May 2014

Shan Wang


Soufflé by Asli Perker

A soufflé, as anyone from the expert chef to the erstwhile food lover will know, is a notorious dish: a deceptively simple set of ingredients and instructions, tragicomically difficult to execute. This dessert is the central metaphor of Soufflé, journalist Asli Perker's first novel -- she translated from the Turkish herself -- which follows across multiple continents the disintegrating lives of three people in their old age and how the labor of cooking transforms their lives. Philippine-born Lilia feels suffocated in her loveless marriage to a bedridden Arnie and the mostly joyless passing of days in suburban New York. Once happily married, Marc finds himself adrift in Paris after the sudden death of his wife, caretaker, and soul mate, Clara, his only tie to society of any kind. Ferda, still adjusting to her adult daughter's move away from Istanbul to Paris, must now care fulltime for her own elderly mother, Mrs. Nesibe, whose broken hip and slide into dementia turns her into something of a monster who gives her daughter and son-in-law no respite. The common thread for the three otherwise unrelated sufferers is a cookbook entitled Soufflé: The Biggest Disappointment, teaching Lilia, Marc, and Ferda that failure, even in old age, can be valuable.

Reading Soufflé, one catches a whiff of something that is one part deft storytelling, one part perfunctory network cooking show, and one part self-help manual:

Now she understood why they said soufflé was one of the hardest recipes to perfect: because it always had the potential to get better. Maybe there was no such thing as an ultimate soufflé. The egg whites could form better peaks every time they were beaten. The consistency of the mixture became more mature each time, encouraging people to find a way to improve.

One yearns for more storytelling and less telling throughout. Like Marc, the most inexpert of the three cooks featured in her novel, Perker is too heavy-handed with her ingredients, repeating, sometimes verbatim, expressions of exhaustion, despair, grief, and isolation. When characters are unhappy, tears well up and run down cheeks, again and again. When they are tired -- and everyone is so, so, so very tired all the time -- bags form under eyes. Hearts break, repeatedly, out of loneliness. The novel is of course filled with descriptions of a range of multiethnic dishes accompanied occasionally by instructions on how to cook them. Some of this is evocative and has me itching to try my hand in my own kitchen. Describing a Georgian dish, khachapuri, to Arnie's physical therapist, Lilia says:

Well, first you make small pieces of dough, and then you roll them out into thin circles and fill them with cheese mixed with black-eyed peas. They actually have a special type of cheese for this, but since I couldn't find it I'm using feta instead. I added some salt, too. After you deep-fry them, you serve them with boiled chicken marinated in garlic.

Other times, the descriptions read rather like a cookbook excerpt awkwardly inserted into the narrative.

Mrs. Nesibe started to describe the dessert: "Add some water, sugar, a little lemon zest, and some orange zest. Add some cinnamon and cloves. Cook it until there's no more water left in the pan. Then add raisins, dried plum, dried apricot, and some more cinnamon, and cook them together... When it's all cooked, sprinkle some almonds, pine nuts, and cinnamon sticks on top."

For a novel entitled Soufflé, food's role in buoying the lives of those suffering reveals itself fairly late in the story, after a significant amount of exposition. Because we are introduced to all three main characters in their old age -- even the youngest, Marc, is no longer in what anyone would call "formative years" -- we are expected to accept the lifelong habits or passions or even grievances we are told they hold. Marc, we are told, "at the end of every night... smelled [Clara's] perfume mixed with the aroma of food [and] wouldn't trade this pleasure for anything in the world," Ferda "had enjoyed... making everything at home and watching people's reactions as they ate her food ever since she was a little girl," and Lilia craved Filipino comfort food "just like every other time she felt unhappy or tired since her childhood." When food finally takes center stage in the novel, Perker does succeed in showing its endless capacity to comfort. More importantly, she shows how food has the capacity to change even those who have grown used to decades of the same routines. Terrified and alone, Marc, the one character who has never cooked in his life, finally emerges from a sleeping pill-induced haze in the months after his wife's death to reclaim the kitchen and learn to cook on his own. "Truth be told, Marc was hungry," Perker tells us. "In fact, he'd been starving for months."

Soufflé aims to join impressive company. Mainstays of the food-writing genre such as Proust's passages on the madeleine, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, or M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, and contemporary classics such as Laura Esquival's Like Water for Chocolate, Joanne Harris's Chocolat, or Ruth L. Ozeki's My Year of Meats, have carved out a respected space for food in literature. Foremost, food sustains life, but it also serves as a vessel to showcase longing, seduction, discipline, hopefulness, and even joy. Though her novel sometimes dispenses with subtlety, of this fact, Asli Perker is acutely aware.

Soufflé by Asli Perker
Telegram Books
ISBN: 978-1846591440
364 pages