Cinnamon and Gunpowder
by Eli Brown
Cinnamon and Gunpowder reminds me a lot of Treasure Island. Or at least of my childhood memories of reading Treasure Island, as it’s been decades since I read it. The book is told from the viewpoint of Owen Wedgwood, a chef who finds himself kidnapped by a famous pirate and forced to cook gourmet meals for her in exchange for his life. As a home cook who’s had a small amount of actual training, I really enjoyed his descriptions of making do with only the cooking tools the ship has on hand and whatever rations he could lay his hands on. The creativity he displays in making amazing meals out of almost nothing is one of the best parts of the book. (And the descriptions of those meals – YUM.)
The formatting is set up as a kind of personal ship’s log, each part dated and written down after the events happen. Wedgwood (or “Spoons,” as the crew calls him) even mentions how he hides it and leaves out a decoy log, since he also writes down his dreams (and plans!) of escaping the pirates.
Some of the events in the book are incredibly predictable, but there are still a few surprises. I was a little disappointed when one thing in particular happened; I saw it coming but hoped that wasn’t where the author was going with it. I know that’s vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything!
I enjoyed learning about Mad Hannah’s background and why she’s a pirate; she’s fighting against the opium trade, and she actually gives Wedgwood a pretty accurate summary of the terrible things the opium trade was responsible for.
Any book that can combine sumptuous description of exotic meals with action and cannonballs will have my attention. And Brown does not shy away from proper action scenes. These are pirates, and fights get brutal. Men lose limbs if not their lives to storms and Navy bombardments. Keeping order on a pirate ship involves lashings and brute force. The book doesn’t shrink from those, but it also gets philosophical with Wedgwood’s description of flavors, and almost comedic with the images of using cannonballs as pestles for grinding herbs. It’s that contrast and variety that makes this book so much fun to read.
From the cover of Cinnamon and Gunpowder:
In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, the prizewinning author Eli Brown serves up the audacious tale of a fiery pirate captain, her reluctant chef, and their adventures aboard a battered vessel, the Flying Rose. As these unlikely shipmates traverse the oceans, intrigue, betrayal, and bloodshed churn the waters.
The year is 1819, and Owen Wedgwood, famed as the Caesar of Sauces, has been kidnapped by the ruthless captain Mad Hannah Mabbot. After using her jade-handled pistols on his employwer, lord of the booming tea trade, Mabbot announces to the terrified cook that he will be spared only as long as he puts an exquisite meal in front of her every Sunday without fail.
To appease the red-haired tyrant, Wedgwood works wonders with the meager supplies he finds on board, including weevil-infested cornmeal and salted meat he suspects was once a horse. His first triumph is that rarest of luxuries on a pirate ship: real bread, made from a sourdough starter that he keeps safe in a tin under his shirt. Soon he’s making tea-smoked eel and brewing pineapple-banana cider.
Even as she holds him hostage, Mabbot exerts a curious draw on the chef; he senses a softness behind the swagger and the roar. Stalked by a deadly privateer, plagued by a hidden saboteur, and outnumbered in epic clashes with England’s greatest ships of the line, Captain Mabbot pushes her crew past exhaustion in her hunt for the notorious King of Thieves. As Wedgwood begins to understand the method to Mabbot’s madness, he must rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: Mr. Apples, the fearsome giant who loves to knit; Feng and Bai, martial arts masters sworn to defend their captain; and Joshua, the strangely mute cabin boy.
A giddy, anarchic tale of love and appetite, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a wildly original feat of the imagination, deep and startling as the sea itself.