Chemistry in Life

“I make brownies on my bad days,” Elizabeth confessed. “I’m not going to pretend that sucrose is an essential ingredient required for well-being, but I personally feel better when I eat it. Now let’s get started.” – Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

It is exciting to review a recent best-selling novel, Lessons in Chemistry, written by Bonnie Garmus. It’s a fun, clever novel that appeals to feminist sensibility. It is about the chemistry of food and chemistry in life.

The main character, Elizabeth Zott, abruptly gets fired from her position at the prestigious Hastings Research Institute for being unwed and pregnant. The setting is the late 1950s and early 1960s and unwed pregnancy was considered shameful. At Hastings, Elizabeth is perceived as a manipulative temptress and an embarrassment to the company. Unafraid to approach life head-on, Elizabeth is pointedly straightforward and determined to confront the blatant sexism and misogyny she experiences first-hand.

Due to her good looks and outgoing, distinctive personality, Elizabeth is offered the opportunity to be a host on TV cooking show, Supper at Six. Unemployed, she is immediately attracted to its lucrative salary and accepts the position. However, Elizabeth refuses to read the cue cards as requested. Instead, she uses food and chemistry metaphors to empower women to embrace and pursue their professional aspirations. The show becomes wildly popular.

Success in baking and cooking is chemistry. Knowledge about the chemistry of food (ingredients) enhances flavor and can also improve the results. When I first started experimenting with making wild yeast, I remember how magical it was. Combining invisible microbes in flour, the air around us, and even the skin on our hands help make wild yeast.* Three years later, I still think it’s miraculous. Most significantly, understanding the science behind creating wild yeast gave depth and legitimacy to my baking.

This type of legitimacy is what Elizabeth gives women viewers every night during her show Supper at Six. As a result, women tune in and are captivated. While reading Lessons in Chemistry, I became familiar with Gretchen Carlson and recently, Abby Grossberg’s lawsuits. The connections between Elizabeth Zott’s fictional world and our current world couldn’t be more apparent.

Doggedly curious, here is our favorite pet Josie checking out Lessons in Chemistry. (Perhaps Josie was interested the character, Six-Thirty, who is the brilliant and protective family dog,)

There is a terrific Book Club Kit document that provides a letter from the author, book group discussion questions, and two recipes with chemical notations — Better Living Through Brownies and Elizabeth Zott’s Cocktail for the Disenchanted Woman. A link to the delightful chocolate brownie recipe that I used as well as access to the Book Club Kit document is below.

Also… not surprisingly, Apple TV Plus has produced a new drama series based on Lessons in Chemistry. Its debut is this fall, 2023. But read the book first. It’s terrific.


Helpful Links

* Where does yeast in sourdough come from? – The Pantry Mama

Best Homemade Brownies Love & Lemons

The Book Club Kit Knopf Doubleday

Interview with Bonnie Garmus Barnes and Noble

Official Teaser Trailer for Lessons in Chemistry Apple TV Plus

The Paris Library

Did you know that during WWII, the librarians at The American Library in Paris delivered books to their forbidden Jewish patrons right under the noses of their German occupiers?

This captivating novel, The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles is filled with wartime suspense, the nuances of friendship, romance, betrayal, and fascinating historical information about The American Library in Paris.

Much to my delight, it also had plenty of French food mentions!

The Library of Paris begins in 1939 when Odile Souchet, a young Parisian, applies and is hired for her dream job as a librarian at The American Library in Paris. With the war underway, Odile, her family, community of colleagues, and friends increasingly face the turmoil of France’s Nazi occupation. Her brother, Remy, enlists in the war and Paris becomes increasingly repressive. The public library is under constant scrutiny. In spite of this authoritarian environment, the librarians commit to the continuation of promoting free ideas by remaining open and even secretly delivering books to Jewish patrons no longer allowed to come to the library.

Throughout The Paris Library, the plot also weaves the reader into another time and place. Lily is a teenager living in Montana in 1983. A French language and culture enthusiast, Lily is fascinated by her widowed French neighbor Mrs. Gustafason, the future Odile. Lily and Odile become fast friends as Lily begins language lessons and Odile’s secret past unravels. The two form an intimate bond that allows Odile to help Lily navigate changing family life and jealousy in friendship. Likewise, Lily encourages Odile to reconnect with her past.

I want to thank my cousin Amy Chapman Biegaj. She messaged me this spring and suggested that I read The Paris Library. I am so grateful to her for the recommendation!

As always, I am including a recipe to accompany this novel. It is a Leek and Potato Soup that I made while reading The Paris Library. Surprisingly, this soup was tasty especially topped with fresh chives from our spring garden.

Leek and Potato soup is known as a diet food for French women. This morning when I got up, I could have sworn I felt several pounds lighter! — πŸ˜‰ Carole

Once Upon a Chef – Potato Leek Soup

The Paris Library Book Club Questions and Food Ideas

Janet Skeslien Charles: The Paris Library – Author Interview (a terrific interview)

Eat a Peach, A Memoir

“The greatest forms of creativity are born of paradox” — David Chang

I was shopping at the nearest food co-op and noticed the cashier with a closed book on the counter. Always curious about what others are reading, I asked her about it. The book had an interesting cover. DAVID CHANG’s name was in large white letters across the top and a small figure was pushing a huge orange peach up an incline. At the bottom, the title, EAT A PEACH A Memoir was nestled in a sea of black ink swirls. The cashier explained that it was celebrity David Chang’s memoir and it was about much more than food or becoming a chef.

David Chang’s New Cookbook

As it turned out, David Chang’s story is complex, intense, and extraordinarily adventurous. Diagnosed with bipolar, his life has manic highs, and downward spirals of suicidal ideation. A passionate and inventive chef, David uses cooking and ambition as an outlet for coping with his low self-esteem. The memoir shares childhood memories, his culinary background, business relationships, and entrepreneurial drive. David has opened over 14 very successful restaurants around the country under the Momofuku brand.

Chang’s final pages list his 33 guiding principles for becoming a chef or a cook. These rules are practical. Take, for example, his rule #13, Embrace paradox. He challenges us to reconsider our traditional idea of flavor. Food combinations that may seemingly contradict our idea of what tastes good, will often balance each other and create food that is “both delicious and unpredictable”.

Shrimp inspired by the flavors in escabeche

I recently made a shrimp dish from David Chang’s new cookbook, Cooking at Home, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (and Love my Microwave). It was a SUPER easy recipe to make with unusual flavors! The interesting selection of herbs in Chang’s “killer sauce” recipe made it fun. My husband raved about the great taste of this shrimp dish. It was exciting that something so delicious took just minutes to make.

I’m sold on the David Chang paradox technique! — Carole