Discover more from read, eat, repeat (with emily fiffer)
Crunchy Coolness + Everyday Lives
Summer Chopped Salad + Kick the Latch / Ordinary People
Sometimes my reading gets so out of control that I wish I could publish multiple newsletters a week – I have so many books to tell you about! While wringing my hands about which book to choose for today’s post, I realized two books I’ve read recently and feel deeply passionate about actually cohere thematically (though they’re wildly different). So this is going to be a two-book post, with a feeble attempt on my part to convince you that they do in fact have commonalities.
What can I say about Kick the Latch? It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read; I drank it up in less than a day because I was so swept up in its rhythm and its narrator (it’s a shorty at just 167 pages). Between 2018 and 2021, Kathryn Scanlan — an Iowa native, the descendent of racehorse trainers — interviewed Sonia, a racehorse trainer from Iowa; Sonia serves as the book’s narrator. Though Sonia is a living, breathing woman, and the book is based on her life, it’s actually billed as a novel. That feels ambiguous at first, but Scanlan’s cadence as a writer quickly sweeps any hesitation aside and pulls you immediately into Sonia’s story via a series of tiny vignettes, all titled with lines pulled from Sonia’s manner of speech: “I didn’t want no drama,” “Black shoe polish,” “I seen him every day,” “This jock packs, that jock packs.”
Sonia’s no-fuss nature matches Scanlan’s spare prose. Each chapter cuts straight to the bone and lays bare the darkness of the racehorse industry, which is apparently full of violence, misogyny and mistreatment. I winced through descriptions of horses on the “kill truck” and episodes of abuse between male jockeys and female grooms; was awestruck at the candid description of an accident that put Sonia in a coma; viscerally felt the depth of horse-human relationships and the pure exhaustion from the physicality and labor of working with horses (especially at barns where there isn’t a lot of money).
You don’t have to love horses to love this novel. Sonia – or Scanlan’s interpretation of her – is a fearless narrator, scrappy and hardened but not without empathy. Scanlan writes searingly and specifically about a world most people have no familiarity with, painting a vivid picture of an industry I’d truly never spent much time considering. Sonia’s story is one that easily could have gone ignored: She’s not a celebrity, she’s not interested in fame, and her industry isn’t shiny. Scanlan’s ability as a sculptor and Sonia’s voice are what draw you in; you end up caring about her story because you care about her humanity. She’s an ordinary person leading a pretty extraordinary life, but not by your average standards. She lives in small towns, works behind the scenes doing hard labor; her peers (and sometimes she herself) are surviving below the poverty line. It’s not pretty — it’s real. Which leads me to our next book.
How could Ordinary People – a novel about Black families set in south London in 2008 – possibly overlap with Kick the Latch? Simply put, both books give a glimpse into the lives of everyday people, with no pomp or circumstance. Like Kick the Latch, Ordinary People invites you into a world where you might not have spent much time: Evans, who is Black, has said she wrote the novel partly because Black characters going through the motions of friendship, marriage and motherhood, with race in the background rather than foreground, is a rarity in literature. Both stories equally engrossed me because the characters’ experiences are so different from my own. That is the marking of a good book, I think: You forget yourself. You peer through a keyhole into whole other worlds. And you come out the other side subtly changed because you know more about the human condition.
Ordinary People garnered many awards and much praise when it was published, and sometimes that type of hype gives me pause (will it disappoint? How good can a novel about relationships actually be?). I needn’t have worried, though, because Evans is a genius at character- and world-building, not to mention a lyrical writer of inner lives. The book opens just after Obama is elected, in a south London neighborhood so vibrantly written you can almost smell it. It follows two couples: Melissa and Michael, both Black, have two children and are straining under the weight of their reality (parental exhaustion, identity crises) versus how they thought their lives and relationship would look. Damian (Black) and Stephanie (white) live in the countryside with their children. Damian has just lost his father and struggles to grieve openly; Stephanie is completely fulfilled being a mother yet her marriage presents a void she cannot fill. The book weaves between the two couples (who are friends) as they navigate life as thirtysomethings striving to make sense of themselves and the world around them.
Evans, who is obsessed with music, invokes songs for many of the scenes (fun fact: You can find the actual soundtrack to the book on Spotify and it’s gooooood). Between the songs, evocative descriptions of London, and fully rendered characters, this book feels extremely alive.
Melissa rejects her new identity as a mother, yearns after shadows of her old self and struggles to be vulnerable with Michael, who duly feels more and more alienated and disempowered. Damian feels stunted, small and misunderstood, thirsting for London’s grittiness amid an idyllic, mostly white suburb, while Stephanie is completely content in this setting. These aren’t unique stories, and that is precisely the point: Evans portrays the experiences as universal – because they are. Race comes up, but it isn’t the main event; it’s implicit in the characters’ worldviews.
A good author can weave a compelling story from something quite plain; that is what both Scanlan and Evans achieve. In doing so, they make the ordinary extraordinary.
Pairs well with: saddle wax, spitting, ghost stories, garlic cloves, R&B
We’re almost at that moment of summer where the glut of vegetables is overwhelming. Tomatoes! Peppers! Sweet corn! Eggplant! Basically all of the nightshades, and I’m here for the inflammation, baby. I make this salad all summer long. It’s a rainbow crunchfest, and you can sub in what you have in the crisper. The main point is to dice everything, ‘90s-salad-style, for ultimate enjoyment.
1 cup roasted tomatoes
1 handful fresh tomatoes (Sungolds are excellent here; halve if on the larger side)
Kernels from 1 ear sweet corn (yes, you can and should eat this raw all summer long)
1 large sweet pepper, diced (or multiple small peppers, diced)
2 small or 1 large lemon cucumber, diced (or Persian, Armenian, etc.)
2 spring onions, cut thinly on the bias (green parts, too)
1 peach or nectarine, diced
1 handful greens (frisee is ideal; arugula is also good!)
1 bowlful herbs, picked (mint, dill, tarragon, basil, etc.)
Honey Mustard Vin (recipe below)
Honey Mustard Vin
Makes just shy of a cup (you’ll have leftovers)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (apple cider, moscatel or sherry vinegar all work, too)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon runny honey
½ cup good olive oil
Freshly cracked pepper
For the salad: Add everything save for the herbs to a big bowl and mix carefully. Make the vinaigrette before plating.
For the vinaigrette. Add the vinegar, mustard and honey to a jar and whisk. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Season with salt and lots of pepper.
To plate: Toss the salad with the vinaigrette until well mixed. Add a handful of herbs and mix again, carefully (always use your hands to dress salads; that way every single bit is dressed evenly). Plate in a shallow bowl, then add the rest of the herbs and a sprinkle of Maldon.