This post is part of Pinch Me, I’m Eating’s 2018 Novel Recipes Series, a collaborative collection of posts from food bloggers highlighting recipes that are featured in fiction. Each post includes a book review and a recipe from the novel. See the full reading list with links to each post here!
If you’ve ever skimmed through my reading recommendations, you’ll notice that I often gravitate toward books that contain a little bit of magic. There’s something about a book full of beautiful old creaky houses, seemingly inanimate objects that come to life, and lush gardens filled with curious plants that provide the base for magic brews that just demands you curl up with a big mug of tea and delve into another world for a few hours. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen was the perfect combination of these things, providing an excellent afternoon escape into a world filled with delicious magic.
The story follows the Waverly sisters, Claire and Sydney, as each struggles to overcome some very dark life events, embrace their natural gifts, and learn to trust each other. Though neither of the women are directly identified as witches and you’ll find no conventional spellcasting, it’s apparent that the entire family has a little bit of magic in both their blood and in the roots of their garden.
Elder sister Claire has made a quiet life for herself in the large historical family home on Bascom, North Carolina tending to the garden and running a small, but locally renowned catering business where she flexes her culinary prowess with her magical dishes. Claire knows that salads made with chicory and mint will make the eater believe something good is about to happen (whether it was true or not), that a dip made from hyacinth bulbs causes the eater to feel moody and think of past regrets, and rose geranium wine will bring the drinker a return to happiness, remembering memories of better times in the past.
While Claire thrives in the kitchen, creating dishes that will help others tune into feelings of optimism and love, she struggles to embrace those feelings herself. She’s closed herself off to any prospect of romantic love, preferring to put her efforts into her seemingly magic garden and her culinary creations. Even her relationship with her estranged half-sister Sydney has always been contentious because she grew up resenting her for the normal life that her unstable mother finally provided for them only when her younger sister came along.
Younger sister Sydney followed in the footsteps of their late mother, abandoning Bascom as soon as she could and working her way across the country, committing petty crimes, and only staying in each place a short time before moving on to the next impulsive decision. She eventually ends up in Seattle, WA under a stolen alias, and in an extremely abusive relationship with the father of her 5-year-old daughter, Bay. When Sydney finally makes her escape, she travels back home to Bascom, confident that her abuser will never find her because he has only known her by the stolen name Cindy Watkins, never Sydney Waverly.
The sisters begin to work together to mend their previous resentments and eventually begin to trust each other once again. I love that each sister goes through very different journeys in their lives, but are eventually able to come together to support one another and embrace their heritage and natural magical talents.
Some of the elements I loved best in this story were the secondary characters. Evanelle is a 79-year-old distant relative who’s magical gift is that she always knows when someone needs something and makes it her mission to pass those items along to the person, unaware of when they might come in handy. One might find her sitting on their porch waiting to give them two new sheet sets and a box of strawberry pop tarts and later find that they have two unexpected guests arriving, or they might be out shopping and Evanelle hands them 2 quarters, both unaware that the recipient may need to make an emergency call on a payphone later that day. Evanelle’s house is full of things: toasters, batteries, and bobbles still in their boxes, just waiting for her to get the tingly feeling that someone specific will be in need of that item soon. She never knows why, she just knows that she’s supposed to give it to them.
The other secondary character that I loved was the magical apple tree in the Waverly’s garden. I say character because the tree behaves as though it’s a part of the family, reaching it’s branches out to interact and toss it’s apples toward people to eat, or chucking them on the heads of family members it finds onerous. Local legend said that if you eat one of the apples you will be able to see the most important moment of your life, good or bad, so the Waverly’s have quite the habit of trying to keep curious locals out of their garden.
My overall thoughts on Garden Spells
Overall, I really enjoyed the characters in this book as well as the elements of magic woven within. I did struggle with Sydney’s journey because I felt that her story arc wrapped up too easily for the level of abuse that was detailed in the book; As a full disclaimer, there are some fairly graphic mentions of physical and sexual abuse. Ultimately, I was happy for a positive resolution to her struggles and glad to see her character finish out the book on a positive note.
The element that I really connected with most in the book is the way that Claire channels her passions and her magic into culinary gifts for other people. Like Claire, both my garden and my kitchen are magical spaces for me. Cooking is my passion, not only for the joy of creating something magical and delicious from scratch, but for the ability that food has to share love and support with others.
I really enjoyed that each sister had such different, vivid personalities and I found myself wanting to befriend both of them as well as many of the other characters. There is a second book in this series called First Frost that revisits the Waverly sisters in Bascom and I can’t wait to read it!
As an addendum to Garden Spells, the author Sarah Addison Allen has shared a bit of the Waverly Kitchen Journal, detailing some of the magical herbs and flowers found in their garden and recipes for dishes passed down through the family. I’ve decided to make Claire’s Chive Blossom Vinegar, an item that she sells at the local farmers’ market and grocery store that is perfect for the late spring and early summer months.
Chive Blossom Vinegar
“It was going to be a busy day. She had a dinner party to cater that night, and it was the last Tuesday in May, so she had to deliver her end-of-the-month shipment of lilac and mint and rose-petal jellies and nasturtium and chive-blossom vinegars to the farmers’ market and to the gourmet grocery store on the square, where the college kids from Orion College would hang out after class.” – Claire Waverly, Garden Spells
According to the Waverly Kitchen Journal, chive blossoms ensure that you will win an argument and are conveniently also an antidote for hurt feelings. Though I haven’t tested this Chive Blossom vinegar out on any arguments or hurt feelings, I would bet that it would make a wonderful addition sprinkled on garden-fresh roasted vegetables, emulsified with oil in a salad dressing, or swirled in olive oil as a dip for a crusty baguette. I also love that the color is naturally a gorgeous bright pink!
The process for making Chive Blossom Vinegar is incredibly simple to make and uses only 2 ingredients: chive blossoms and vinegar. My garden produced a ton of chives this year, which I was thrilled about because they are one of my favorite fresh herbs to use in cooking. However, I had very few blossoms this year and none of the local farmers’ markets had any left by the time I was ready to make this. I ended up ordering some online from a company called Gourmet Sweet Botanicals, who were able to overnight me a batch of blossoms on ice so that they would stay fresh. Next year, I fully plan to make this recipe earlier in the season so I can take advantage of the local supply in my area (and my own garden). Chives typically blossom in May and June so this is the perfect potion to make in late spring.
I hope you pick up Garden Spells as your next magical afternoon escape, and maybe it will inspire you to make your own batch of Chive Blossom Vinegar. For additional recipe and book pairings in the collaborative Novel Recipes Series, check out this list!Print
- 2 cups chive blossoms
- 2 cups white vinegar (Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar work best)
- Bring vinegar to just barely a boil, then pour vinegar over chive blossoms in a large glass bottle.
- Cover with a secure lid and store in a cool, dark place for one week.
- At the end of one week, strain vinegar and discard blossoms.
- If you prefer, add sprig of fresh chive blossom back to the bottle before gifting.
This recipe was inspired by the novel Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen and rewritten in my own words. The recipe was found on her website as an addendum to the novel, with a note that the recipe originated at cooks.com.
- Serving Size: 1/4 cup