“The chicken kebab is moist and fragrant; the chicken chunks fall apart when I bite into them, and the aromas of turmeric and parsley flood my senses. I have to close my eyes to take in all the flavors—spicy, salty, meaty. The doogh is equally delicious; I swear I’ve never drunk something so creamy, so minty, so refreshing. For the few minutes that I’m eating, I actually forget that whole awkward interaction with Prem. All that exists is the food in my mouth, my ecstatically exploding taste buds, and me.”
Sandhya Menon, “The Grand Ishq Adventure”
Food is love. I knew that. Food is magic? After reading Hungry Hearts, an anthology edited by Elsie Chapman, I’m beginning to wonder. Although each short story is written by a different author, there is an ongoing theme of food, family, love, and yes, magic, that all takes place in a mythical neighborhood called Hungry Heart Row in the city of Rowbury, somewhere on the east coast of the United States. Hungry Heart Row is filled with characters that express emotions through what they create in the kitchen.
“The people here want you to love what you offer. And if they want to show you love through food, you let them know you see it. And then you show love back the best way you know how. That’s home.”
S. K. Ali, “A Bountiful Film”
The moods and styles may change from tale to tale, but the location grounds them into a bigger idea: a place where soup can make you bold or a specific plate of chicken can mean you will die. There are ghost stories and love stories, tales of triumph or horror. And so much food!
“The hostess led me toward a two-person table in the middle of the dim-sum restaurant I had hoped would cure me of my fear of death.”
Adi Alsaid, “Moments to Return”
The main characters of each story are teenagers, most often immersed in a legacy of food service, either as the one actually cooking the food, or, at least, serving it in the family workspace.
“That’s why I want to write about the deli. Work is survival. Food is survival. Anything else, though? Vulnerability.”
Phoebe Horth, “Bloom”
There is a mixture of those who are proud of their heritage and those who are sick of it, ones who can’t wait to take over and ones that can’t wait to get out. A few are in the area hoping to experience the magic, like the very first offering in Hungry Hearts.
Anna and her father are just visiting her Aunt on Hungry Heart Row, where the young girl explores the various food places, letting the reader meet some of the future characters and places that will be featured later. Anna has recently lost her mother and is distant with her father, but then a girl walks over to her at the park and offers Anna some Mexican pastries she baked.
“‘These are for you,” said the girl.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right person?” Anna asked, bewildered. “I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
“We haven’t,” said the girl.
“So those can’t be for me…”
“I don’t follow your logic,” the girl said, raising an eyebrow.”
Sangy Mandanna from, “Rain”
Anna takes a bite of the delicious pan dulce and begins to open up to the mysterious girl (who has her own storyline later), and eventually, Anna and her father together try to recreate her mother’s signature dish, Coorg pandhi curry, the taste bringing back the memory of the one they loved and lost.
Mexican and Indian dishes are just the beginning of the non-European cuisine that makes up Hungry Hearts. The writer’s use the traditional names that might be unfamiliar, but with elaborate descriptions so we are right there experiencing it with the character:
“The smell of khoresht e gheihmeh immediately hit my nostrils: the combination of tomato paste, dried limes, cubes of lamb, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, and split yellow lentils all hung sweetly in the air.”
Sara Farizan, “Side Work”
The reader will sample food stories of Persian, Mexican, Chinese, Native tribes, Filipino, Soul, Jewish, Egyptian, and Bengali spices and culture.
“I believe great food and great self-esteem pave the path to great love. Eating foods you’re unfamiliar with is an instant connection to a culture you might otherwise not explore or even think about at all. And who knows? When you’re in that restaurant eating a food you can’t pronounce the name of, you may just realize you’re a lot braver than you think. You may just realize that the one you love is waiting for you to speak up.” Sandhya Menon, “The Grand Ishq Adventure”
Romance is definitely a theme in Hungry Hearts:
“Looking down at his wild shock of dark hair, the blue-black eyebrows perfectly arched as though drawn with the steadiest hand, and the mouth that already had the gentlest laugh lines forming at the crease, I won’t lie; I finally knew what it meant to be thirsty.”
Karuna Riazi, “Hearts a la Carte”
“You like him, sing the bite and sweetness of the chiles.
You like him, agrees the soft five of the sweet potato.
You like him, chimes out the resiny warmth of the pine nuts.
