2023 NETWORK WIDE READ FROM SLOW BOOKS
The Slow Books team is excited to announce this year’s Network Wide Read: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo. This read is unlike any of the texts we’ve read in the past in that it is fiction and geared towards a young adult audience. The text revolves around an Afro Puerto Rican teenager from Philadelphia named Emoni who loves to cook. She has a full plate, so to speak, as a teen mother finishing up her senior year of high school. She is always hustling — as a mom, as a part time employee, as a student, as a young person on the cusp of an unknown future. Currently, she is hustling so that she can embark on a journey to Spain (her first trip out of the country) as part of her culinary arts course at school. Thanks to her support system (her Abuela, who raised her; her best friend who always has her back; and an unlikely new friend who transferred to her school this semester) Emoni can accomplish anything while infusing her unique Sazón (seasoning), even as “all the burners are blazing” on high. Join us in reading this entertaining, food-centered novel this summer!
Join us to unpack the book and guide
Overview of With The Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Title: With the Fire on High: A Novel
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Publisher: Quill Tree Books, an imprint of Harper Collins
Reading Age: Young Adult (13 years and up) / Main character is 17 years old
Get Hoopla and Kanopy access of this title from your local library! Find your local library here: https://www.usa.gov/libraries
2020 Audie Awards® WINNER – Narration by Author
2020 Audie Awards® Finalist – Young Adult
Find it on Libro.fm
Setting: Philadelphia, PA
Characters: Emoni (narrator), Emma (Emoni’s daughter), Abuela (Emoni’s grandmother), Angelica (Emoni’s best friend), Ms.Fuentes (Emoni’s favorite teacher), Tyrone (father of Emma), Julio (Emoni’s father), Malakai (new classmate), Chef Ayden (Culinary Arts instructor), Aunt Sarah (Emoni’s maternal aunt)
Content notes: family trauma, abandonment, teen pregnancy, motherhood, neighborhood violence/disinvestment, culinary arts, high school, adult language/swearing, references to sex/loss of virginity, intimate relationships between consenting teens
In the media
The Nerd Daily
School Library Journal
Elizabeth Acevedo on How Her Second Novel Drew Inspiration From ‘Like Water for Chocolate’
Publisher’s Weekly “….Philadelphia has more technical schools than the majority of the major cities in this country.”
If you are a local Slow Food USA chapter seeking to create a community discussion, here are some suggestions for programming activities you might include to cultivate an engaging event.
- Ask a local library to co-host the event with you.
- Host the event in a community garden or public natural space.
- Include a cooking demonstration of one of the recipes in the book.
- Programs like the Charlie Cart Project or access to non-book items from libraries might be resources for access to utensils needed for the cooking demo.
- Pass out samples.
- As a take-home, offer everyone a satchel of an ingredient featured in the recipe and/or seeds to “grow your own” (bonus if seeds come from your community garden or local seed lending library)
- Emoni’s “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemon Verbena Tembleque” (page 3)
- Emoni’s “No Use Crying Over Spilled Strawberry Milk” (page 141)
- Emoni’s “When the World Tries to Break You, Break Beer Bread with Those You Love” (page 365)
- Have a book discussion + film screening
Sample discussion questions
What did you think of the conflict Emoni experiences in culinary arts class on page 96-98 where she received high praise for her take on chocolate pudding (by adding paprika), but also being reprimanded by Chef Ayden for not following directions and that being seen as disrespectful? (This happens again when she gets creative and adds ingredients to a dish and gets reprimanded for not following the recipe causing Chef Ayden to tell her to throw out what she has prepared.) “Delicious but disobedient”
Why do you think Emoni is initially hesitant to sign up for the elective culinary arts course (outside of concerns about financial burden), when she clearly is passionate about cooking?
A big theme in Emoni’s culinary arts class is respect. Respect for ingredients, respect for your team, respect for the chef next to you as well as the chef/staff above and below you. How do you see this relating to the Slow Food ideals of good, clean and fair?
Emoni’s big trip to Spain brings back memories of Chapters and individuals preparing for trips like Slow Food Nations or Terra Madre. Could you relate to her and her classmates’ hustle to make this trip happen?
Acevedo seems to elude a couple of times throughout the book that Emoni lives in the “hood” and therefore “has to get creative” in order to access ingredients. How does where Emoni lives (what might be considered a food desert), impact what she cooks and is inspired by?
