Barnes was facing an empty nest with both of her sons off at college and a move from Texas to Washington for her husband's job when she applied for the job with the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. She didn't have a fancy culinary degree and she knew that fraternity cook was not exactly a sought after job in the food industry but she had cooked for a wealthy Dallas family and worked in the kitchen in a small, uninspiring restaurant and the thought of cooking for a house full of guys used to mac and cheese from a box, pizza, and assorted frozen entrees intrigued and challenged her. For her interview, she showed up carrying her grandmother's pot roast not knowing exactly what to expect of the house or the guys in the house. She got the job.
Subtitled What Eighty Ravenous Guys Taught Me About Life, Love & the Power of Good Food, this memoir is not an expose into an Animal House like Greek system but a loving and thoughtful look at the varied guys who came through Barnes' kitchen in the six years she spent with the Alpha Sigs and how she changed their perceptions of what is worth putting into your body as sustinence. She weaves stories of her own childhood and previous culinary experiences, her grandparents' farm, the Dallas family who insisted on out of season produce and then complained that it was tasteless, and more throughout her over-arching chronicle of cooking fresh meals for the guys, arguing with her vendors about the need for locally sourced foods, and becoming emotionally attached to many of the wonderful young men who passed through her kitchen.
Barnes captures the frustrations of working in a fraternity house, from the completely inadequate kitchen and utensils to the sometimes filthy and disgusting aftermath of weekend parties (she only worked during the week). She doesn't gloss over the aggravations of finding crusted food on the wall and pledges too lazy to clean it off or the state of the "women's" bathroom she uses. But she also speaks of the joys she encountered, the reasons she inevitably came back year after year despite her annual plan to quit when summer rolled around. The guys looked to her for tough love, emotional support in the face of grief, occasional advice, snappy comebacks, and darned good meals. She was a vital part of the house, full of sass and verve and a heart big enough to encompass this crazy group of men on the verge of adulthood.
The memoir highlights what is best about the slow food movement and serves as a love letter to her guys. She teaches the members of the fraternity about the importance of good, local food prepared well and she learns a lot about herself, positive and negative, through her interactions with each pledge class. She chronicles some hilariously funny situations and some that are heartbreakingly tragic. She admits her failures and her vanities and doesn't try to sugar coat what can sometimes come off as abrasive. She just lays it full out honestly and without embellishment. A different, very quick, and engaging read and it has some delicious sounding recipes tucked at the end of several of the chapters. And by the end of the book you'll probably wish, as I do, that Darlene Barnes, with her oversized personality and her definite opinions on food, would cook for you, or at least teach you to cook like her.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.