In this Cook Your Books series, I had chosen 15 books to read in 2018 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories; I failed. I failed not to read (I read a ton), but I failed to blog. So I reignited the quest in 2019. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. It turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This first for 2019 installment is a novel about anxiety.
About a year ago, I sat around the dinner table with part of my family and I asked for four recommendations for book categories, and this (a book about anxiety) was one of them. And I have to tell you, outside of non-fiction, this was a tough one. A lot of fiction may include anxious characters, but not many where the anxiety rides front and center, but John Green's young adult novel, Turtles all the Way Down, does just that.
In a nutshell, the premise to this book is that Aza Holmes, a 16-year-old girl, is hellbent on investigating the disappearance of a local billionaire with her best friend Daisy. (Rather, Daisy, who is adventure seeking and somewhat fearless, is more hellbent and Aza is along for the ride.) That is, until hunky Davis, son of said billionaire and childhood camp acquaintance of Aza, enters the picture, and the investigation falls a bit flat. Of course, all of this--investigation of parental disappearance, navigation of best friend relationship, and budding romance with hunky boy--is overshadowed by Aza's crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
John Green spends the book writing from Aza's point of view, guiding the reader through the mundanity and the paralysis of mental illness--the obsessive cleaning of a cut she has had since childhood, which she opens and reopens in an effort to drain the germs inside of it; the "thought spirals" as she ponders whether she is a pawn or if she truly has any agency in her own life; a crippling fear that she will contract clostridium difficile that leads Aza to sip hand sanitizer. And we see how hard it is to not only be Aza but also to be with Aza: Daisy has her own outlet of writing Star Wars fan fiction, where Daisy get to be the star in the relationship or at least the star in defining the relationship, as Daisy's current relationship with Aza is so hemmed in by that anxiety.
Aza's anxiety and ODC are exhausting--for Daisy, for Davis, for Aza's mother, and even for the reader. But most of all for Aza. And that's the point. Her thoughts spiral and she cannot escape them. Thankfully the end of the book doesn't just pretty mental illnesses up with pat answers and a lovely little cure-all tonic--Aza still has to deal with all of her anxieties, through cognitive behavioral therapy and medication and supportive relationships. But at least she's not sneaking nips of hand sanitizer in her hospital room after a near-fatal car accident anymore. In fact, Green suggests that she will go on and live a full and difficult and ultimately happy life, aware that the first love detailed in the book shows her what is lovable in herself--and delightfully, this first love is not just with Davis (although it ostensibly is) but it is also the first love of a best friend in Daisy.
And this is where and how John Green shines as an author of young adult fiction. He allows there to be a messy reality even when he's channeling a Nancy Drew investigation as a plot line. While these are teenagers whose fathers have left their fortunes to prehistoric reptiles called tuatara and whose would-be boyfriends casually give away $100,000 to other teenagers to keep them pursuing the disappearance of their Indianapolis billionaire father. These are teenagers who have lived through tragedy, where their parents have died (Aza has lost her father and Davis's mother has also died), and are snapped up in underground art scenes. These are not ordinary lives. Until John Green makes it so: these are also teenagers who text, who bring coupons to eat at Applebee's, who do homework, who name their cars (Harold!), and who spend two hours getting dressed before going on first dates. And that is how we know we're in John Green's world--the ordinary and the extraordinary collide just so.
And because this is a food blog and this series focuses on how food is important in books, let's take a look. Certainly, food plays a role in this book, but the variety is limited to that which a teenager consumes (for the most part). I could have written about Cheerios, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, pizza, or burgers. Indeed, pizza would have been interesting to examine as Daisy once claims that Aza is like pizza--full of variety and the highest compliment Daisy can imagine (238), after Aza yells that she herself is mustard--astringent and redundant and ultimately caustic (217). The book even opens, albeit slowly, in a discussion of food--or at least in a discussion of the herding of high schoolers into a lunch room:
At the time I first realized I might be fictional, my weekdays were spent at a publicly funded institution on the north side of Indianapolis called White River High School, where I was required to eat lunch at a particular time—between 12:37 P.M. and 1:14 P.M.—by forces so much larger than myself that I couldn’t even begin to identify them. If those forces had given me a different lunch period, or if the tablemates who helped author my fate had chosen a different topic of conversation that September day, I would’ve met a different end—or at least a different middle. But I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.
Of course, you pretend to be the author. You have to. You think, I now choose to go to lunch, when that monotone beep rings from on high at 12:37. But really, the bell decides. You think you’re the painter, but you’re the canvas (1-2).So we see Aza's hyper-articulate and hyper-aware thoughts. She wants to have control, to be able to write her own story (or paint her own picture to use her second metaphor), but she feels as if so much, even when and how she eats lunch, is out of her control. Indeed, this is a book about control--from Aza and her anxiety to Davis and his simultaneous desire to find his father and not to find his father, from Daisy authoring fan fiction to Aza's mother trying to comfort her daughter after the death of Aza's father.
And this desire for control is precisely why I chose to write about veggie burgers and Applebee's, the place where Aza doesn't have to worry so much about control. Pizza be damned.
Early in the book, we learn that Aza's mother purchased a coupon book filled with sixty Applebee's coupons from a local Boy Scout. Each coupon offers "Two burgers for $11" and Daisy and Aza have been "working our way through them ever since" (52). So we--and Aza and Daisy--spend a lot of time at Applebee's.
