June 2013

Chef overboard in a romantic adventure

By Eli Brown
Review by
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An inventive English chef is kidnapped and forced onto the Flying Rose, a pirate ship helmed by a seemingly mad, but striking, female captain. The premise of Eli Brown’s novel Cinnamon and Gunpowder grabs your attention; his witty wordplay and deft characterizations will keep you turning pages.

God-fearing Owen Wedgwood is appalled by the brutal seafaring ways of the fiery Hannah Mabbot and her crew, and even more by the ultimatum she hands him: To keep his berth and life, he must please her palate with delectable Sunday suppers using a skeletal kitchen of meager and questionable foodstuffs. The novel is his journal, and Brown bestows a dry-witted and intriguing voice on his narrator.

A chef falls under the spell of a female pirate in a rollicking high-seas adventure.

With his employer, Lord Ramsay, dead and his escapes unsuccessful, Wedgwood unwillingly becomes a party to skirmishes against the vengeful privateer Laroche and heists of British ships stuffed with spoils of the opium and tea trades that dominated the early-19th-century era in which the novel is set. Mabbot’s hunt for the Brass Fox, an elusive figure whose interests may or may not be at odds with hers, drives the action.

As each Sunday looms, the captive chef makes do. Mouthwatering descriptions of his triumphs suggest the author himself to be a man of daring appetite. Culinary conversation mingles easily with the vernacular of sailing and Wedgwood’s poignant musings on faith, food and the meaning of life. At the mercy of whatever edibles the crew pillages, Wedgwood manages to create menus to rival a restaurant chef’s. He coaxes braised pheasant, whelks poached in wine lees, sundried tomato puttanesca and even a mango tart glazed with brandy and honey, from his galley. Over these meals, Mabbot and Wedgwood share stories, and a form of trust grows, along with a surprising sympathy.

From the English coast through the Sunda Strait to China, Cinnamon and Gunpowder tells a salty tale in the most entertaining sense of the word. Brown spins an adventure story with the weight of history to it, and plenty of absurdity for comic relief. Much is lost and much is gained as this questing narrative reaches its spectacular crescendo.

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