I read some great books this year, and this was one of them. I’ve had this novel on my radar for some time now. I remember when it was published and how much readers gushed about it, but that’s not why I added it to my TBR. I placed it there because I love the cover.
The background color of the cover is one I love, and I like that the smoke from Mabbot’s gun forms the title and author’s name. I now know that the figures on the front are the impressive pirate Mabbot and the reluctant Owen Wedgewood, chef extraordinaire. But before reading, I wondered what I’d learn about them. It seemed an odd pairing, this sailor lady with a bound chef.
2021 is the year I finally decided to give in and read this book, and I’m glad I did. From the first page I knew it would be one I’d love; one I’d end up marking several passages in because I love the prose. As such, I had to get my own copy and went on a search to find the edition with this cover, since it’s no longer sold in stores. I was happy when I found one at a second-hand store online and now, since completing the story, am glad I have my own copy for when I want to visit the story again.
A gripping adventure, a seaborne romance, and a twist on the tale of Scheherazade—with the best food ever served aboard a pirate’s ship
The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail.
To appease the red-haired captain, Wedgwood gets cracking with the meager supplies on board. His first triumph at sea is actual bread, made from a sourdough starter that he leavens in a tin under his shirt throughout a roaring battle, as men are cutlassed all around him. Soon he’s making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider.
But Mabbot—who exerts a curious draw on the chef—is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur hidden on her ship, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. As Wedgwood begins to sense a method to Mabbot’s madness, he must rely on the bizarre crewmembers he once feared: Mr. Apples, the fearsome giant who loves to knit; Feng and Bai, martial arts masters sworn to defend their captain; and Joshua, the deaf cabin boy who becomes the son Wedgwood never had.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a swashbuckling epicure’s adventure simmered over a surprisingly touching love story—with a dash of the strangest, most delightful cookbook never written. Eli Brown has crafted a uniquely entertaining novel full of adventure: the Scheherazade story turned on its head, at sea, with food. (Goodreads)
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is one of the best books I read this year, and one of the most surprising ones too because I didn’t expect it to be an adventure tale. (I obviously didn’t read the synopsis on Goodreads or the jacket flap.)
By the time I started the story, I’d forgotten all I’d learned about it through reviews I consumed shortly after it was published. I expected the passages about cooking and food that left my mouth watering, my stomach grumbling, and me wondering if I’d made a bad decision earlier in life when I decided to evade the kitchen and my aunties to avoid cooking.
“The ravioli slid voluptuously about the plate, attended by the firefly aromas of bay leaf and garlic. Their skins were tender between the teeth, yielding at the last moment to an eddy of smoked eel.”
Despite his circumstances and the meager supplies he has to work with, Wedgewood made cooking appealing to me (ME! who despises the kitchen until it’s time to eat). His passion for the art easily shines through in Brown’s prose.
But I didn’t expect this to be a high seas adventure as well. There are squalls that made me think the ship would be swept away with Wedgewood. There are battles at sea with cannons blasting and the pirates boarding another ship to take its goods and put its men to sea. Wedgewood, being the stubborn man that he is, is not a compliant prisoner and often seeks ways to escape Mabbot’s clutches. His attempts are daring and sometimes funny and often places him in more danger than if he’d stayed put. But it was entertaining to read of Wedgewood’s plight, despite his suffering.
Set in the 1800s, the story is Wedgewood’s chronicle of his adventures when he was kidnapped by Mad Hannah Mabbot, a notorious pirate who haunts the British Pendleton trading company upon the high seas while searching for the elusive Brass Fox. Mabbot stole Wedgewood after murdering his employer. She told him she will grant him his life if he cooks exquisite meals for her every Sunday. Wedgewood, being very stubborn, is at first reluctant and then flabbergasted when he realizes how poor the supplies and tools are that he has to work with. But as he fiddles with ideas and gets more desperate (and hungry), inspiration strikes and leads him to create culinary miracles aboard Mabbot’s Flying Rose.
The pace is slow, but I didn’t mind it as I took my time savoring Brown’s prose. I highlighted so many things that the copy I bought now bleeds yellow. But what also made this an enjoyable read is Wedgewood’s sarcasm about his situation, the crew of the Flying Rose, and Mabbot. He’s very bitter when he’s captured and rightly so. His employer, who he seemed to deeply care for, was killed in front of him by the woman who kidnapped him and is holding him hostage in what he would deem poor conditions.