Aza describes Applebee's as follows: "Applebee’s is a chain of mid-quality restaurants serving 'American Food,' which essentially means that Everything Features Cheese" (52). The featuring cheese is a little tough for Aza, as is the burger part, as she avoids both the meat and the dairy while at the restaurant, coming out with a "veggie burger, no mayonnaise, no condiments at all, just a veggie burger and bun... with fries" (53). Again, a kind of control. However, what is also evident in this paragraph is a kind of comfort in location. While their waitress is often exasperated (mostly because of the lack of tips given by Daisy and Aza), Applebee's is a place of familiarity and comfort and acceptance, as Aza sits across from her friend, slowly peeling off the coupons and ordering their burgers. While the choice of location and even the coupon-mandated meal selection are authored, perhaps in Aza's mind, by the fate of her mother buying the coupon book, the connection between Daisy and Aza is clear and is most palpable as they eat their burgers--one meat and one not--with one another and try to figure out dating and employment and sometimes the meaning of life (this is a John Green novel after all).
Applebee's is also the location of Aza and Davis's first date (along with Daisy and one of their friends Mychal) (95-99). And it is also the first stop for newly rich Aza and Daisy after Davis gives them money to stop their investigation of his father's disappearance (in part because if his father is found dead, his sizable fortune does to a tuatara research foundation--strange plot twist, I know) (121-2)--and this time, while they order their usual burger (or veggie burger) with fries (or an upgrade to onion rings), they don't use a coupon. It is at Applebee's they celebrate a fortune that might allow Daisy to quit her job at Chuck E. Cheese and leave an extravagant tip for a waitress who has suffered their teenage wit, and at Applebee's where these two best friends mull over every detail of Aza's relationship with Davis. Applebee's allows for a teenager to be a teenager when so much else in the book does not allow them to be. With or without cheese.
And so, I offer up this veggie burger--it is certainly no Applebee's veggie burger (which I admittedly quite enjoy), and I did put mayo, quick-pickled cucumbers, and yes, a little bit of cheese on it. However, it was just the kind of burger that hits all the right spots, when you're hungry, contemplating an investigation of a disappeared parent, or just want to remember to be a teenager.
The Really Hungry Burger“I’d just like a water with no food please, but around nine forty-five I’ll take a veggie burger, no mayonnaise no condiments at all, just a veggie burger and bun in a to-go box please. With fries.”
“And you’ll have the Blazin’ Texan burger?” Holly [the waitress] asked Daisy.
“With a glass of red wine, please.”
Holly just stared at her.
“Fine. Water.” “I assume y’all have a coupon?” Holly asked.
“As it happens, we do,” I said, and slid it across the table to her. (Turtles All the Way Down 53).
I am a fan of Anna Jones, particularly this magnificent dal from A Modern Way to Eat. I seem to have also made another veggie burger from her book A Modern Way to Cook; however, I think this burger holds up a little better than the solely bean-based one. This veggie burger is, as promised, quite hearty, and I love the mushrooms all packed in there. Jones does call for 4 medjool dates, pitted and added to the white beans before they go for their blender spin. However, I removed them because I didn't want the bit of sweet in an otherwise savory patty. You could add them back in, but I certainly did not miss them. Finally, do as Jones suggests: make a quick pickle of raw cucumbers by placing thin slices of cucumber in a bowl with a pinch of salt, a squeeze of honey, and a tablespoon or two of white wine or champagne vinegar. Let them sit while you make the burgers, and then they'll be ready when the burgers are. Now, that's the perfect way to get a hint of sweet.
6 big portobello mushrooms, roughly chopped into small pieces
2 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and pepper
1 (15-ounce) can of white beans (navy or cannellini) drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 Tbsp tahini
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 cup cooked and cooled brown rice (2/3 cups uncooked)
2/3 cups breadcrumbs or oats
grated zest of one lemon
To serve (optional)
1-2 avocados, peeled and sliced
1-2 tomatoes, sliced
pickles or quick-pickled cucumbers
8 seeded buns
1. Place a large pan over medium heat and add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Once the pan is hot, add the mushrooms and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Sautée until the mushrooms have dried out and are slightly browned; set aside to cool.
2. Drain the white beans and put them into a food processor with the dates (if using, see note), garlic, parsley, tahini, and soy sauce. Pulse until the mixture is mostly smooth but with some small chunks. Transfer to a bowl and add the rice, breadcrumbs, lemon zest, and the cooled mushrooms. Mix well, then refrigerate for 10 minutes to firm.
3. Once cooled, divide the mixture into 8 portions and shape into 8 patties. Place them on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and keep in the fridge until needed. This can be done the day before--and the burgers freeze well at this point.
4. Preheat the oven to 450° F.
5. Bake the burgers for about 15 minutes until nicely brown. If using, place a slice of cheese on top for a couple of minutes before removing them from the oven. Really good if you broil the cheese for just a minute or two to get that fabulous umami flavor intensified.
6. While the burgers are cooking, prepare any toppings, such as sliced tomatoes, avocado, pickles, or cucumbers. Once the burgers are golden, toast the buns and layer the burgers with toppings.