The Cake Therapist
Judith Fertig’s first venture into fiction stays well within the realm of baking: the protagonist is an innovative baker who uses her somewhat mystical ability to associate flavor preferences with emotions and experiences to evoke transformative responses in those who eat her confections. The story shuttles between a contemporary timeline with Neely leaving NYC – and her player husband – to open a bakery in her southern Ohio hometown, newly revived as a mecca for wedding-related services and supplies, and a WWII timeline with a teen in disquieting circumstances. I could have done without the older timeline; I ended up skipping through most of those chapters. Unlike Ruth Reichl’s Delicious, the WWII story in The Cake Therapist doesn’t involve discovery through cooking; food is only tangentially involved in that timeline. I did like Fertig’s culinary descriptions and the way in which she connects taste to memory. I also appreciated that she didn’t disrupt the flow with recipes; if you want Fertig’s recipes you can turn to one of her cookbooks.
References: “Roy G. Biv” refers to the rainbow colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin (first published in 1872, and the sequel, The Princess and Curdie in 1883), was a fantasy fiction pioneer. He mentored Lewis Carroll and influenced many subsequent fantasy authors including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Madeline L’Engle. Downright Dencey by Caroline Dale Snedeker was published in 1927.
Favorite quotes: “I had once read about a Montreal baker who developed a perfume she called ‘Wheat Siren’ inspired by the aroma and flavor of sweet things baking.” “…I learned that these flavors and their meanings were actually a foundation of ancient Chinese medicine. Salty translated to fear and the frantic energy that tries to compensate for or hide it. Sweet was the first flavor we recognized from our mother’s milk, and to which we turned when we were worried and unsure or depressed. Sour usually meant anger and frustration. Bitter signified matters of the heart, from simply feeling unloved to the almost overwhelming loss of a great love. Most spices, along with coffee and chocolate, had some bitterness in their flavor profile. Even sugar, when it cooked too long, turned bitter. But to me, spice was for grief, because it lingered longest.”
The Memory of Lemon
The Memory of Lemon continues the magical realism of The Cake Therapist. As in the first book, Neely designs wedding cakes and her cafe’s monthly theme based on flavors that evoke a certain memories from her target audiences. Similarly the chapters jump between a contemporary timeline and a parallel one starting decades earlier focused on folks connected to Neely. Fertig ups the ante by adding timelines and another mystical power: multiple generations of women passing through an Augusta, KY (a real city on the Ohio River) who have the power to call up spirits (mostly of loved ones) with their fiddle tunes. There’s also the magic morning latte: Neely scrutinizes the crema in her morning coffee for portents. I liked the vintage timelines in this book better than in the first but found them more confusing: too many characters, especially without a family tree and visual likenesses. I could have done without the older timelines and the fiddly ghosts and the story of Neely’s divorce should have been either drastically cut or had more of a climax. While this novel has a lot of baking, it does not include recipes (other than an old recipe for spicebush custard pie). I recommend reading these novels in order.