Wedgewood undergoes much character development throughout the story as Mabbot works away at him to remove the film from his eyes that prevents him from seeing his employer and the Pendleton trading company for what they are. Because although Mabbot is a menace, she has a goal and is trying in her own way to put a stop to the trading company pumping opium into China to open up trade routes there and to disrupt its trade in slavery in Africa and other countries. Also, she’s in pursuit of the Brass Fox!
The change in Wedgewood occurs gradually until he’s much changed, physically as well, by the end of the novel that he seems damn near a pirate himself. He’s so much changed that neither the reader nor Wedgewood can see him returning to the life he yearned for at the beginning, when he was a newly kidnapped, blinkered chef angry at Mabbot and unable to see anything appealing about the crew, the captain, or life at sea.
Other than Mabbot, I liked the crew of the Flying Rose because they seem a lively bunch. They put on plays, and I got the impression that they sing lots of bawdy songs, which greatly annoyed Wedgewood. Wedgewood is of the Christian faith and entrenched in the British view of things, so at first he judges everything and everyone through those lenses. But the more he experiences and meets and gets to know new people and their way of life, the more he questions aspects of his religion and beliefs. But anyway, the crew — Mr. Apples, Mabbot’s first lieutenant and commander, quickly stood out to me because of his name and… his description for things:
“Opium, Captain! Perfume on it like a lily stuffed up Satan’s arse.”
I also love that Mr. Apples knits caps and scarves for himself and the crew and raises scorpions. Joshua, I liked as well. He’s a deaf cabin boy who Wedgewood thought he needed to care for at first to protect him from the heathens and savages aboard the ship. Wedgewood teaches Joshua how to read and write, and I enjoyed seeing how their relationship develops as it also challenges Wedgewood to take a look at his beliefs and assumptions:
“The boy came to me to learn reading and writing but, after all, what are his signs if not a writing on the air? — and more eloquent for the dramatic facility of the face, which can deliver meaning better than any punctuation.”
Another thing this story touches on that surprised me is the art of creating, of being an artist, and for that I’d recommend this book to creatives as well. There is so much passion when Wedgewood talks about food and cooking that I wondered if Eli Brown is a cook or a foodie or a food critic (lol). It’s obvious that Wedgewood loves his profession, but it was inspiring when he spoke of food and the art of cooking and seeking substitutes for the ingredients and tools he lacked. I think many artists will be able to relate to Wedgewood’s reflections on the drafting and the process and the presentation of his work, and how he sees his creations as an extension of himself.
There’s lots more I’d like to say, but I feel as if I’m talking in circles discussing the book without fully getting across why and how much I loved it. It is a really good read and it is well written and I had a wonderful time with it. It’s a favorite, and I know I will read it again some day to sample more of Brown’s prose and Wedgewood’s cooking.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
And, of course, I recommend the hardcover edition (one of few times I’ll ever recommend a hardcover) because this cover looks way better than the paperback one.
Quotes from the book
“As with Don Juan, reputation stirs desire. But even the best chef must entice interest, use aroma to flirt, caress and kiss with silken soups, reassure and coddle with a dulcet pudding.”
“It began Monday night, as many terrible stories do, with a false smile.”
“Men who long for the past are already dead. Look to the future, Owen.”
“I’ve had this pain. To tell you it will go away would be a lie. It will never go away. But, if you live long enough, it will cease to torture and will instead flavor you. As we rely on the bitterness of strong tea to wake us, this too will become something you can use.”
“I had been cooking my entire life and had never understood the sanctity of my duties. For all of my kitchen philosophies were nothing compared to the truth that now opened me to the bone: that I was, myself, food.”
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU MIGHT LIKE…
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Also set in the 1800s, it is about a Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave in New Orleans who unintentionally stows away on a slave ship bound for Africa to pick up members of a mysterious tribe called the Allmuseri. This, too, is about a sarcastic character who reluctantly embarks on a high seas adventure upon a ship that seems to be falling apart. However, unlike Cinnamon and Gunpowder, it has some mystical moments when the Allmuseri board the ship. I HIGHLY recommend it. Great storytelling and great writing too.