May 3 2011 10:00am

Barbara O’Neal Makes Me Hungry

The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O’NealBarbara O'Neal's writing is, to make a groan-inducing pun, delicious. I've loved her books as Ruth Wind and Barbara Samuel (both Historical and Contemporary). And I love her still.  She has never written anything I haven't added to my keeper shelf (Okay, maybe not the categories).

In her current incarnation as Barbara O'Neal, she has made food a central theme in the three books she has published thus far.  Her first, The Lost Recipe for Happiness, might be my favorite. Elena, the heroine, is a talented chef suffering from the devastating effects of a car accident that killed her boyfriend and several members of her family when she was a teenager. She moves to Aspen to open a restaurant for a famous movie director/restaurateur and the story begins.

Recipes, scattered throughout the novel, give the flavor of the restaurant and illuminate the characters. We fall in love with Ivan, the sous-chef, over his pomegranate baklava. We feel Juan's solid goodness in his Carne en Su Jugo. And, ultimately, we see past Elena's pain into the love she has to give with her simple recipe for banana and chocolate chip pancakes, a gift to her employer's daughter.

In The Secret of Everything, Natalie, a pre-teen budding foodie, determines to try every one of the breakfasts at the 100 Breakfasts Café in the town where Tessa, the heroine, washes up in search of her past. Breakfast recipes appear throughout the book, charting a journey of discovery that is not only gustatory and not only Natalie's, but Tessa's journey and the journeys of the people in her orbit.  

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’NealBarbara O'Neal's latest book, How to Bake a Perfect Life, is apt to make me fat. Ramona is a baker and the keeper of the sourdough starter that has been handed down through generations. This is a book about mothers and daughters, about love, about nurturing, and the bread and baked goods recipes in this book are full of the yeasty aroma of home. Despite my best intentions, I could not resist the Hearty Berry Streusel Muffins and, because I hate to be the only person to succumb to this recipe, I intend to share it with all of you:

Makes 30-32

This is a muffin for those crazy mornings when you need calories in a hurry. The yogurt and nuts add protein, the whole grains add fiber, and the fruits add nutrients as well as general seduction for picky children. The streusel can be left off to save calories, but trust me, you're better off with one good one. Serve with boiled eggs for a super-fast breakfast.

1 cup white flour

½ cup spelt flour (or add another ½ cup white)

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 cup oats

1 T baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp sea salt

1 cup honey (or raw sugar)

1 ½ cups plain yogurt

1 6 oz. container raspberry or blueberry yogurt

½ cup milk

3 T canola oil

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 large egg 

1 cup each fresh blueberries and raspberries


¼ cup flour

3T brown sugar

¼ cup chopped, lightly toasted walnuts, pecans or almonds

1 ½ T butter, melted

Prepare muffin tins with paper or oil. Prepare streusel first and set aside.

For muffins: Mix dry ingredients well. In a separate bowl, mix all wet ingredients except berries, and beat together well. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry mix and beat firmly and quickly just until thoroughly moistened. Add berries and fold in gently. Divide batter into greased or paper-lined muffin tins and bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes in the pan to set the berries, remove from pan and cool on wire rack.

So now that I have your mouths watering and in the certain knowledge that you will each gain at least a couple of ounces in the next week or two, let's go back to the books.

In each of these books, food is a metaphor for some aspect of the story: the characters, the journey, the emotion. Although you will want to try the recipes, they are not just a cute, cookbook, adjunct to the novels. In many ways, they are the very heart: a tangible, edible testament to love.

Have you read other books with integrated recipes? Did they enhance the story? And did you make any of them? Share!


Myretta Robens 
The Republic of Pemberley

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I read a long time ago that unhappy films often feature families eating together, only to have the meal interrupted by some crisis or another, and when you keep that in mind, it's amazing how many times it's used in movies. Food is such an integral part of our happiness, or unhappiness, and using it to illustrate a character's journey seems so obvious when it's pointed out, but in the hands of a skilled author, it's subtly done, and deepens the story. Thanks for the post (and I will NOT make those muffins! I already have a muffin top).
EC Spurlock
2. EC Spurlock
Shirley Jump has done a whole series of romances that involve food and feature recipes. Often the recipes are tied in to the emotional state of the characters at the time -- seductive food for the tempting parts, comfort food for the Black Moment, scrumptious breakfasts for the morning after. It's a nice touch.
Keira Soleore
3. KeiraSoleore
I adore, adore, adore Barbara O'Neal's women's fiction involving food. Food is not simply a device used in these stories. It's a character in itself, especially in HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE.
EC Spurlock
4. Moneka Butcher
Two q's on the RECIPE
WHAT TYPE of white flour? does it mean ALL PURPOSE
Can I substitue Bread flour for the WHITE?
Carmen Pinzon
5. bungluna
I finished this book this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. I skipped the recipes, being on a low-carb diet right now, sigh. But the depth and breadth (little pun) of emotion depicted were very satisfying.
Myretta Robens
6. Myretta
@Moneka I think it's all purpose flour. You can use bread flour, but it will cause the dough to be heavier. Here's little flour cheat sheet. http://www.food.com/library/flour-64
Myretta Robens
7. Myretta
@bungluna. I try to skip the recipes, but I sometimes end up reading them and tasting them vicariously. I always find her books satisfying, with or without the recipes.
EC Spurlock
8. Janga
I too love Barbara O'Neal's books, regardless of the incarnation in which she writes them. I usually read them at least twice. The first time I gobble them up; the second time I savor them . (Sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Susan Wiggs scatters recipes throughout The Winter Lodge (Lakeshore Chronicles #2), very appropriate since the heroine runs a bakery and writes a food column. I'm too lazy to find the book and copy a recipe, but I remember her Happy Cake recipe is very similar to my grandmother's pound cake recipe, complete with one pound of butter, sugar, cake flour, eggs (6), and 1/2 cup of buttermilk.
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