Death Comes in Through the Kitchen. Teresa Dovalpage New York. Soho Press, 2018. 368 pages.
The novel’s title alludes to a question planted by one of the main characters, Yarmila Portal, who asks: “does love really come in through the kitchen?” (208). For Matt Sullivan, love comes through a food blog and takes him from San Diego to Havana. However, as Julia de Tejas’s Mexican husband says: it is the death that comes through the kitchen and catches Yarmila.
Matt, a 36-year-old journalist meets Yarmila, a 25-year-old Cuban woman, through Yarmila’s food blog in February 2002. When Matt goes to Havana in the Black Spring of 2003 to propose to his fiancé, he discovers Yarmila’s dead body in her bathtub. Death Comes in Through the Kitchen, the latest book of Teresa Dovalpage is a multi-layered novel that unearths the life of Yarmila posthumously through the eyes of the other characters, in particular, Matte, Anne, Yoni, Isabel, Pato, Padrino, Carmela, Pablo, food, and Cuba herself. Although the novel starts with the death of Yarmila, the reader has access to some of the posts from her blog: “Yarmi Cooks Cuban” that also set the timeline of the book. While Matt is stuck in Havana as a “person of interest”, the reader and Matt simultaneously learn more about the deceased character. Yarmila, who is initially presented as a translator and researcher at Havana’s Institute of Literature and Linguistics becomes more complicated. Towards the end of the novel, the reader realizes the food blogs belong to a massive state operation called “virtual postcard” that “aimed at bringing back the children and grandchildren of people who left Cuba many years ago” (297). That is why Yarmila uses her abilities in English to “clean the country’s image” (298). Dovalpage’s novel resides on the role of food in making the Cuban identity and is able to show how food is used to ignite an emotional as well as collective reaction to the cause and engender a more committed sense of belonging to Cuba. Working for la Seguridad, the blog is a way to serve the revolution (297). There is a lot more to the novel than meets the eye. The time-setting of the novel refers to the arrestment of 75 journalists, political dissidents and activists in Cuba, allegedly charged with collaborating with the U.S. By the same token, Yarmila flavors her food entries with personal and cultural information such as nation-wide campaigns to encourage people to eat more vegetables, the rituals of Santeria, the connection between Cuban songs, food and coffee, the Soviet Union’s presence on the island, and Cubanidad. Through her blogs, she attempts to portray a paradise, despite the post-revolutionary difficulties.
Death Comes in Through the Kitchen, taken as a whole, is a recipe. How has Dovalpage created her literary banquet? She has divided the novel into five sections and then diced those into smaller chapters. Each chapter’s title sets the stage for what the readers are about to discover. For instance, some chapters are named after characters such as Lieutenant Martinez, the dissidents and Pato Macho. This is precisely where the characters are introduced to the readers. Some other chapters are more illustrative with respect to what will unfold in the plot. Dovalpage spices up the plot of each section with a cultural tour and travelogue of post-revolutionary Cuba. Important examples include several references to the corruption caused by double currency and the division of people as comrades (proper revolutionaries) and citizens, lives of gusanos, bisneros, and chivatos. In some occasions, the author-chef is stereotypical in her portrayal of Cubans, writing that they “eat everything” and “make messes” (111). The cozy and colorful cover of the book invites the reader to a warm and intimate culinary story. However, the author mixes the culinary murder mystery and cozy mystery genres in writing Death Comes in Through the Kitchen. The novel does not portray the details of Yarmila’s death, sex or explicit violence thoroughly. Yarmila’s death takes place off-stage and the confined space of the novel provides alert readers with the opportunity to focus on the suspects. At the end, to make it spicier, mystery, betrayal, romance, Cuban slang, humor, and crime are added to create an enticing feast.
By and large, the novel provides the reader with a glimpse into the very contemporary post-revolutionary Cuba. Portraying the daily life of the Cuban people, Dovalpage shows a quintessential aspect of people’s life in Castro’s regime. To give the reader an example, the use of Spanglish, particularly, Cuban Spanish carries some cultural information regarding the gender, class, as well as social values in Cuba. The cultural idioms are drawn upon by concrete definition. The author draws a visible line between words such as Yankee and Yuma that “didn’t have the pejorative connotation that Yankee had” (7). At the end, Death Comes in Through the Kitchen sheds lights on social and cultural issues associated with the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath.
University of California at Santa Barbara