A gripping adventure, a seaborne romance, and a twist on the tale of Scheherazade—with the best food ever served aboard a pirate’s ship
The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail.
To appease the red-haired captain, Wedgwood gets cracking with the meager supplies on board. His first triumph at sea is actual bread, made from a sourdough starter that he leavens in a tin under his shirt throughout a roaring battle, as men are cutlassed all around him. Soon he’s making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider.
But Mabbot—who exerts a curious draw on the chef—is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur hidden on her ship, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. As Wedgwood begins to sense a method to Mabbot’s madness, he must rely on the bizarre crewmembers he once feared: Mr. Apples, the fearsome giant who loves to knit; Feng and Bai, martial arts masters sworn to defend their captain; and Joshua, the deaf cabin boy who becomes the son Wedgwood never had.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a swashbuckling epicure’s adventure simmered over a surprisingly touching love story—with a dash of the strangest, most delightful cookbook never written. Eli Brown has crafted a uniquely entertaining novel full of adventure: the Scheherazade story turned on its head, at sea, with food.
Y’all, I’m not sure what’s going on, other that some fantastic nautical book serendipity, but I read two books about pirates in the space of a couple of months. One was fiction, one was non, but both were fantastic. Today, I want to talk about the fiction one: Cinnamon & Gunpowder by Eli Brown.
It is no great secret that cooking is, in essence, seduction.
It feels slightly ridiculous to call a book a feast of words, but Brown. You GUYS. This dude can write and write ridiculously well.
Never have I seen such a motley assemblage of characters. Except that we are at sea, I would believe that I had been abducted by a traveling circus. There are men here of every hue and size, also men whose race cannot be determined due to the indigo tattoos that cover their faces and arms. There are men with bullrings through their noses, with turbans large enough to hide a samovar, with gold thread braided into their hair, with scimitars lashed to their hips; some with teeth sharpened to points, some with no teeth at all. Many of the men have lost fingers, one has no ears, and not a few of them sport blistered patches upon their faces, necks, and forearms.
Can’t you just see them? Standing on the deck, a ragtag group of rascals, ready to pick your pocket, run you through, and toss you overboard? And what a motley crew Captain Hannah Abbot has. Yes, Hannah. She’s a woman. And what a woman. Redhead, hot tempered, woman. A woman of – many – appetites. That’s why as the crew is on a mission to run through an enemy, she also steals his chef. Owen Wedgwood, timid chef, connoisseur of all foods fine, and widower finds himself kidnapped and on a pirate ship. To live, he must prepare exquisite food for the Mad Hannah Abbot every Sunday, with what food he can find on board or procure for himself.
It is a challenge.
Without another word, we began to eat. I was hungry, but no appetite would excuse the way we set upon those dishes. We shoveled food into our mouths in a manner ill befitting our fine attire. Bears would have blushed to see us bent over our plates. The pheasant, still steaming from the oven, its dark flesh redolent with the mushroom musk of the forest floor, was gnawed quickly to the bone. It was a touch gamy – no milk-fed goose, this – but it was tender, and the piquant hominy balanced that wild taste as I had hoped it would. The eggs, laced pink at the edges and floating delicately in a carnal sauce, were gulped down in two bites. The yolks were cooked to that rare liminal degree, no longer liquid but not yet solid, like the formative moment of a sun-colored gem
When it comes to food, Owen is a poet as well as a magician:
Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.
I’ve had this pain. To tell you it will go away would be a lie. It will never go away. But, if you live long enough, it will cease to torture and will instead flavor you. As we rely on the bitterness of strong tea to wake us, this too will become something you can use.
As it ferments, kraut whispers alchemical secrets. In two days, it will smell as agreeable as an old pillow still warm from night’s use. In five days it will smell like a horse run to foam. The odor will then lessen as the vegetable begins its tart transformation. It will be good to eat in two weeks, but at five weeks it will reach the zenith of its power, its taste a violin bow drawn across the tongue. After six weeks it will err slowly toward slime. Like hams and men, it gets better with age only to a point.
And oh my goodness, is it a delight. This book is just so. much. fun. I love food. I love pirates. A book with the two together is like a dream come true. I almost wish I had read it this summer, because the only way it could have been more perfect is if I had been reading it with my toes in the sand.
Seriously, if you need a fun, swashbuckling adventure for your summer, this book is it.