Every now and then I read a book that just perfectly illustrates how food as a theme unites all the people of the world. Baking Cakes in Kigali is one of those books. It’s most likely not a novel you’ve heard of; at least I hadn’t, although author Gaile Parkin made Oprah’s poll of favorite contemporary women writers the year after it was published. My newest sister-in-law – the one on our family who ALWAYS knows what’s going on – gave me this copy on one of my trips back to St. Louis. Once I dove into the story, I was completely enthralled. I read it straight through the day and into the night.
The protagonist is Angel Tungaraza, a married mother raising her four grandchildren while running a cake-baking business. I love her character; she’s wise, insightful, and empathetic, the type of person to whom others confide their problems. With flour, sugar, eggs, and food coloring, she sets the wheels in motion to solve any tricky situation or problem that arises with a light heart and a perfectly decorated cake.
This isn’t magical realism, though. Here’s the deal – the best part of the novel is the contrast of Angel’s baking business against the setting, her middle-class household in post-genocide Rwanda. The only thing I knew about the country was locked in my memories of horrific reports that I honestly tried to block, and Parkin, who lived in Rwanda for a time, created a sweet story of people who live normal lives – working, schooling, traveling, and marrying – against a devastated past. Cake and joy are the ties that bind us all together. This really is an excellent story – you should definitely read it.
Grandmothers cooking is also the subject of photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s lovely and fascinating photo essay “In Her Kitchen” in which he traveled the world to photograph and document grandma’s home cooking. His photos honor food traditions passed on from generation to generation and shows how, whether you hail from Haiti, Malawi, Lebanon, Utah, or any point in between, food is the tie that binds us all together.
To give you a taste, here is 53 year old Regina Lifumbo of Mchinji, Malawi, with her caterpillars in tomato sauce:
You can purchase the entire collection of photos and recipes in the lovely book In Her Kitchen. It’s a wonderful coffee table book and a great gift for the grandmother-appreciating food lover in your life.