Book Review: Hungry, What Eighty Ravenous Guys Taught Me About Life, Love and the Power of Good Food

hungryThank you to Hyperion Books for sending Darlene Barnes’ memoir, HUNGRY: What Eighty Ravenous Guys Taught Me about Life, Love, and the Power of Good Food.  The actual book goes on sale August 6, 2013, so it’s coming up soon! Hungry, as it was pitched to us here at Literary Hoarders: 

is based on her personal experience as the female chef of a frat house, Alpha Sig, at the University of Washington, Seattle. Offering fresh food, tough love and largely unsolicited advice to her college age customers, Barnes realizes that these “frat boys” are hungry not only for good food, but for the kind of care and attention previously absent from meals.

Laugh-out-loud funny and poignant, HUNGRY offers a female perspective on the real lives of young men, tells a tale of a woman’s determined struggle to find purpose, and explores the many ways that food feeds us.

Hungry opens with Darlene denouncing her way of life in Texas as too comfortable and too unfulfilling. She also provides the reader with a searing and scathing critique of a former employer that makes you hope she changed their last name, or maybe not. That all depends on how much she wishes to let that particular family know of how strongly she despised them and their lifestyle. Her husband accepts a job in Seattle and with purpose she sets out to find a more meaningful and fulfilling job using her cooking skills. It’s also seems that with purpose she sets out to find long elusive satisfaction and happiness.

Darlene writes for two separate, yet related blogs on her site – one for her thoughts and recipes using real food and one that was used for the Hungry book and covers the fraternity cooking job. The tagline, “Cook. Real. Food.” is the one that is ever present throughout her book as well. Her demand, her desire, her need to ensure that she cooked only using real food and not the processed junk that was passed off as food in the neighbouring fraternities and sororities. There are a number of passages devoted to her struggles and frustrations with nailing down food suppliers and administration that would support this desire.

However, cooking for a house full of frat boys are not the only components that make up Hungry. Throughout we find Darlene continuing to experience un-fulfilment and continued unhappiness with her job at the Alpha Sig. Each year she questions her renewal of the contract and consistently seeks out other employment. Yet, she never does quit and the man responsible for hiring her consistently lets her know this, he knows she won’t submit her resignation. Darlene often seemed to struggle to find happiness and satisfaction in her job and over a period of time realizes that the jobs or careers we hold become more intricately involved in our lives than we may care for them to be. Here was where I sometimes struggled for her continued tales of dissatisfaction were made with liberal dashes of negativity and pessimism. I found this weighed the story down.

Now firmly entrenched in the frat house, Darlene receives text messages (that she replies to) in the dead of night, while on vacation and even while at home. She finds herself working there throughout the summer when she doesn’t really need to be present. She wants to make sure that the boys that do remain during the summer continue to eat properly. Her story and her mission to provide good food is dotted with tales and descriptions of particular boys/men that have touched her more than others. She finds herself becoming more deeply involved with the drama, heartache, frustration and the every day while at Alpha Sig. I can understand many of Darlene’s frustrations, there does come a time in everyone’s job where you just can’t take it anymore and become desperate to look for something, sometimes anything else, but realization dawns and you find yourself more part of a family than simply a “job”. It becomes harder and harder to let that go for there are always little gems and nuggets that do provide fulfillment.

Darlene’s most recent post of April 2013 on the “Hungry blog” is that she has indeed (finally?) left the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity. Although there were many that touched her and she writes of those boys lovingly, she does seem to write about her final decision with a touch of disparagement, and the persistent desire to find true satisfaction or a kind of happiness that wasn’t available any longer at Alpha Sig.

“…its that after 6 1/2 years, a certain reality wore on me:  cooking in a frat house is more like cooking in a prison than a restaurant, regardless of your budget or the character of the “inmates. But what made me leave in the end was that I wanted only one kind of repeat customer:  the willing one.  One of the central themes of my book is that no one else is responsible for your happiness and that when something is no longer working, it’s your job to work on something else.”

Hungry was an enjoyable read, and often reminded me of the research institute where I work – the people here become more like family and the focus for meeting the challenges of the daily grind, rather than complaints of the job itself. I enjoyed the tips and recipes that were included throughout and how these boys learning to become men endeared themselves to her, indeed, actually becoming quite dependant upon her (much like our administrative “den mother” (as I call her) here where I work.) However, there were times I struggled to overcome some of the pessimism that dragged down the story. Congrats on the memoir and cheers to you for bringing to light the need and attention to producing high quality meals using real food – and for showing that many times over this can be a far more economical way to prepare simple and easy dishes to feed the masses of hungry boys!