You like him, whispers the spice that stays on my tongue, even through the crowd coming in for our first dinnertime rush.”
Anna-Marie Mclemore, “Panaderia-Pasteleria”
Although the advanced copy of Hungry Hearts I have doesn’t include a map (final published ones should), I made my own based on the clues sprinkled throughout the book: Pepper Street with the Manzano family’s pasteleria (the same block as the dry cleaners) where young Lila bakes her magical wares, there’s a produce stall at the corner of Nettle and Ginkgo where many of the characters start their day, Caper Street has the Persian restaurant trying to survive against the Italian-American chain with the help of a young woman trying to make amends, the library on Dill street where the advice columnist Dr. Ishq writes every week and goes on a grand adventure, the halal food cart near Mallow Park by Yarrow River where a beautiful boy falls from the sky, and where the Hungry Ghost festival takes place and a Chinese boy has to save the town, a hot dog vendor is right across from Hungry Heart Row Cinema on Ginkgo street with clues to what happened to the missing boy in a character’s film, and how there is an upscale neighborhood in NorthEast Rowbury that is slowly taking over the humble, but wonderful Hungry Heart Row landscape and the small family eateries are being pushed out.
“Lola didn’t frequent clean and well-let farmers markets. Instead, you accompanied her to a Filipino palengke, a makeshift union of vendors who occasionally set up shop near Mandrake Bridge and fled at the first sight of a police uniform. Popular features of such a palengke included slippery floors slicked with unknown ichor; wet, shabby stalls piled high with entrails and meat underneath flickering light bulbs; and enough health code violations to chase away more gentrification in the area. Your grandmother ruled here like some dark sorceress and was treated by the vendors with the reverence of one.”
Rin Chupeco, “Sugar and Spite”
Mothers and Grandmothers are very important to Hungry Hearts’ stories of food with power:
“My mother, who is unafraid to make cakes that spill out their hearts, because she has never feared doing the same.”
Anna-Marie Mclemore, “Panaderia-Pasteleria”
“For a second my mother’s expression is pained before going carefully blank. It’s hard to look at, and I wish I’d opened my mouth only to eat.”
“Each bite continues to leave behind an edge of bitterness, the sourness of stubborn denial. Sometimes the tears my mother cries into her pot come while she’s cursing beneath her breath; sometimes when I eat, it’s an image of our leader that flashes through my mind.”
Elsie Chapman, “Kings and Queens”
“People, your grandmother always liked to say, were viands made from only three fundamental ingredients: the salt of their blood, the spice of their bones, and the venom in their veins. The latter was the most important; poison, she added, gave character.”
“Like candy and heartbreak, moderation is key.”
Rin Chupeco, “Sugar and Spite”
“‘Not complicated! Very simple,” Waipo was quick to interject. “We live, we die, and then we become spirits. Some spirits are happy; some are sad. I help the sad ones—make sense? I feed them the food they like, and that makes them happy again.” She pointed Andie toward the stove and instructed her to simmer the pineapple in their juices. ‘You understand?'”
Caroline Tung Richmond, “The Slender One”
“Yes! I want to scream. Not because this was Dad’s dream before it was yours, and not because you talk about him like he’s trash even now, but because you are obsessed with your stupid five-star review. Because you love this restaurant more than you love me. Yes, that makes you a bad mom! Yes!”
Rebecca Roanhorse, “The Missing Ingredient”
“‘I’m so proud of you,” she says so sweet and slow, sweet and slow like the maple syrup running down the side of her hand.”
“‘Not all of them are gonna know to put their soul in the food and become one and the same with it. But you know how. It’s in your blood, grandson.'”
Jay Coles, “Gimme Some Sugar”
I kept track of the female speaking characters in each story, and the total for Hungry Hearts is 63% (58/92).
There is plenty of ethnic diversity. Plus some sexual diversity as well with a handful of LGBTQ characters.
Perhaps, one quote sums up Hungry Hearts the best in “Moment to Return” by Adi Alsaid:
“Soul food that’ll make you feel whatever the chef wants you to feel,” the Swede had said. “A Filipino restaurant that can turn your luck, a Mexican bakery that’ll make you love.” He’d lit a cigarette then, exhaled slowly… “There are few places in the world that are truly magical. Trust me—I’ve been around. That place? The food?” He waved his hand like he was shooing away a fly. “Changed my life.”
Geekmom received a copy for review purposes.