Book Lists Book Reviews

In My Book Bag: Mel of Mel’s Kitchen Cafe

You guys. I seriously love you for your enthusiastic response to In My Book Bag. Awkward introvert hugs for everyone.

This week is Mel from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, which is, without question, my very favorite food blog in the entire universe (and I don’t say that lightly).

I’ve made dozens and dozens of her recipes (this chicken and cream cheese orzo is one of our all-time family favorites) and only ever had ONE that didn’t turn out, and that was my own dang fault because I was in a hurry and cranked up the stove like crazy and then burned them to death. Obviously, we had company over that night. She is seriously fool-proof. Desserts, main dishes, breads, and snacks – she does them all and they are all amazing.

Plus, she has five kids (four boys and a girl), so her recipes are very family-friendly and don’t require hours and hours of hands-on time. Also, she’s good about avoiding highly-processed foods and making things from scratch, but she also lives kind of in the middle of nowhere, so you won’t be trying to hunt down some obscure ingredient only available to 1% of the population.

And as if her recipes weren’t reason enough to read her blog, she’s so hilarious, I like just READING her posts. From yesterday’s, while talking about some Cinnamon and Sugar Breadstick Twists, she said, “Brian nearly did a cartwheel in delight (until I reminded him his 36-year old hamstrings might not appreciate that). The boys gladly cartwheeled in his behalf.” 

Plus, she’s just a super nice person. I’ve been turned off to many a recipe blog by the unpleasant way the blogger responds in the comments to people who have had trouble with a recipe or make suggestions, and Mel is never anything but delightful, gracious, and low-key.

Almost every time I read her blog, I think, “WHY are we not neighbors?” (Probably because I’d invite myself over to dinner every single night and for snacks at least four times a week). I’m guessing many of you already read her blog, but if there are even two of you who don’t and now are off to discover her (may I recommend this banana bread which is to-die for good?), I’ll consider my job here done.

Favorite book recommendations from Mel's Kitchen Cafe
I am a compulsive reader. Always have been, always will be. I devour books and read while abandoning reality. As in, I will stay up all night to finish a book just so a) I can get back to fixing my kids lunch and b) I don’t get impatient and crazy and do something disastrous like flip to the last page to see what happens. I’m notorious for skipping ahead. I’ve always wished I had more self-control so I could spend days or even weeks in that pocket of bliss reading a great book. But, alas, I can’t change my stripes. I’ve tried.

I was that classic, anti-social, nerdy girl growing up (we’re talking from age 5 to age…uh, 35) who would rather read than socialize. Family reunions? I was in a corner with my nose stuck in a book. Bedtime growing up? Under the cover with a flashlight. Weekend high school parties? At home reading. I was such a ball of fun to be around, can’t you tell?

For years, especially as a teenager and in my early 20’s, I only read books that I felt certain I would like (kind of fluffy, clean romance, totally girlie books) and didn’t branch out much. But now, I’ve thrown away specific genres and read books based on the author’s ability to draw me in – it’s all about the writing style, although I still tend toward literature that isn’t overly heavy and doesn’t require me to grab a dictionary to understand what I’m reading. I’m learning as I’ve filtered through lots of crummy books that an author who can truly tell a story that holds me in its grip (and leaves me in complete joy followed by a depressive funk when I’m done reading the book) is a treasure.

My personal reading time, which doesn’t happen as often as I would like and does not include reading Curious George over and over to my kids, is precious and I’m always on the hunt for the book that is worth staying up all night to read.

Childhood Favorite: As a child, I devoured Nancy Drews and Babysitter Clubs and snuck in a few Sweet Valley Highs when my mom wasn’t looking because they weren’t allowed. In my teen years, I couldn’t get enough of Dorothy Keddington and Madeline Brent and Patricia Veryan (I told you I was into girlie romances). I have probably read all of their books dozens and dozens of times (although not for many years). One standout of Patricia Veryan’s is Poor, Splendid Wings. I reread it a year or so ago and still loved it. Bawled like a baby at the end..

Currently Reading: Parenting with Love: Making a Difference in a Day (the only parenting book I read with consistency; I keep it on my nightstand and it’s only 80 pages – bonus!). Sorry, nothing too exciting here.

Comfort Reading: Anything by Juliet Marillier (but mostly the Sevenwaters Trilogy). Her books are like the ultimate comfort reading to me and I can reread them over and over and still devour the stories. I always swore I was not and never would be a fantasy fan but she changed me. I’ve never read an author that can weave a story like she can.

