How to Eat a Small Country:
A Family's Pursuit of Happiness, One Meal at a Time

by Amy Finley

Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-59138-8.
Reviewed by Juliet Porton
Posted on 04/21/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

After a whirlwind courtship with a French man who supported her through culinary training in Paris and promised to show her the world, Amy Finley packed up her chef's knives and wanderlust to be a stay-at-home mom of two in a small cottage in her mother's San Diego backyard. She was doing everything she thought she was supposed to do and trying to ignore the fact that she wasn't exactly happy in her life. She stopped cooking, even for her own family, instead serving up "a tantalizing smorgasbord of guilt, resentment, and blame."

Then Finley heard about a contest put on by the Food Network and sent in an audition tape to be their next star chef. She was flown to New York, competed in and won the competition, and began shooting her own show, "The Gourmet Next Door."

How to Eat a Small Country is Finley's way of explaining why, in a highly publicized move, she walked away from the show after only six episodes and moved her family to France. It's the deeply personal story of a woman who sees her life falling apart around her and admits that she doesn't have a clue what to do about it, other than hold her family close. She's trying to save her marriage, protect her small children, and bring joy back to her family through the sights, sounds, and flavors of six months in the French countryside.

We learn that Finley kept the contest a secret from her husband until she was chosen, and that he was against her leaving the family from the start. Lines were drawn as Finley refused to give up the show and her husband threatened divorce. She is unflinchingly honest in recounting their arguments, even when she and her husband don't come off well in them.

The book is not just a memoir of a marriage, but also of food, with Finley re-absorbing herself, with gusto, in her lost love of French food. I enjoyed her restaurant vignettes, even if most of them dealt with eating brains and kidneys rather than croissants. The author also displayed real skill in sharing the social and historical back stories of French cuisine in an interesting way.

Sometimes I had trouble with the book's two very different objectives—part light-hearted food guide and travelogue, part gut-wrenching story of a marriage unraveling. While I appreciated the author's honesty, the emotional turmoil often took center stage and made for a tense and sad read. Of course, life isn't just in the good (or bad) events, and Finley makes the point that the beautiful and terrible can happen in the same place and time. Sometimes the bad times have to happen to make us see what we're made of—for better or worse.

Amy Finley is a classically trained chef, writer, and mother of two who, when in France, orders the roasted calf's face and duck in blood on purpose. Her cooking show, "The Gourmet Next Door," ran on the Food Network in 2007. She is now at work on a cookbook. Visit her website.

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