I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.
Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”
It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.
A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.
Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?
But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.
Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.
Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.
Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”
Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.
Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!
Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today. Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.