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Friday, March 20, 2015

BPL Book Discussion: The Hundred-Foot Journey

On Monday, the book group met to discuss Richard Morais' The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Here is the publisher's summary:
That skinny Indian teenager has that mysterious something that comes along once a generation. He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born. He is an artist. 
And so begins the rise of Hassan Haji, the unlikely gourmand who recounts his life’s journey in Richard Morais’s charming novel,The Hundred-Foot Journey. Lively and brimming with the colors, flavors, and scents of the kitchen, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a succulent treat about family, nationality, and the mysteries of good taste. 
Born above his grandfather’s modest restaurant in Mumbai, Hassan first experienced life through intoxicating whiffs of spicy fish curry, trips to the local markets, and gourmet outings with his mother. But when tragedy pushes the family out of India, they console themselves by eating their way around the world, eventually settling in Lumière, a small village in the French Alps. 
The boisterous Haji family takes Lumière by storm. They open an inexpensive Indian restaurant opposite an esteemed French relais—that of the famous chef Madame Mallory—and infuse the sleepy town with the spices of India, transforming the lives of its eccentric villagers and infuriating their celebrated neighbor. Only after Madame Mallory wages culinary war with the immigrant family, does she finally agree to mentor young Hassan, leading him to Paris, the launch of his own restaurant, and a slew of new adventures. 
The Hundred-Foot Journey is about how the hundred-foot distance between a new Indian kitchen and a traditional French one can represent the gulf between different cultures and desires. A testament to the inevitability of destiny, this is a fable for the ages—charming, endearing, and compulsively readable.
Now on to the discussion.