Throughout the book, we see Emoni corresponding via email with her Aunt Sarah (her mother’s sister) about traditional “southern” dishes that this side of her family has passed down. Many of the staples from the Puerto Rican side of her family have been more directly passed down via Abuela in their shared household. If Emoni didn’t have these connections to her mixed food cultures, would her passion and interest in food and the marriage of ingredients be the same?
The book talks a lot about cooking, respect for ingredients, and honoring your kitchen peers – but doesn’t seem to address much about the fact that all of these points relate back to those stewarding the land – farmers who grow and harvest the food that ends up in stores and on our plates. If you were the author of this book, would you have worked that part in? How so? Why/why not?
And I don’t know if I really have something special, or if her telling me I got something special has brainwashed me into believing it, but I do know I’m happier in the kitchen than anywhere else in the world. It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty.
And something special does happen when I’ve been cooking. It’s like I can imagine a dish in my head and I just know that if I tweak this or mess with that, if I give it my special brand of sazón, I’ll have made a dish that never existed before. Angelica thinks it’s because we live in the hood, so we never have exactly the right ingredients – we gotta innovate, baby. My aunt Sarah says it’s in our blood, an innate need to tell a story through food. ‘Buela says it’s definitely a blessing, magic. That my food doesn’t just taste good, it is good – straight up bottled goodness that warms you and makes you feel better about your life. I think I just know that this herb with that veggie with that meat plus a dash of eso ahí will work.
And that if everything else goes wrong, a little squeeze of lime and a bottle of hot sauce ain’t never hurt nobody. (Emoni)
I’ve always been small: physically petite, which made people think I had a small personality, too. And then, all of a sudden, I was a walking PSA: a bloated teen warning, taking up too much space and calling too much attention. (Emoni)
I’ve never been to an opera, but this must be what it’s like for a conductor to walk into an opera house, see the stage lit and the curtains drawn back, and know that they were meant to make the walls echo with music. (Emoni)
“‘Cooking is about respect. Respect for the food, respect for your space, respect for your colleagues, and respect for your diners’” (Chef Ayden)
Some days, when my feelings are like this, like a full pot of water with the fire on high, I don’t know what to cook. Plans and ideas escape my mind and instead I let my heart and hands take control, guided by a voice on the inside that tells me what goes where. (Emoni)
I let go of a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. I don’t know much about pathogens and storing sugar, but damn if I don’t know how to cook good food that makes people hungry for more, that makes people remember food is meant to feed more than an empty belly. It’s also meant to nourish your heart. And that’s one thing you won’t ever learn from no textbook. (Emoni)
It’s like the best of him is reserved for strangers. And it mixes me up, like batter that isn’t fully blended so there are still hard lumps baking beneath the surface. (Emoni)
My father is a big fan of the island. And he is not a big fan of Europe. He has a lot of ideas about the way they treated Latin America and the Caribbean when they were in power and believes they (and the United States) are the sole reason why so many of those countries are struggling right now. And in case I forgot how he feels, he never hesitates to launch into one of his history lessons. “You know that just because they were un poder colonial doesn’t mean they are the center of the world, right, Emoji? What have I always told you? Be proud of who you are so you don’t have to imitate or bow down to your oppressor.” (Emoni in conversation with her father, Julio)
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask. I know the twitch in my jaw is probably showing. I can’t believe he would tell me to throw away something he hasn’t even tasted!
“It’s not the recipe I gave you. It doesn’t have the same ingredients, and the cut on these is wrong.”
“It tastes good, it’s well-balanced like you tell us to do, and the presentation is flawless,” I say through my teeth.
