Bare Minimum Dinners, by Jenna Helwig****

What a good idea! Helwig’s approachable, practical guide is one of the most useful cookbooks I’ve seen in recent years. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

One of the drawbacks to growing up with easily available readymade meals, as most Americans have done, is that nobody has to learn to cook anymore. It’s optional, the way that baking elaborate meals and desserts used to be. But it’s always more expensive to order take-out food than to make it yourself; it has to be, since you are essentially paying them for not just ingredients, but also the labor costs, utility and rent, and other expenses associated with producing it. The meal that you pull out of your freezer is a bit cheaper, and so is the ubiquitous ramen, but neither is useful nutritionally. A lot of people have become born-again cooks over the course of the pandemic, and after all we have been through, it’s nice that at least some of us have benefited in small ways.

Most cookbooks—and I love the things, even the useless ones—aren’t especially helpful. They call for elaborate preparation; tools you probably don’t own; unusual ingredients that have to be hunted down; and then in some cases, produce far more food than a single person or couple can make use of. Helwig’s is different. Her recipes call for ordinary, inexpensive ingredients, and most of them require only basic kitchen equipment. Right up front she explains what pans, machinery, cutlery and other tools she recommends we buy, and although this chapter looks like the one that a lot of people will skip on their way to find a recipe for tonight’s dinner, I recommend you read it when you purchase the book. This reviewer is a Boomer, and I was thirty before I had a microwave oven. I know how to cook and am fairly good at it. Nevertheless, reading this chapter persuaded me to add one more item to my collection. Her practicality is undeniable.

The recipes that look the most tempting to me also require the largest number of dishes to be washed. That’s the way it goes, right? Chilaquiles; Apple Dutch Baby; Mushroom and Gruyere Quesadillas; yum! But she also has an entire chapter titled “Bare Minimum Cleanup” which faithfully adheres to a rule of one pot or pan, period. Because some nights we don’t care to be creative. We just want to grab the food, fix it, and get dinner out of the way so we can move forward with our evening. Helwig gets that.

The sole complaint that prevents my fifth star for jumping on board is that there are certain ingredients and flavors that appear too frequently. Not everybody loves cabbage, for example. Helwig rhapsodizes about its taste, low price, and versatility, and whereas the latter two claims are obviously true, the first is subject to the cook’s preferences. As for me, I do like cabbage once in awhile, but I don’t want it all the time. There are also a few other places where I would have preferred some more versatility.

Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and every recipe in this cookbook has more appeal than that freezer-burnt burrito you bought last March. If you are a newbie with a limited income and not much kitchen experience, you should get this book now. If you are more seasoned, you might want it anyway. And as a bonus feature, I notice that although almost every cookbook is frustrating to read digitally, this one is better than most. If you can get it in print, I still advise doing so, but if your budget only runs to digital versions, that shouldn’t stop you. Someday you’ll wonder how you got by without it.

Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour****

Darren leads a moderately successful life, in charge of a local Starbucks, and happy at home with his longtime girlfriend and his mama. But all of them know that he can do more with his talents, and so when a recruiter from Sumwun comes for Darren, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. But you know what they say; be careful what you wish for.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

When Darren changes jobs, he moves out of his familiar surroundings, comfortably populated with people of color, many of whom he has known all his life, to a corporation where he is the only Black man. He is demeaned and subjected to almost every possible stereotype and racist trope, but he perseveres, because this is a sales job, and the timid and weak stand no chance at all. He knows that the longer he stays there, the stronger he’ll get, and as far as that goes, it’s true. When a disaster befalls the company, it’s Darren that pulls it out of the water. And then again. And again. And yet, the crap thrown by others keeps hitting him.

The magic of good satire is the recognition it draws, the moans and the nods and the headshakes. The author tells us in his introduction that the book is written for Black people, and it doesn’t take long to see why Caucasian people may not relate as well. Even those of us living in mixed families can only glimpse the edges of what Black people put up with; even so, I do find myself groaning and chuckling as the story progresses.

This is a strong work of fiction and an impressive debut, and I recommend it to everyone that knows that Black Lives Matter, and especially to those that only suspect it’s true. I look forward to seeing what  Askaripour writes next.

On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.