"The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver & pan dulce
I love serendipitous meetings between book and reader. I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s thick novel The Lacuna at a pop-up used book sale while waiting for my phone to be fixed. I’m one of the few people who hasn’t read The Poisonwood Bible so this was my first introduction to her writing and it was love from her description of the underwater world of a coral reef on page 3 onwards. (“A thousand fishes make the school, but they always move together: one great, bright, brittle altogetherness.”)
The novel unfolds as a series of Harrison Shepherd’s personal diaries, the notes of a fictional archivist and several newspaper articles, some from the real New York Times and some fictional. Beginning with a young Shepherd’s exploration of the sea around Isla Pixol in 1929, the story follows him as he moves from living with his mother in Mexico to a boarding school in Washington D.C. chosen by his American father and then back to Mexico, where he comes of age working as a chef in the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. When they take in a newly exiled Trotsky, the polyglot Shepherd with his passion for writing is a natural choice to become his amanuensis.
Related pairing: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver & spiced sweet potato spread
That alone would have been enough for a rich and detailed novel, but Kingsolver continues to reveal Shepherd to us after Frida sends him back to the U.S. following Trotsky’s death (Is it a spoiler if it’s historical fact?) for his own safety. Years later, the unexpected fame he obtains as a fiction author combined with his past associations entangle Shepherd in America’s brutal Red Scare. The Lacuna doesn’t read like historical fiction, but it is a lush exploration of how momentous events like World War II and the Cold War impacted the lives of everyday individuals. It’s one thing to learn from a textbook that the fear of Communism pushed the U.S. to unfairly persecute foreigners, but when it starts happening to Shepherd, who you as a reader know intimately after several hundred pages, you feel the tragedies of history with a fresh pang.
Like I said, I love serendipitously finding the perfect book. The Lacuna is a luxurious examination of two themes very close to my heart: the impact of words and a writer’s inability to not write, as well as the infinite questions of identity that come with belonging, soul and citizenship, to more than one country.
Pan dulce plays such a key role in changing the course of Shepherd’s life that it’s an obvious pairing for this book. But another reason I chose these Mexican sweet buns was because I’ve never made them before and I thought I’d rectify this lacuna in my recipe repertoire by venturing into foreign territory.
- 1 cup milk
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoons butter, softened
- 2 egg yolks
Heat the milk in a small saucepan until it bubbles, then remove from heat. Add the butter, stir until melted and pour into a large bowl to cool.
Dissolve yeast in the milk mixture. Mix in 1/3 cup sugar, salt, eggs and 2 cups flour. Stir in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and supple, about 8 minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces and form into rounds. With a rolling pin, roll the rounds into oval buns. Place them onto two lightly greased baking sheets. Cover the rolls with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled in volume, about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
While the bread rises, make the topping: In a small bowl, stir together 1/2 cup sugar, 2/3 cup flour, butter until a crumb mixture forms. Stir in the egg yolks until well blended. Crumble the topping over the rolls so the entire surface is covered.
Bake in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until sugar topping is lightly browned.
Recipe by Teresa Brignoni