He grabs a fork, stabs the dish, and pops it in his mouth. He’s quiet for a long moment. And I can tell he loves it. He shakes his head. “Cumin, basic, oregano.” His eyes pop open. “None of those ingredients were in the recipe. This isn’t the same dish at all. I can’t grade something that is more about creativity than execution. That wasn’t the point of today’s evaluation. So I won’t say it again: trash it.” He sets his fork down. (Emoni and Chef Ayden)
I’ve seen chefs on TV time and time again say they had to pay their dues. And I never knew exactly what that meant but now I thinkI I get it. It’s about doing the grunt work behind the scenes, washing dishes, folding napkins, taking stock, before you ever touch a recipe. It’s about being the creative mind behind raising a shit-ton of money so you can go on a trip abroad. (Emoni)
“I’m so proud of you, nena! This is amazing. The food was good and everybody looked happy. They all cleaned their plates. I could taste you in the sweet potato. You made those, right? They tasted like you.” (Abuela to Emoni)
“Maybe it’s not about time, Emoni. Maybe it’s about having things on your terms. Being with Malachi? It doesn’t have to look like anything except what you two make it. And if anyone can take ingredients that shouldn’t work and make something delicious out of them, it’s you.” (Angelica to Emoni)
The closer we get to graduation, the more I feel like I want to be doing, not spending four years pretending to do. (Emoni)
“Chef Ayden tells me you have a gift. If you don’t want to call it magic, fine. You have a gift and it’s probably changed the lives of people around you. When you cook, you are giving people a gift. Remember that.” (Chef Amadí to Emoni)
When I was little the other kids from the block and I would get together and play a game called mancala. It’s a fast-paced board game where the pieces are these glass stones that are round on one side and flat on the other. Each stone is a beautiful color: red, blue, teal, clear shot through with squiggles of gold. I used to cradle those stones in my hand, more interested in holding them up to the light than playing the game. Even then I knew they weren’t real gems, but when I held them in my hand I felt like a rich queen, like I was holding something precious. (Emoni)
“I’ve already told you my father is a big history buff when it comes to PR (Puerto Rico), and he doesn’t need much prompting to remind me that before Columbus, Puerto Rico was called ‘Borinken’ by the Taíno people who lived there. He told me once it means ‘Land of the brave and noble lords.’ If he were here now he would be so pissed. All over there are monuments to Columbus, museums trying to claim a piece of his body as if he were a saint. And look at this here, all this gold they use to honor him, gold they got from our island in the first place, and hardly anyone remembers the enslaved people who dug through the rivers for that gold, who were there before he arrived. Whose descendants are still there now.” (Emoni to Malachi)
Sometimes it seems like being Puerto Rican is such a fact of life that I forget not everyone hand-washes their panties, or eats pernil at Thanksgiving, or has some traditions and names for things that are African and Taíno: mofongo, cassava. People don’t realize that Spain is a complicated place for someone like me. I just can’t shake off how much it feels that this place, Spain, and this city, Sevilla, are tied to who I am even if I’m not sure I want to be tethered to them. (Emoni)
“Ah, and that’s why it is magic. Not all recipes in life are easily understood or followed or deconstructed. Sometimes you have to take what is given to you and use your talents to brew the best tea possible. Yes?” (Chef Amadí to Emoni)
Although my food still doesn’t give me any memories, it has always been looking back; it’s infused with the people I come from. But it’s also a way for me to look forward: to watch the recipes that from my roots transform, grow, and feed the hungriest places inside of me.
And like a map I’ve been following without knowing the exact destination, I know now I’ve been equipping myself with tools from the journey to help me survive when I arrive. Although I don’t have all the answers for what is coming next, I can finally see a glimpse of where I, Emoni Santiago, am going. (Emoni)
Apaga la televisión – turn off the TV
Aquí – here
Bendiga, nena – bless you, child
Benedición – blessing
Boricua – a person from Puerto Rico by birth or descent
‘Buela – short for Abuela, grandmother
Bueno – good
Buenos días, clase, mi nombre es – Good morning, class, my name is…
Cassava – a plant, also called yuca – a woody shrub native to South America
Chanclas – flip flops
Chacho – boy
Coquito – “little coconut” in Spanish, a traditional Christmas drink similar to eggnog that originated in Puerto Rico. The cocktail typically consists of sweetened condensed milk, unsweetened coconut milk, cream of coconut, vanilla, and rum.
Delicioso – delicious
Emoni – pronounced E-Mah-Nee
Eso ahí – that there
Está bien – it’s alright
Este – this
Gallina – hen/chicken/bird
Gelly – Emoni’s nickname for her best friend, Anjelica
Jamòn Ibérico – Iberian ham
Me guardas – save me
M’ijo – darling
Mofongo – a Puerto Rican dish with plantains as the main ingredient. The plantains are typically fried and mashed with salt, garlic, broth and olive oil.
Muchacha – young woman
Nena – young female girl
Pernil dinner – boneless pork shoulder typically with orange and adobo seasoning, in Latin American countries, this dish is commonly shared at Christmas.
Piénsalo bien – think wisely
Pero – but
¡Pero mira eso! – Look at that!
Pero tú sí me hiciste falta – but you did miss me
¿Porqué robaste la cartera? – Why did you steal the wallet?
