3 out of 4 stars
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What do you often expect from a cookbook? Innovative recipes and meticulous photographs? If so, Dancing in Time, Playing with Fire will prove to be an interesting twist. Calling it “a culinary journey” is too pretentious, but “a commonplace cookbook” sounds a little reductive. This is the food-themed diary of Sineidin O'Niall, whose pen name is Jennifer Frank. At a lonely night, Frank goes on an impulsive trip to the local grocery store and sees pork butts on sale. The sight of those “fatty hunks of meat” brings back her memories of forty years and makes her wonder what food means to her. From that reflective moment, the story naturally goes on. The book is separated into two sessions. In the first half, each chapter details a particular phase of her life and the special dish or cuisine making a strong impact at that phase. All of them are also cleverly adorned with her love for exploration and arts. In the latter half, Frank provides the recipes with exact measurement and more detailed instructions.
First and foremost, I love how Frank uses food to fill her literary and figurative hunger. From her abusive childhood, her unstable adulthood, to her challenging marriage, simple food has helped her tremendously in difficult financial situations. Food serves to showcase her artistry. Food satisfies her craving for attention and intimacy. Food helps her connect with people and make new friends. Food stabilizes her restlessness. Overall, you will feel as if food were her most trustworthy friend and confidant.
The book focuses on rustic and humble cuisine. There are plenty of economical, fun, and spontaneous recipes which anyone can follow easily and adjust to fit their kitchen’s capacity. Fortunately, they are not tasteless and boring TV dinners since Frank takes great delight in cooking exotic dishes, including Greek, Chinese, Mongolian, Mexican, Croatian, and more. The recipes are suitable for many occasions and gatherings, all presented with dry humor and a touch of free flair. On the downside, I think it would be more appropriate if each recipe immediately followed its related story instead of being bundled up at the end.
The storytelling is straightforward and succinct. Frank recounts her various ventures: learning to play musical instruments, teaching disabled children, and practicing law. Despite being enjoyable and exciting, these ventures speak loudly of Frank’s unstable nature. Dancing in Time, Playing with Fire does not feature a lovable and admirable figure like Julia Child. Frank uses a raw, brash, and slightly sarcastic voice, yet she not-so-discreetly shies away when hinting at her tragedies, confusion, and the emotional baggage still plaguing her now. Her tough shell definitely hides insecurity. To be honest, her character is not my cup of tea. I find her general attitude patronizing, haughty, and stubborn to the point of being childish. I even sense her discomfort and reluctance when discussing her ups and downs, which makes me uncomfortable peering into her world. Besides, she mockingly declares herself “a habitual wanderer,” but I think it is just another proof that she often has no exact idea what she wants to do in life. Yet, I highly appreciate the fact that this book is actually an attempt to sort out her disorganized life and overflowing emotions.
Apart from few mistakes, Dancing in Time, Playing with Fire is professionally edited. I rate it 3 out of 4 stars. The recipes do require some skill and good judgment, but they are still perfect for busy people who want hearty, convenient, and cost-effective meals. Even if you are not much of a cook, if you like reading about people’s experience related to arts, culture, and traveling, you may have fun reading this. On the other hand, the book is not recommended to anyone in search of a structural approach to cooking or haute cuisine.
Dancing in Time, Playing with Fire
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