For Emoni Santiago, cooking is a passion and a release valve. When her Philadelphia high school offers a culinary arts class with an apprenticeship in Spain, it’s a dream come true – but between school, a toddler, a job, the prospect of college, and just making rent, there’s no way a trip to Spain can happen.
Emoni’s family setup is complicated. Her mother died when she was born and her dad returned to Puerto Rico shortly after, leaving her ’Buela (abuela is Spanish for “grandma”) to raise her alone. Then Emoni became pregnant her freshman year and had her daughter. She’s been forced to navigate the teen/adult fulcrum point earlier than most, so she’s a marvel of self-control, with wisdom beyond her years.
As a hands-on learner who excels by doing, Emoni is all art and heart, so the culinary class proves uniquely challenging. The instructor emphasizes a professional approach: safety, precision, consistency. But Emoni struggles to translate her natural instincts into science. When Chef quizzes her on the correct temperature for chicken, for instance, she describes the right color and feel instead. Deviating from a recipe is forbidden, even if Emoni’s changes would improve it.
This mismatch of approaches is tough for Emoni to swallow, especially with guidance counselors pushing her to study culinary arts in college. With her innate talent and family situation, she thinks, why study cooking when she could be out there doing it, making money for her family instead of spending it? She’s almost 18, but Emoni still has growing to do.
Emoni is a serious and devoted mother, the kind who reads parenting books and isn’t afraid to hold a disciplinary line with her daughter or the baby’s father. Her love for her daughter determines how Emoni plans for life after high school, who she’s friends with, how she interacts with her dad, and if she lets Malachi (a transfer student with dimples of mass destruction) walk her to class. When she decides to do something, though, she’s an unstoppable force of dedication and self-denial.
This is partly a reaction to her weird relationship with her dad, a community organizer. He visits once a year but otherwise doesn’t engage beyond an occasional phone call.
“My father isn’t a bad man. He helps a lot of people,” Emoni hedges. “But his passions confuse me. Although he raises money for his causes, he never sends any here. Although he cares about his community, his own family gets the short end of the stick. 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.”
Passages like that are why I’m a ride-or-die Elizabeth Acevedo fan. I fell hard for "The Poet X" last year and hoped her poetry-less sophomore novel would hold up. It turns out Acevedo’s prose is as brilliant as her poetry: she guides readers gently but firmly, with heart-stopping clarity, to each sharp point.
The power she fits into a few words is astonishing. Where Laini Taylor writes Italian espresso, Elizabeth Acevedo writes artisanal fudge. “With the Fire on High” is bittersweet and dense, each bite containing chewy, dark universes unto itself.
What’s more, Acevedo has a way of making this hyper-specific, fictional, teenage experience feel like an allegory of your own life. You’ll find pieces of yourself embedded in her characters, like the nuts in a walnut torte.
Looking for pop culture lineage? Fans of “Save the Last Dance” will recall Kerry Washington’s teen mom character. The clash between talent and training is right out of “Drumline.” Conversations about gentrification call up “Pride” by Ibi Zoboi. I’d be remiss not to cite “The Great British Baking Show” and all things Food Network.
The audience for “With the Fire on High” is near-universal. Read this if you like to cook, want to travel, have raised money for a high school trip, have a good family, have a tough family, have a young one, have eyes, have taste buds, have taste, love school, hate school, are hungry, hunger for more. I’ll be over here with the other Acevedo stans when you’re ready.
Content warnings: sexual content, language, underage drinking.