Bookin’ and Cookin’: The Tea House on Mulberry Street

Food and interesting stories. Each is one of life’s greatest pleasures, so when they are skillfully woven together into a book, we get twice the happiness. Today I’m reviewing The Tea House on Mulberry Street (2005), by Sharon Owens, in this episode of Bookin’ and Cookin.’

In her debut novel, Sharon Owens has woven together an ensemble cast of twisty Irish characters, set in the sometimes grim face of Belfast. Penny and Daniel Stanley own and operate Muldoon’s Tea Rooms, which Penny inherited from her parents, but they’ve both got secrets. Brenda Brown lives next door in a crumbling apartment and creates dark paintings that reflect her sad spirit — and she’s a “true fan” of Nicholas Cage. The Crawley sisters have devoted their life to helping others and basking in the reflected glory of their father’s WWII bravery. Rose is lonely and dispirited in her flower shop, and Henry is aghast at his wife Aurora’s need to impress people through her book club and enormous new conservatory. Arnold and Sadie co-exist in a loveless marriage, with Arnold’s success selling conservatories and replacement windows giving him an excuse for philandering and leaving Sadie with the care of his aging parents. Claire and Peter lost track of each other seventeen years ago and have never since been able to establish good relationships because they are still in love. In each story, which interconnect in the style of Love Actually, there are twists and turns, and some are even unexpected. I suspect you will cheer for Sadie and wonder if Penny and Daniel can ever make up for their years of hurts and secrets. Because these characters are mature people with problems that can occur in mature relationships, it’s not really chick lit for the reader looking for something light.

These stories are set on the daily plate of tempting goodies that come out of the kitchen at Muldoon’s Tea Rooms and will have you determined to find a tea room of your own to visit. Although there’s only one recipe actually at the back of the book, there’s a lot of creative inspiration here for your own tea party.

With a devastating review on amazon.com from Publishers’ Weekly and mixed reviews from both Amazon and goodreads viewers, you might find this book to be Maeve Binchy “lite.” I listened to it on audio, and found Caroline Winterson’s interpretation to be sprightly and compelling. Still, it gets four stars from both sets of reviewers, so I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that The Tea House on Mulberry Street is worth reading.

While Nigella Lawson is apparently now sold on no-bake Cherry Cheesecake, this recipe for baked New York Cheesecake from smitten kitten is more like what Daniel and Penny served at Muldoon’s. As for me, I’m still savoring the special treat that Sandy made me several years ago and I’m generally able to satisfy my cheesecake cravings locally by shopping at Eli’s Cheesecake — and I go to the outlet whenever I need cheesecake for a large group!

Bookin’ and Cookin’: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

It’s been a long time since I started reading a book that I just could not put down.

If you love food and love restaurants, you will really enjoy Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. From glimpses of her start in the Berkeley food scene of the 1970s to leaving The New York Times to move to her position as Gourmet magazine’s Editor in Chief, Reichl spins a tale of great food, great friendships, and great fun.

I was hooked on page one as Reichl tells about meeting a waitress on an airplane bound for New York in the summer of 1993. She had just accepted the position as the restaurant critic for the New York Times and was making a scouting trip to look for schools for her son. The waitress sitting next to her told her that every major kitchen in NYC already had her photo pinned to the wall so that staff members would recognize her when she came into their restaurant. That was when she realized that she would need to develop disguises to go incognito when scoping out restaurants for potential reviews.

The book tells tales of visits to very famous restaurants that were on bullets lists for foodies and tourists during the 1990s — Tavern on the Green, Windows on the World, Daniel. She also tells of visiting not-so-famous restaurants in hopes of exposing the Times readers to great food and broadening their palate. She would visit a restaurant in disguise multiple times and with different groups of people, checking on service as well as food quality. Then she would go back for a final visit as “herself” to see if Ruth Reichl, the NYT restaurant critic, got bigger raspberries, a better table, more attentive service, and better cuts of meat than did her alter egos.

I loved the insider’s look at places I’ve dreamed of, read about, and in several cases, never got to see, such as Windows on the World, which perished along with America’s innocence and the World Trade Center in 2001. Ruth Reichl wrote about the restaurant, in this article from 2011.

There’s talk of a movie being made of the book, which I think could have some promise, but apparently they are having a hard time getting it made. Too bad — I’d watch the movie of this book if the movie is actually true to the book.

I encourage you to try some of the recipes that appear in the book — she was a working mother who cooked dinner for her family when she wasn’t going out to dinner at some fabulous restaurant — and she started her career in California as a chef. She has a number of recipes linked up on her website, as well.  I’m going to try the mussels, myself. I’ve never made it at home and Ruth’s recipe makes me think I can be successful.

I’ll let you know.