Pregúntate – ask yourself
Que dios te – god bless you
Que dios te bendigo m’ija – god bless you my daughter
¿Qué fue? – what was it?
¿Qué te pasa? – what’s the matter?
¿Qué te puedo decir? ¡Me lambí los dedos! – What can I tell you? I licked my fingers!
Quizás – maybe
Santi – Malaki’s nickname for Emoni (her last name is Santiago)
Sazón – seasoning
Señorita – miss/little lady
Sofrito – it varies across cultures, but typically sofrito consists of a fresh mixture of vegetables, onions, pepper, garlic and herbs used as a base in cooking dishes.
Taíno – indigenous people of the Caribbean – during the 15th century at the time of European contact, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispanniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico
Tembleque – translates to “wiggly,” and is a creamy Puerto Rican coconut pudding
Te quiero – I love you
Te quiero también – I love you too
Un poder – a power
Viejo – old
Yo sé – I know
Suggestions from Epic Reads – https://www.epicreads.com/blog/read-after-with-the-fire-on-high/
- A Taste of Sage by Yaffa S. Santos (Romance)
- Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala (Mystery)
- Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South by Von Diaz
- Dad Bakes by Katie Yamasaki (Children’s Picture Book)
- Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook, by Illyanna Maisonet
- Cookie Monsters by Erika J. Kendrick (Middle Grade)
- From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke (Memoir)
- Justice of the Pies: Sweet and Savory Pies, Quiches, and Tarts + Inspirational Stories from Exceptional People by Maya-Camille Broussard (Cookbook)
- My America: Recipes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi (Cookbook)
- No Meat Required: The Culinary History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating by Alicia Kennedy (Food History, available for pre-order/will be published on Aug 15, 2023)
- Notes from a Young Black Chef: Adapted for Young Adults by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein (Memoir)
- Pulp: A Practical Guide to Cooking with Fruit by Abra Berens (Cookbook)
- Sourdough: Or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market by Robin Sloan (Adult Fiction Novel)
- The Lemon by S.E. Boyd (Adult Fiction)
- The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (Adult Fiction)
- The Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera (Historical Fiction set in Puerto Rico & Hawaii)
- Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat by Mara Rockliff, Illustrated by Giselle Potter (Children’s Picture Book)
- Yerba Buena by Nina Lacour (Adult Fiction Novel)
- Watermelon & Red Birds by Nicole A. Taylor (Cookbook)
- We Fed An Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by Jose Andres (Memoir)
Watch- and Listen-alikes
- Asking for What You Want with Julia Turshen of Small Victories (One Part Podcast by Jessica Murnnane)
- From Scratch (series adaption of the book by Tembi Locke, available on Netflix)
- José Andrés and Family In Spain (series on Discovery+)
- Keep Calm and Cook On with Julia Turshen (podcast)
- Point of Origin (podcast from Whetstone Magazine)
- “Puerto Rican food, Little Ethiopia, Nigella Lawson” (Good Food episode, through 11:12)
- Searching for Mexico (CNN series with Eva Longoria on Hulu)
- Searching for Soul Food (Hulu)
- Tales from a Puerto Rican Kitchenn: Von Diaz Mixes Coconuts and Collards (Milk Street Radio episode)
- Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi (series on Hulu)
- Why We’re Over It + How To Amplify Black Voices On and Offline with Jessica Jones and Wendy Lopez of Food Heaven (One Part Podcast by Jessica Murnane)
- Food Heaven: https://foodheavenmadeeasy.com/
Author Website – http://www.acevedowrites.com/about
Book Cover Design – https://www.epicreads.com/blog/with-the-fire-on-high-cover-design/
Collaborative Summer Library Program – https://www.cslpreads.org/ – 2023 Summer Reading Theme “All Together Now”
Living Soil – Comic
(This illustration is about reconnecting to the earth, which the book isn’t specifically about, but very much relates to Slow Food ideals and the book’s theme of “respect” as well as the idea that if we don’t respect the soil, food would not grow and there would be limited ingredients with which to cook) This content is also related to: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Leah Penniman + Soul Fire Farm, Wendell Berry, etc.)
Spreading the Seeds – Comic
About the evolution and origins of what we today know as the fruit, orange.
Suggested reading before visiting Philadelphia: https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/pennsylvania/articles/read-books-visit-philadelphia-pa/
Video, Elizabeth Acevedo changes the conversation on teen pregnancy and motherhood – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKwm1zEH6m0