Stoves & Suitcases, a Review by Leo Racicot

Noted food historian, Cynthia D. Bertelsen’s new book, Stoves & Suitcases: Searching for Home in the World’s Kitchens, knocks one out of the ballpark. Not since Jessica B. Harris’ s My Soul Looks Back has a book captured me so completely, cover-to-cover. I read it in a day.

In this high-caliber travelogue of tastes, flavors, sensations, national, international, her freewheeling style opens a door onto her life and carries the reader along on a breeze of recipes, both the familiar (Old Faithful staples of a 1950s American table such as Pound Cake, Spaghetti Sauce, Ham and Beans, Jell-O!), and the exotic (Sambuseks, Khobz, Masa, Pineapple Chicha, Sos Pwa Rouj), discovered in locations as diverse as Paris, Haiti, Honduras, Morocco, and Wisconsin.

The author’s journey into the world of food began at an early age in her family’s kitchen where her culinary interests first took root; her father and grandmother were fine cooks. She recalls spot-on her wonder as a child observing how food is made, how new foods taste. From there, as she grew, it was not a far jump to want to learn more about the foods of other lands. Food and travel became lifelong preoccupations as she set off, especially during her Peace Corps years, to experience as much of the world and its inhabitants as she could.

, Ms. Bertelsen loves life; her curiosity for practically every aspect of it is infectious and she brings to her story a delicious intimacy not often found in culinary memoir writing. By ordinary gastronomic standards, Stoves and Suitcases, would be a decent read; in her sure hands, it already has the earmark of a classic. She brings intelligence, heart, hilarity to her reader. There are tales of charm: watch as she uses friend doughnuts to win over the folks of a Paraguayan village or offers up a hilarious reminder that however delightfully they are perceived, geese are, indeed, Satan’s spawn. There is a story about a dish called Barf on Maggots that will have you rolling on the floor. She rescues Norwegian cooking from undeserved obscurity, bringing us the pleasures of lefse, lutefisk, and Aunt Lillie’s Thumb Cakes, a Norwegian Little Christmas tradition―what fun!

I dare you to leave this book not wanting to throw open your cupboards, fire up your ovens and make the many mouth-watering recipes and receipts Bertelsen assembles for your delectation.

Stoves and Suitcases is a marvelous magic carpet ride, although a carpet is the only mode of transport the author doesn’t employ as she and her husband, Mike, a fellow Peace Corps worker, make the rounds of Africa, South and Central America, France, the American Heartland, California, Wisconsin, and Florida. Her story addresses the rootlessness of travel, the solitude but also the ecstasy, the freedom of reinvention, discovery of self and of others. Timeless themes. I thought of a female Odysseus. Ghosts of the old explorers live in Bertelsen, adventurers who left the familiar behind to see what they could see. For the author, home isn’t a place; it’s a feeling, a new culture, a newly discovered food, another stamp on her passport. Bertelsen is a citizen of the world. She is also one helluva terrific writer and this is one helluva terrific book.

~ Leo Racicot, author of Alone in the Yard: Buddhist, Beat and Otherwise


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