(And once you read it, you'll understand why recipe metaphors are hard to resist.)
Owen Wedgwood's culinary skills are famed throughout England. A "cook for gentlemen and ladies of highest station," he works for Lord Ramsey, chairman of the Pendleton Trading Company, a shipping firm pursuing the tea trade in distant India and China.
One fateful afternoon in 1819, after preparing a mouthwatering feast for Ramsey and his colleagues, he sees his employer murdered before his eyes. The perpetrator is Mad Hannah Mabbot, the flame-haired pirate queen whose fearsome deeds have made her a notorious name on the high seas.
Captain Mabbot kidnaps our narrator, installs him in grimy quarters aboard the Flying Rose, and presents her demands. He must prepare a gourmet meal for her every Sunday, never repeating the same dish twice – or else. The ship's pantry hold is pretty meager, so while Mabbot and her loyal crew head out in pursuit of the thieving Brass Fox while being chased by the dangerous privateer Laroche, "Wedge" is forced to improvise his creations, all the while trying to devise his escape.
Needless to say, Wedge is miserable, and he notes all his thoughts in a logbook he conceals in his cabin. "I'll say here that I do hate ships," he writes. "When conversations occasionally turn nautical, I have found that there are always herbs that need drying or cheeses to press."
Fortunately, he proves up to the task. The dishes he prepares are drool-worthy: potato-breaded whitefish in shrimp sauce over saffron rice and rum-poached figs stuffed with blue cheese, for example. (Well, for the most part; I regretted the fate of the homing pigeons.) The gastronomic delicacies, combined with Wedge's dryly humorous, eloquently written journal entries, make the novel well worth diving into.
The highlight, though, is Captain Mabbot herself. She's a spectacular character. Her methods are ruthless and brutal, yes, but as Wedge discovers, to his great surprise, she's an intelligent conversationalist with deeply felt reasons behind her actions.
The secondary characters are a colorful lot, from the burly first lieutenant Mr. Apples, an avid knitter, to Joshua, the mute cabin boy who becomes Wedge's very capable assistant. The swashbuckling plot is swiftly paced and firmly situated in its backdrop of British imperialism, with readers seeing each spoke of the "tea-opium-slave wheel" as it turns.
The initial concept delivers, but the best part is that the reading experience offers much more than that. Comedic, thoughtful, and touchingly romantic all at once, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a pirate adventure like no other. Even the most stubborn landlubbers will want to climb on board.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in June at $26.00/$30.00 in Canada (hardcover, 318pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.