Can you recall your favorite meal? Do you remember the room where it happened? The aesthetics of the restaurant or home, the way the table was set, if it was quiet and intimate or open and boisterous? When the food arrived can you recall the intoxicating aroma wafting towards you, the mouthwatering view of what’s plated before you? The elegance of what you’re about to experience is a picture you want to imprint in your long term memory. You cut into that first portion and place the food into your mouth. Can you remember that first bite? How your taste buds felt the explosion of flavors you didn’t know existed, but can now commit to memory so that you can relive that all-consuming experience of tasting something so exceptional that it’s the closest you’ll get to magic.
Food is something we as a species cannot live without. It plays an essential role in our health, home, and culture. And in With the Fire on High, Elizabeth Acevedo remarkably combines these aspects into a delicious story about a young woman who is trying to make a place for herself in this world.
Besides the gorgeous, mouth-watering cover and the fact this book is about food, Acevedo has created more than just a novel. She has in many ways created a play. Like a play, With the Fire on High is broken into three brilliantly titled parts: The Sour, The Savory, and the Bitter Sweet. Each part has scenes, the smaller pieces of the overarching story being told, that connects or conveys the meaning of each titled act. And within each act, Acevedo beautifully creates these compelling and emotional moments, interlaced with delicious recipes of homemade food, leaving us not only with a physical hunger, but an emotional one too, a yearning to continue to feast on the beauty of each word, each moment of this story.
First there’s the Sour:
“Serves: Your heart when you are missing someone you love.”
Sour [souuhr] – having an acidic taste; unpleasant; producing the one of four basic taste sensations that is not bitter, salt or sweet.
Emoni Santiago is a senior in high school. Like most seniors, she has countless responsibilities: homework, studying, SAT’s, work, college entrance essays, and figuring out what she wants to do with her life: specifically going to college or getting a full-time job. But unlike most of her classmates, Emoni is also a mother. And from the very opening lines of With the Fire on High, Acevedo beautifully sets the stage of the struggles a teenage mom faces; having limited time to spend with her daughter during the week, not being able to be part of every milestone or monumental moment, or the funds to get her everything she wants.
Besides her inner struggle of motherhood, Emoni also faces ridicule, insults, and contempt from her peers after becoming pregnant and deciding to keep her child. High School and all its inner workings is a puzzle every teenager will either slowly figure out, solve right away, or give up and move on, but regardless of those facts, the experience is like a cyclone of blood thirsty, overly hormonal, mean pack of chinchillas all trying to get to the top of the food chain.
With the help of her grandmother and her best friend, Emoni is able to shrug off the insults, keeping her chin high, ignoring the annoying stuff, but making it known when someone gets nasty she easily shuts down an insult without having to raise her voice.
Another major factor that is often raised is race and self-identity, which is poignant to bring up because there are two chapters in Sour that focus specifically on both in Malachi and Black Like Me. In these two chapters Acevedo seems to pose the question of why it’s necessary to break down race, or more importantly why does society, or certain ethnicities find it necessary to hold people of color under a microscope, nit-picking every tiny detail, and methodically try to define who belongs where.
And when you live your whole life with people questioning what ethnicity you are over and over and over again, it gets a little maddening to have to conduct a history lesson for the umpteenth time of your own self-identity. “My father is Puerto Rican and he’s darker than my mom was, and her whole family is straight-up-from-the-Carolines Black. And her hair was just as curly as mine. Not all Black women, and Latinas, look the same.” (Acevedo 66)
It’s not only the fact that Emoni has to defend who she is to society by verbally explaining who she is and her family history, but she also has to deal with this idea of being Black Enough. “As if Emoni’s Puerto Rican side cancels out any Blackness.” Then having to explain “how the majority of slaves were dropped off in the Caribbean and Latin America, on how just because Emoni’s Black comes with bomba and mofongo doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.” (Acevedo, 69)
Undoubtedly, Acevedo brilliantly writes that when it comes to race it’s complicated. There is no straight answer for who we are or describing our lineage. It’s as though people view Emoni as “some long-division problem folks keep wanting to parcel into pieces, and they don’t hear me when I say: I don’t reduce, homies. The whole of me is Black. The whole of me is whole.” (Acevedo, 70)
What is most refreshing about Emoni throughout Sour is even though she is trudging through the trenches with the weight of the world and a toddler on her shoulders she still manages to have a strong self-awareness, self-worth, and is not ashamed of being a mother, but is empowered by it. It makes her resolute in her decisions while having a no-nonsense attitude that can be inspiring as it is valued. She’s capable of handling herself and making it perfectly clear what she does and does not want.
Next there’s the Savory:
“Serves: Your ego when you’re full of regret.”
Savory [sey-vuh-ree] – pleasant or agreeable in either taste or smell (or both). Pleasing; attractive.
While in Sour we experience some of the unpleasant moments in Emoni’s’ life, in Savory, things begin to turn around not only for Emoni as a promising chef, but also her ability to trust and to enjoy friendships to their fullest potential.
Emoni’s cooking is like a sunset after a stormy day, where her emotions become part of the recipe mixed in with all the dry and wet ingredients, until it’s baked to perfection and you taste each tear drop, each smile in the first bite, and you begin to recall memories cherished, where you hadn’t thought of in weeks, or decades. After one meal, you’re able to relive it as if it happened seconds ago.
Even though Emoni’s cooking is in every way magical, she hasn’t fully mastered all the rules that accompany running your own restaurant. In her culinary arts class, it isn’t just about perfecting the taste of the food, but having the basic knowledge and understanding of food preparation, maintenance of all culinary equipment, food storage, food and safety guidelines, and regulations. Emoni struggles with this at first. She knows and her teacher, Chef Ayden, knows that her food is exceptional, that her hands guide her to what will make a meal most memorable by adding a little bit of this or cutting the food like that. But when Emoni doesn’t follow the rules or isn’t able to answer basic questions that all Chefs should know when in the kitchen, she flat lines (not literally).
She isn’t able to answer those basic questions and for her, in that moment, she doesn’t feel like she has to. Emoni doesn’t care because the food and the taste is what matters, not the other stuff. But that other stuff does matter and this is where the lesson is learned. Emoni, although a teenager, is a smart young woman. And, yes, every once in a while our pride gets the better of us, but over time she understands the why, the necessity for those rules and begins to grow as a cook. Because once you know the rules inside and out as though they were inked onto your brain, then you can create food however you wish as long as the underlining principals are still somewhere in the background.
Food isn’t the only savory part of this portion of the meal that is this novel, getting to know a certain someone is another portion that is as tasty as the main course. After having a child, Emoni isn’t interested in what boys want. Her focus is her child, getting through high school, and graduating. Again, I love her no nonsense mom-like attitude when it comes to boys. “But all the toddler books all suggest moms practice direct and clear language, managing expectations, giving explicit instructions, et cetera. Sometimes I think boys are just like babies when it comes to something they want—and they need to be told no, firmly and without qualification.” (Acevedo 84)
Emoni is bold and brave, even when she used to be shy and quiet, but now she has more responsibilities, and no time for self-indulgence because she has a child to take care of. But every once in a while, someone comes around, who isn’t all about one thing and one thing only, and they just might surprise Emoni into figuring out that she can have something more, something that is as enticing and delicious as her food.
Finally the Bitter Sweet:
“Serves: Your strength when you feel alone.”
Bitter Sweet [bit-er-sweet] – both bitter and sweet in taste; pleasant and painful or regretful at the same time.
In those final moments of this sumptuous novel, the bitter sweet is the perfect ending because it’s about moving on. Emoni takes her life into her own hands because now she’s an adult with a high school diploma and the goals she’s set for herself. And it won’t be easy. As in life, nothing ever is, but Emoni is motivated to stick with her decisions even when it’s the most difficult thing to do.
I could not put this novel down. Elizabeth Acevedo has created a masterpiece a fusion of flavor and spices that is both a pleasure and a gift. It has all the right ingredients that will have you devouring this novel in only a handful of days. My hope is With the Fire on High reaches a larger audience so they too can enjoy this incredible novel, where teens like Emoni and adults at any age can appreciate what Acevedo brings to the table: a well-rounded balance of complete open honesty, scrupulous prose, and the rich and delicious detail of Emoni’s cooking and her food. Bon appétit!
Happy Reading ̴ Cece
RATING: – Exceptionally Inked
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: May, 2019
Audience: Young Adult; ages 13 and up
Jacket Illustration and Case Art: Erick Davila
Jacket Design: Erin Fitzsimmons