***This is a sponsored post. I was provided a copy of She Cooks, She Scores for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own and no other compensation has been received. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…***
Food-based memoir, on the surface, should be an easy mark to hit. After all, everyone eats and many people are able to tie certain strong memories to the food they enjoyed at those times. Home cooking, soul food, amazing dinners out, it all connects us on some level. And since I love hearing the stories behind the food, I was really looking forward to enjoying Stoker’s She Cooks, She Scores when it arrived.
Todd always likes it when I get new review cookbooks in–he likes to pull new dinner ideas out of them as much as I do–but when I asked him if he’d found anything interesting in Scores (he’d gotten to it before I did), he said it was more frou-frou food. And after flipping through the first few sections, you’d think a better title for the book would be ‘My Love Affair with Lobster.’ The men don’t last, but her main ingredient takes center stage for many early recipes. Granted, she was in New England for most of The Ex’s and proximity could have informed her choices just as much as pretension. But when Stoker refers to a soon-to-be ex’s family home as a mansion or specifies that she grabbed a bottle of Evian (as opposed to just bottled water) to put out a grease fire you get the sense that Stoker did not come from humble beginnings and is not necessarily interested in appealing to the wider, middle-class demographic.
Fair enough, we all have our niche, right?
The stories that accompany the clusters of recipes are entertaining but cringe-worthy. I think she was going for a Sex and the City vibe, but it came across as more of a confessional blog entry. A couple of beta readers or maybe even a ghost-writer could have helped refine each lengthy story into a salacious anecdote and moved the book along at a faster clip, letting the recipes take center stage. There were also some inconsistencies between stories that bothered me–an example would be her first catering job for a soon-to-be ex’s mother where she was so unprepared as to forget the marinade for the chicken and grabbed a wine cooler from the hostess’s fridge as a substitute. But much later in the book she refers to the wine cooler marinade as an experiment inspired by Chef Michael Symon’s out-of-the-box thinking on food. Sure, you could spin it that way, but be consistent.
Speaking of the food, how are the recipes?
We tried out a couple that were suitable for during-the-week dinners and were overall pleased with the results but not wowed. The dish names read more like the description on a restaurant menu which could scare less adventurous cooks away and often involve multiple parts and preparations. Also, while each recipe is listed in the Table of Contents in the order it appears in the book, there is no Index at the back of the book whatsoever–something I don’t think a cookbook should be without. Instead we get a page of “Jenn-ism Glossary” entries, only a handful of which appear in the book, and most of which have nothing to do with food. The food photography throughout the book (along with styled photos of the author created for the book and personal photos from the author’s past) really are lovely and certainly whet the appetite. The layout and design of the book is also first-rate–it’s a beautiful book, aesthetically speaking.
The Stuffed Italian Chicken recipe is one she created before ever considering culinary school (and the realization of her “God-given talent for cooking”). It utilizes light beer as a marinade and red wine in the sauce, and includes raisins in the cheese-based filling. There was far too much sauce for the 4 chicken breasts but other than that the end result was pleasant enough. (I opted not to use the liquid smoke called for in the marinade ingredients as I’m not a big fan of it.)
A prime example of long recipe names that are really descriptions, Stoker Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing, Caramelized Red Onion Bits, and a Fried Egg is based on a similar salad she experienced a Chef Symon’s restaurant shortly after finishing at the CIA. While the dressing was a little vinegary for Todd’s taste, I was thrilled with the bacon dressing and how it just began to wilt the spinach as it was being served. And, of course, top anything with a fried egg and I’m usually on board.
While the larger part of the book is dedicated to stories of failed relationships and the recipes that survived them, she does bookend them with stories and food related to family and friends–both of which are more approachable overall. Chapter 5, “Happy Endings,” was of particular interest to me as readers of this blog know I’ve recently had to cut out a lot of ingredients from my own diet to improve my digestive health. This chapter mentions Stoker’s own food intolerances (diary and gluten) and how it changed her view on food and cooking in general.
“Being a chef and unable to tolerate any dairy products is the most horrible thing in the world.”
She Cooks, She Scores, page 172
Well, that might be a bit of hyperbole, especially with substitutions so readily available, but she goes on to label dairy as “unhealthy.” That sort of blanket statement really grates against the all things in moderation mantra, as these items are only unhealthy in excess to the general population. It’s that sort of ingredient x-is-evil kind of mentality that is creating the skewed, misinformed population that succumbs to the twisted marketing practices of larger food manufacturers, and something I would hope any chef would want to steer clear of, not feed. Furthermore, I think Stoker could have served her audience better by including substitution ideas in the footnotes of each recipe throughout the book rather than just this one brief chapter.
Looking at She Cooks, She Scores I see a lot of potential. Unfortunately it just missed the bar for me. I know other people have enjoyed her stories immensely, so I may be in the minority for finding them more aggravating than amusing. The recipes suffer from unwieldy names that may turn off some cooks, but the food underneath them is good. I think had it been given another edit or two this book would have been the book Stoker wanted, but like a cake taken out of the oven too soon, it’s still a bit underdone in the middle.