A Book Everyone Else Seemed to Love, But I Don’t Like: I’m almost scared to admit this since it has an almost cult-like following: Edenbrooke. Just couldn’t get through it. I love clean, witty romances but this was just too much cheeseball and twirling for me. (Oh, and the Twilight series, too, but I may regret admitting that when my house gets egged by Twilight-loving mobs.)

A Book on My To-Read List: Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand (not that I’m overly interested in horses but I loved Unbroken so, so much and I want to give it a try). Also The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Book I’m Most Likely to Recommend to Someone Else: Winter Sea or The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley. She is such a fabulous storyteller and I love the slight paranormal twists (I stopped recommending J. Marillier because so many people are convinced they don’t like fantasy and I wasn’t sure I could still be friends with people if they read her books and didn’t like them. Kidding. Kind of.). Also, it’s an oldie and kind of long and you have to really love reading history/romance type books but Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald (Ernest Hemingway’s daughter) is just wonderful.


Thanks, Mel. I laughed aloud about the forbidden Sweet Valley High books – same at my house! 

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  • Reply Kayris January 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Compared to some of the stuff marketed to Tweens and teens these days, Sweet Valley High seems tame now. The only thing my mother wouldn't let me read was this: in 9th grade, the teacher sent home a list of books and we had to get parental permission to read them. Each book had three or four students reading it, then we would do a group presentation. My mom refused to let me read Steven king or VC Andrews. I was welcome to read them on my own time…but she didn't think it was appropriate for school. I was mad at the time but now I agree. Anyway, I ended up with Clan of the Cave Bear, which had a violent rape and was still not appropriate for a ninth grader.

    Seabiscuit was amazing, prepared to be horrified by what the jockeys did to themselves.

  • Reply Nina B January 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    I just wrote about books yesterday. I will definitely be checking some of these out. 🙂

  • Reply Nicole Murray January 30, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Oh–I adore Mel too! If her book recommendations are anything like her recipes, I will be making a trip to the library (website) right this minute.

    • Reply Lindsey C January 31, 2014 at 4:03 am

      Yes! This series is fantastic and you made perfect selections for for the first two. Love Grace and adore Mels blog. She reminds me so much if my sister which makes me love her even more. Why can't we all be neighbors?

  • Reply Meg C January 30, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    I seriously adore Mel, and I've wished many times that I could be her neighbor! And I totally agree about foolproof recipes- of the MANY meals (at least 70) I've made from her site, only one was not a home run, and I'm positive it was user error with some bad substitutions.

    Mel, you'll love Seabiscuit! I'm not enthralled with horse races either, but it's a fantastically woven story.

    Did all the moms get together and outlaw Sweet Valley High? Mine too.

  • Reply RA January 30, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    I loved Seabiscuit (read it before Unbroken, never seen the movie), and I know NOTHING about horses. Laura Hillenbrand is just that good.

  • Reply Celeste January 30, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Totally love this Book Bag idea Janssen! Brilliant.

  • Reply Mel January 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Why are we NOT neighbors? Seriously. I love your guts, too, thanks so much for making me feel like a million bucks in your intro. Way too kind, you are.

  • Reply Feisty Harriet January 30, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Seabiscuit is such a fantastic read, Hillenbrand is a brilliant author. I hope you love it!


  • Reply Emily January 30, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    Ooh, a fellow Patricia Veryan fan! I've loved her books since I nabbed one from my mom before she could take it back to the library when I was…11, maybe? They're the perfect mixture of romance and adventure.

    Susanna Kearsley is great, too. And you're about the tenth person I know who loves Juliet Marillier, so I'm going to have to read some of her books now. 🙂

    • Reply Emily January 30, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      Oh, I also meant to say, I agree with you about Edenbrooke but Julianne Donaldson's second book, Blackmoore, was one of the best books I read last year. It's got a completely different tone from Edenbrooke.

  • Reply Angela Noelle of SK January 30, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I LOVE this new feature you've got goin'. You BETCHA I have added titles to my "To Read" list from this post. LOVE IT! AH!

  • Reply Allison January 30, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    LOVE this! Oh, I love your blog… it encompasses so many of my favorites things: books, travel, good recipes, your kids…
    Miss you guys!

  • Reply Holly Alberts January 30, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    Love, love, love Mel's Kitchen Cafe blog! We love the Sweet & Sour Chicken recipe. Yum!

  • