Mr. Percy finally realizing his obligation to protect his guests, made a valiant attempt to retrieve an heirloom sword from the mantel, but the massive Mr.Apples brought down his fist and ruined Mr. Percy's face as a child ruins a pie.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a book in which piracy meets cookery. As you can imagine it appeals to a wide readership. Our protagonist is Owen Wedgewood, a widowed chef. He's busy at work putting on the dog in a strange kitchen at the behest of his employer Lord Ramsey represents the Pendleton Trading Company which monopolizes the opium, tea, and slave trade in China, India, and Africa. And it's 1819, so these countries have other names, but that is what we understand them as now.
As Wedgewood, a cook of some renown, serves this meal, Mad Hannah Mabbot, a set of Asian twins, and her aforementioned Mr. Apples, whose "hands could hide skillets" burst into the home and dispatch Ramsey to the afterlife. After tasting the duck Wedgewood prepared, Mabbot kidnaps the cook, locks him into a damp chamber on her ship the Flying Rose and promises to let him live if he cooks for her once a week.
Naturally Wedgewood plots his escape each day as he learns the ropes--the ins and outs--of shipboard life as the ship searches for the Fox (another pirate), outruns various naval vessels, deals with a saboteur, and visits a fortuneteller.
The pirate's life is new to him and Brown's descriptions of life aboard a four-masted barque were realistic enough to me. The gruel served by the acting cook is swill, naturally. The cook is syphilitic and his open sores... Brown leaves much to the imagination as to kitchen hygiene, but does not when it comes to the lack of foodstuffs aboard ship that Wedgewood must make a meal from to suit our pirate queen.
Rule one: Feed Her Well
When it comes to problem-solving Wedgewood (and Brown) are amazing in the kitchen. And this is where one should take notes (the "how to survive capture by a pirate queen" part): He straps a tin box to his body so that he can keep a bread warm and rising. Otherwise it might get tossed out. Ocasaionlly he has access to fresh fish for their entree. He trades their excess goods with Japanese fishing boats, thus incorporating miso and soy into his repertoire.
Rule two: Converse with Her
Mabbot requires him to dine with her at each meal he prepares. Eventually his problem-solving skills and sharp tongue are recognized, although he is not a skilled fighter when the ship skirmishes with those set to plunder their resources. He makes up for those deficiencies by teaching a young deaf--mute boy to read and grows more content shipboard as their relationship deepens and as his prowess with creating inventive meals for Mabbot increases each week.
Rule three: Solve Her Problems (train her pirates well)
Historically the book delves into issues of the nineteenth century such as the slave trade, human trafficking, child prostitution, poverty and class issues, colonialism, and issues of race and gender and several of the characters take positions on those issues. While this is a fascinating book marrying a captivity-narrative with food and piracy, I love how Brown brings together these important social issues that are rarely considered in our works of fiction when it comes to piracy and booty.
Another aspect to the book is how it meditates on the fluidity of identity. What is the difference between a pirate and a privateer? A penstroke or a royal acknolwedgement, it seems. In our connected social media world, knowledge is instant, but in the nineteenth century the Pendleton Trading Company carrier pigeons might take days or weeks to transport the news to the proper authorities.
Anyway, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a delicious book for summer beach reading, especially given its nautical theme, fish dishes, and pineapple & ginger beer drinks. But it's an excellent read no matter what the season or your reason. If you enjoy swashbuckling, or gender bending, or cooking, or history, then undoubtedly this is the book for you. Plus, Brown's writing is par excellence, his characters are complex; I fell in love with them and am pining for another adventure.