinks about food a lot. It is her comfort, the methodical part of her life that she knows backwards and forwards, and in the end, it is the thing that gives her confidence, restores her relationship with her sister, and provides her with a way to fully live her life.

The story is inspirational. It’s basically about family and grief and the ways that we all bump up against one another, trying to figure out how to live our lives. It’s about good intentions gone awry, about control, about comfort. It’s also about faith. And while giving us a story about all these things, Jael McHenry also gives us delicious descriptions of food.

Georgia Peach Martinis

Because Ginny is fixated on food, and because we receive our information from Ginny, the food in this novel is accurately, precisely, and vividly described. Parts of it could read like a cookbook because the methods are outlined with such precision. From Ginny’s Nonna’s ribollita to the Georgia Peach martini (see recipe below) to her father’s play dough, Ginny encounters the world (both here and beyond) through food, and Jael McHenry makes food into a physical, spiritual, and emotional element. It serves all three required areas in fiction:  a dramatic role, an emotional role, and a thematic one as well.

So much of my worry, when I think about writing food, is that it will seem merely incidental. That it will seem like a story that I just plunked food into. I am happy to have found Jael McHenry’s novel because I believe it serves as a great teaching tool for me, showing me how to avoid that pitfall. And as a bonus, it’s actually a very entertaining, poignant story as well.

Last night, on the Whisks & Words Facebook page, I welcomed a surge of readers from Georgia by making (and posting a photo of) the Georgia Peach, one of the recipes from The Kitchen Daughter. The cocktail is perfect for the intense heat we’ve been having lately. I garnished it with a sprig of mint, and you can either leave those mint leaves in the drink for an extra layer of flavor, or discard it (like I did after I took the picture).

The Georgia Peach

Recipe from Jael McHenry’s novel, The Kitchen Daughter

For each “part,” I used a one ounce shot glass.

2 parts ginger ale or tonic water

2 parts peach schnapps

1 part amaretto

1 part orange juice

Combine tonic/ginger ale, schnapps, amaretto, and orange juice in a shaker. Don’t shake! Just give it a stir. Pour over a single ice cube in a martini glass. Serves one (double the components for two martinis).

Do yourself a favor and buy Jael McHenry’s book, The Kitchen Daughter. Then make yourself a Georgia Peach martini, settle down in some air conditioning, and dive into this great book.

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