Stoves & Suitcases: Searching for Home in the World’s Kitchens should be in the holdings of any collection strong in culinary biography and history.
What began as a search for home and roots evolved into a culinary exploration, as Cynthia D. Bertelsen documents in chapters that move from Florida and Washington food discoveries to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Europe, and Africa.
Being born prematurely and placed in an oxygen-rich environment damaged Bertelsen’s hearing and sight. She developed a passion for reading books in response to her disability and abilities, which then morphed into a passion for cooking and food. An early discovery of the Time-Life Foods of the World book series allowed her to journey far from her home and roots and led to her next obsession: travel.
Stoves & Suitcases is a memoir about how all these experiences coalesced into a passion for new experiences, new flavors, and world travels that introduced her to ordinary cooks producing extraordinary new results from their home kitchens.
Whether the reader is interested in stories of disability recovery, world travel, or cooking, all these subjects and more receive lively inspection and attractive insights, here.
Bertelsen writes with an evocative hand that brings these worlds and their cooks to life: “The sight of an old-fashioned iron stove. The smell of wood smoke. The aroma of beefsteak milanesa. Or the crackling sound of empanadas, stuffed with ground beef and hard cooked eggs, perfumed with a hint of cumin, frying in smoking-hot grease. That’s all it takes to reconstruct Doña Olga’s magical touch in the kitchen, in my mind anyway.”
Her ability to capture and contrast such different milieus, incorporating them into her own learning experiences and solidifying their value for the reader with recipes, provide the opportunity to duplicate these culinary encounters at home.
From a Fish Fry batter to the staple African Cornmeal Mush and a Balinese Sambal Rica-Rica, Bertelsen’s encounters with chefs, ordinary home cooks, and foodies examines more than the culinary roots of each place.
She faces social unrest and conflict, struggles with bureaucracies (as in Honduras), and eye-opening experiences (“I was alive. Thanks to a stranger.“) that bring not only cooking, but other cultures to life.
Black and white photos and postcards add visual embellishments to an appealing format that contrasts recipes with experiences.
It’s hard to compare Stoves & Suitcases to other books of its ilk. Perhaps Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour comes closest. But, the blend of insights on different countries, cooking, and an evolving sense of self is hard to find elsewhere. All these elements make Stoves & Suitcases highly recommended for a diverse audience and collections whose subjects range from memoirs to travel and culinary explorations.
~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
*Review will appear in the Midwest Book Review in December.