Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives: Genevieve Jenner’s Brilliant Short Story Collection

British author Genevieve Jenner‘s debut collection of food-related short stories – Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives (Deixis Press, March 2022) – promises a delectable and unusual reading experience for those seeking tales of the intersection of food and life. Jenner offers up 38 stories, some taking as long to read as mixing dry ingredients together, others equal to the minutes for cookies to bake, while a few allow time enough to concoct a chocolate cake from start to finish.

Writing in a style sometimes reminiscent of Laurie Colwin, with an occasional pinch of Angela Carter-like magic, Ms. Jenner tackles a wide range of comestibles, including “flips” native to the South, cheeseballs peculiar to the Midwest, a special borscht in Poland, and Jerusalem artichokes in starving wartime Paris. And although a few stories seem a bit uneven, all contain marvelous bits of humor and allusions to literary luminaries such as Dante and others of his ilk. Ms. Jenner reaches into all the corners of the globe and human nature in these truly thrilling stories.

Another rather unique aspect surrounding this collection lies in the way Ms. Jenner writes recipes. In other words, by not following tradition at all.

No, recipes weave threadlike through the text, with the sensuousness of silk in medieval tapestries, coloring scenes with gauzy steam, painting with puffs of flour, applying patina akin to kale. Kitchen ingredients drive the stories, as in the following excerpt from Low-Pressure Soup for a High-Pressure Situation:

There is going to be some form of soup. Peel and dice your onion and sauté that in a bit of olive oil. Add a few cloves of smashed garlic. At least three. More like six. We aren’t fragile people who feel uncomfortable in the presence of garlic. Let things soften. Now you will toss that into a pot with a peeled and chopped-up squash. (Or sweet potato. I know this is inexact but just accept this. Do I look like a wound-up television chef who wants to explain in numbing detail why you must have this many ounces? No. I am just a woman trying to make dinner and use up these damn vegetables.) Plus the carrot and torn apart kale. Toss it all in there. Chop up the cauliflower in a haphazard fashion. Just dismember that thing and put it in the large pot. (Side note, you can also do this in a crockpot.) Add some thyme, a bit of paprika, some salt, pepper, hey, even that tarragon looks fun. Oh look, you dig in the fridge and find a few green onions. Chop them up and add them in.

You will find yourself laughing quite often, little jolts of recognition popping up from time to time, as with the following story. (The word lutefisk did it for me here.) Just One, Since You are Offering weighs in at 608 words, but packs as large a punch as much longer tales:

As Betty Draper would say, “My People are Nordic.” Therefore I appreciate a good bar cookie. It goes well with a nice cup of coffee and a little commentary about how this isn’t too bad a deal. If the bar cookie is especially good you might say, “You could do a lot worse.” Ross cookies are rather popular in my family. They don’t require a great deal of effort and have a sort of pleasing simplicity. (After all, brown sugar and butter are involved.) … Then let everything cool for about half an hour. (This will allow you some time to talk about how the Sons of Norway are having a lutefisk feed. You may go, but they better have enough butter for the lutefisk because otherwise you won’t be able to eat the stuff.) Then cut the Ross cookies into squares. If you have some willpower (though if you like to taste creamed butter and sugar I doubt you are the sort of person to wait) you will wait until the cookies have completely cooled and then eat them up. You can bring them to coffee hour at church, potluck night at the Grange, or the book club that is really the sipping-wine-and-talking-about-The-Crown club.

Different, witty, filled with sly humor, at times irreverent, bordering on the noir, Genevieve Jenner’s Chocolate Cake for Imaginary Lives takes food writing, and writing in general, up a much higher notch than the usual grub.

So grab your coffee mug, fill it to the brim, then settle down for a most stimulating and satisfying read.

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(Quotes used with permission from Deixis Press. Net Galley Advanced Reader’s Copy)