  • We had 8 liked, 0 disliked, and 4 so-so. I should also note, this was the first book in a while which I can remember everyone chiming in during these opening minutes. All 12 of us wanted to have a chance to speak right off the top. That was nice.
  • Liked were effusive in their praise
    • This book was fun, funny and refreshing
    • The characters were GREAT!
    • Yes, I agree. I wanted to hang out with them.
    • I liked how the tone was down to earth even though crazy things were happening.
    • I loved the theme of the mixing of cultures.
    • I liked how it was written. It was not fast, but it was compelling. The story moved.
    • I also liked how it was written, but for a different reason-- it was like a memoir but fiction. I like memoir style.
    • It had serious issues [like anti-immigrant sentiment and persecution] but it still felt gentle. The story dealt with hard issues but with an overall kindness that let you think about the issues without wallowing in the hopelessness of it,.
    • I love food, so I loved the theme of the power of food to bridge gaps and ease tensions.
  • The so-so voters (which included me) chimed in.
    • It was a nice easy read and it was pleasant, but it felt very contrived.
    • I must have changed my "vote" 5 times as I was reading it, from so-so, to disliked, to liked [this person even changed her vote again at the meeting.] In the end, I went with so-so. I do have to say though, the ending was tender and beautiful and made me cry. She then read from some of the final lines of the book.
    • I am so-so because I wanted more of the story, more from some of the characters who had minor roles, and less detail about the elaborate meals and food.
    • Becky's turn. I don't always share my personal thoughts, often I try to just play devil's advocate if it is necessary, but no one expressed my so-so thought-- for me it did not have enough sensory descriptions of the food and smells.  I found I could not taste and smell the food as much as I wanted to. 
  • We talked about the settings:
    • London was their time of mourning. It was grey, they were living in exile.
    • They couldn't start to fully live again until they left London
    • The contrast between the vibrancy of life in Mumbai and the greyness of London was well done.
    • And all of it is contrasted with Lumiere, the place where, ironically, they most fit in.  It was between the other 2.
    • We loved the scenes in India and wish we had more. They remember it with fondness despite the fact that their mother was viciously murdered there, but we agree. Morais is able to make this seeming contradiction clear.
    • Paris was important as a place, but the setting did not become a character as it did for the other locations.
  • This led to us talking about the issue of racism and prejudice in this seemingly light novel.
    • Hassan's mother is burned to death early in the novel because they are Muslim in the majority Hindu India soon after partition [when most Muslim's went to Pakistan].
    • But then the intense anti-foreigner sentiments that come up in Lumiere were more vicious than I anticipated.
    • But there was so much more than the obvious, he's Indian in world of haute cuisine issues. There were so many different levels of prejudice here.
    • Yes, the chefs had prejudices against different types of cooking
    • Hassan's father had his own prejudices.
    • We read a few of Madame Mallory's quotes about "snobs" and related them to this larger issue also.
  • Let's talk title-- The Hundred Foot Journey
    • There are many journeys in this novel. Of course the "hundred-foot" refers to the walk across the street in Lumiere from the Indian restaurant to learning french cooking.
    • Those first 100 feet were the most pivotal because it was Hassan's first apprenticeship in french cooking, but there are many journeys in this novel big and small.
    • We talked about the obvious large journeys-- to London, to Lumiere, to Paris. From poor to rich, etc... 
    • But we decided that the title choice of "hundred-foot" journey forces us to think about how sometimes the smallest journeys can be the most meaningful.  Like the one time Hassan and his mom stop at a French restaurant in India.
    • Small journeys are huge. Mallory's short journey across the street led to her large journey to learn about and trust Hassan's talent.
    • Also, look at Margaret.  She wouldn't go to Paris with Hassan because she didn't want to make a longer journey.  She wanted to stay in Lumiere, but that choice did not work out well for her.
  • Food?-- I just introduced the word as question and let them go. [Sometimes, less really is more]:
    • Food is a character here. Specifically, I loved the "partridge in mourning."
    • The names of the different restaurants added to the food becoming a character.  [I had translated the french restaurant names for them]
    • I loved the description of how Hassan's dad ate food. It was one of the best descriptions in the book.
    • This book made me realize for the first time that French cuisine really is and art. I appreciate it much more now.
    • Yes, I now see haute cuisine as an art form. Like any artist the chefs have to make sacrifices. So much of it though is about power and if that power goes to your head you lose the purity of why you even started doing it.  
  • Hassan:
    • Seeing most of the book through Hassan's eyes was good.  He is an outsider and makes us understand all of the issues.
    • This was a coming of age story for Hassan, but it was coming of age in middle age and moving into mature life.  I enjoyed that.  Too often coming of age stories only feature young people.
    • Yes, it makes the point, a good one I think, that "coming of age" is a life journey.
    • Toward the end, Hassan is looking for ways to bring the simple, the "home," back into his haute cuisine. He is growing still, but coming home while doing it.  That tension is interesting-- growing while looking back.
    • The ending is closed but another journey is about to begin for Hassan.  Now that he has 3 stars he has to keep growing, or he will die [literally and career wise, like his Chef friend].
  • Women in this novel?
    • There are many women in this novel, and most of them bring dignity to the story.
    • This is a male author, writing about a male chef, but it is the women here who see what Hassan can become. The women are the ones who encourage him, and Hassan knows, the women are the one upon whom his success lies.
    • Mom, Mallory, Margaret, Sister.
    • I wanted more about his sister. She was so interesting but we didn't get enough of her.
  • The Movie--a bunch of people had also seen the movie.
    • I didn't see the movie, but I knew Helene Mirren played Mallory and I was annoyed that I could not stop picturing Mirren each time Mallory was described.
    • That is interesting because I did not see the movie or know about it and the descriptions of the character were "un-Mirren" like.
    • We then had a general discussion about whether or not we like to see the movies of books we have enjoyed and how we feel about movies made from books in general. This was a fun and interesting conversation in and of itself.
  • Words that describe this book:
    • fairy tale
    • delicious
    • nourishing
    • picaresque
    • journey
    • engaging
    • likable characters
    • beautiful
    • moving
    • cinematic
    • funny
    • compelling
    • sensual
    • family
    • haute cuisine
    • home
    • believable fictional memoir
Readalikes: There are many directions you could go to offer readalikes here.  I am going to suggest a few.

If you would like another first person narration with a strong sense of place try The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

If you want a culinary read that is light but not without some serious issues try the White House Chef Mysteries by Julie Hyzy.

If you want more Indian set stories with all of the antics but still some underlying serious issues, try the Vish Puri Mysteries by Tarquin Hall.

If you want the  real, no holds barred, look behind the scenes in the world's most famous kitchens try Kitchen Confidential or A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain.

If you want more books that talk about the Michelin process and history try The Michelin Men: Driving and Empire by Herbert Lottman or Burgundy Stars: A Year in the Life of a Great French Restaurant by William Echikson or The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine by Rudolph Chelminski.

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