Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Eatin': A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis

A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis

Davis's first novel about a teenage girl with culinary aspirations is as warm, sweet, and comforting as a piece of homemade gingerbread.

Okay, that was a cheesy way to begin this, but after reading the wonderful A La Carte, I've got food on the brain, and anyways, it's true.

Lainey isn't a unique YA protagonist because she has ambitious goals for herself, or even because her dream of being a chef with her own vegetarian cooking show is so unusual (as Lainey says at the beginning of the book, "Do you know how many African-American female chefs there aren't?"), but because she's so clearly well-suited for and up to the challenge.

Her mother is a chef-partner at a local soul food-French/Asian fusion restaurant, and Lainey spends a lot of time there, whipping egg whites, chopping onions, and slowly but surely, earning her right to saute with the big dogs. And when she's not there, chances are good that she's at home testing out a recipe for vegetable latkes or poring over her old Julia Child videos (Saint Julia, Lainey calls her).

Of course, Lainey's dreams have come at a price - she's almost totally isolated from anyone her own age, and her only friend is the hot-and-cold Simeon, who only seems to come around when he needs a favor. With anyone else, Lainey is prickly and stand-offish, but she finds herself completely helpless to resist the charms of her childhood friend. And as Simeon's requests become increasingly erratic and more troubling, Lainey finds herself driven away from the people in her life who truly care about her. Though Lainey's self-imposed desert island and her doormat behavior where Simeon is concerned are frustrating, these things also make her a believable character readers can truly root for.

And did I mention the food? Each chapter ends with a recipe, each of them more delicious-sounding than the last. And these aren't the kind of glorified nachos, mini-pizzas, and brownies recipes that usually bloat the pages of cookbooks for teens. They're challenging, "think like a chef," a la Tom Colicchio, recipes that invite experimentation and improvisation, and yet they're also perfectly within the range of a curious young cook. And what's more, they're healthy, vegetarian, and not from a box.

A La Carte is a terrific read, and was recently nominated for a Cybil for Best Young Adult Novel. Well deserved.

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