Back to the BonAppetit challenge! To catch up those of you late to the table, I decided to read BonAppetite’s 2016 recommendations for the best foodie novels of the year. I want to see if I concur with the publisher designee’s opine. Former issues of Bookisshh contain reviews of other books on the BonAppetit list so feel welcome to look back. Apologies for the labyrinthine approach but I read off the food driven narrative grid, so this project gets buried. Once I’m done reading through all of BonAppetite’s recommendations, I will put them into a “Summing it up” issue. For now, however, this issue of Bookisshh explores a work of fiction, “Sweetbitter,” by Stephanie Danler who thrusts her character into the fast paced restaurant world in New York city. Enjoy!
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
My family has 100 years of history in food and beverage in Chicago. My great grandfather established and operated, Schachter’s Bakery in several locations and had the first bakery trucks and near went broke giving away bread during the depression. My grandfather followed in his footsteps and my father, the rebellious one, established and operated, Jeff’s Laugh-Inn and Lounge in Chicago’s, Old Town. I’m an Eloise of sorts considering I spied and pranked in the Hotel Lincoln where my father’s restaurant and lounge thrived until I finished high school. Given these experiences I know the transience of the waitstaff world and the principled strategy within the kitchen war zone. I witnessed waves of immigration demonstrated by variety in cultures of origin within the bus staff. Mostly, there were hard stories and people were always trying to get some place other than where they were. Servers hustled cash, stayed out late, drank too much and were incestuous among each other. Servers made no commitments other than turning their shift. I marveled at all the irregular regulars who set the bar for character design. Knowing all this, I give myself an authenticity patch to wear when I offer discussion on “Sweetbitter.”
A throwback to “Bright Lights Big City” by Jay McInerney, “Sweetbitter” offers a coming of age story with the difference being a female protagonist rather than male. It has all the sparkles and whistles which tempt people to dare to make it in big New York city. Most of the story happens during shifts at a restaurant modeled after Union Square Cafe. Other scenes take place in ratty apartments within the smaller burrows where working people can actually afford to live.
Told in first person point of view, Tess shares her self discovery as she sweats it out rising through the ranks of back waiter, barista, bar back and hopefully server. Tess struggles with her identity and is blankly described as looking French and the person you’d most likely want to be stuck in an elevator with. She is basically without family and information regarding people and relationships learned within family. In essence, Tess is seeking but is uncertain exactly what or whom she is seeking.
It’s common for restaurant communities to become family-like. Such is the case in “Sweetbitter.” Simone, an overqualified server, brilliant, smug and sinister adopts Tess and tutors her on the finer aspects of wine and spirits while nurturing her in peculiar ways. Jake, Simone’s friend and lover becomes Tess’ first love and a symbol of paternal individuation for Tess. Akin to the Bermuda triangle this triad of characters engage in sadistic connections forcing Tess to say, “Goodbye cruel world.” Other characters pepper the story and hold up directional signs to Tess as she journeys through her time at the restaurant. From Ariel, NYU grad, fierce lesbian and wanabee actor, Tess gains a twisted sense of feminism. Male characters, Will and Howard serve as father figures who fail and foil her encourage Tess to view herself in a higher regard than she’s pursuing.
Why is this book is on the BonAppetit list? Because Danler treats the food and beverage world authentically. Further, though conservatively so, she meditates on how to educate or retrain the palate. Danler initiates a few chapters with terms such as: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Upon viewing the list it’s clear to me that Danler modeled characters and lessons after these characteristics which bases the narrative well in food driven narrative. Additionally, there are fine descriptions of food, food and wine pairings, wine and spirit characteristics and origins. So “Sweetbitter” rates for this reason. Viewing it in the context of fiction, this reader believes the conflict took way too long to come to light and that treatment of characters was either too idealized or too naive. Balance is needed.
Definitely worth reading but if it must be in the top 6 recommendations by BonAppetite, then this one for now ranks 5th or 6th.