Brothers sift through trials of restaurant industry in ‘Bread & Butter’

02/21/2014 12:00 AM

02/22/2014 10:14 PM

Do high-end restaurants, like doctors’ offices, keep notes on the regulars? In this book they do, the note cards guiding servers and hosts to treat the customers with a charade of familiarity.

But the practice can backfire if the clientele catch on. The wait staff at Winesap, one of the fictional restaurants central to “Bread & Butter,” Michelle Wildgen’s new novel, did “whatever it took to safeguard their guests from knowledge of themselves.”

Several leitmotifs are strung through the novel, one of the more prominent being the question of how well we know our own family and what we do with that knowledge. Conspicuously absent is much concern with self-reflection and discovery.

But this is, after all, a novel about brothers and food, not soul-searching.

Wildgen’s description of a high-end grocery store as “a Venus flytrap for gastronomes running low on inspiration or imported mostarda” also aptly describes this novel minus the mostarda.

This author has a knack for solid, striking characterizations. The brothers are clearly individuals, even Leo and Britt who, at 15 months apart, tend to be lumped together as one by their parents.

Leo is the oldest. He’s serious, responsible, handles the restaurant’s books. Britt the middle brother is a fancy dresser, former white-collar worker, a charmer. And Harry, six years younger, has mussed red hair, is adventuresome and rash.

Leo and Britt own a restaurant in the failing industrial town of Linden, Pa. Harry comes home and opens his own restaurant, imagining all three of them going it together. Only middle brother Britt signs on, dividing his time between the two establishments.

The food descriptions are consistently, almost overwhelmingly, stunning. Most of the dishes described won’t register on the palate radar of the average diner.

“It was clearly an animal part of some kind: the bones were there, interlocking like bracelet clasps through the center of the meat, and as Britt peered at the circumference of the item he saw an ivory cord running through them like a string through a necklace.”

The signature dish at Harry’s restaurant’s is “Lamb’s neck with Jerusalem artichokes, broccoli rabe, and gremolata.” This is a “cult item” with a following.

Necks are a theme. These characters eat a lot of lambs’ necks. The couples also tend to touch each other’s necks and consider each other’s spines with unsettling frequency.

But the vulnerable necks serve a purpose: Each of the brothers sticks out his proverbial neck at some point — for the forbidden love of a co-worker, to follow the dream of owning a restaurant, to try to help a brother succeed.

The lamb, the one whose neck keeps getting eaten, ties in with yet another theme: childhood/immaturity. Some actions are described as childish, the consistency of a pork bun is “infantile.” Leo thinks of children as “an unending source of unwelcome self-awareness.” Which circles us back to awareness of self and others.

All the brothers want to avoid good, hard looks at themselves, while constantly holding up mirrors to each other. They also put a lot of stock in the local restaurant reviewers’ assessments.

While it’s reasonable for a restaurateur to await a review, in the case of the brothers, a review is only another source of outside information about themselves. This approach to characterizing the brothers’ dynamics and personalities seems intentional, but why is it that they need so much external input?

Harry is the central character of the novel — he’s the one who shakes up the established order, creates hysteria and just makes the story interesting. And it’s no mistake that he names his restaurant Stray.

In the prologue, he’s the 6-year-old who strays from the family to purchase sheep’s tongue with his allowance; the family figured that “as long as the older two remained stable and successful, Harry was free to take any risk he liked,” so he’s unencumbered by parental guilt and adult responsibility and has always done as he pleases.

By the end of the novel, we understand that Harry longs for stability and routine; it was a deep weltschmerz, or world-weariness, that led him back to his hometown and his brothers.

And Harry inadvertently has influenced Britt to accept the experimental when nothing goes as Britt expects for several months. Leo also changes, breaking his No. 1 industry rule: Don’t date the staff.

Throughout the novel, Wildgen, the executive editor of the literary quarterly “Tin House,” seamlessly switches the third-person point of view between the prominent characters. By the last page we get “their” point of view, the three brothers in sync like a well-oiled kitchen crew during the dinner rush.

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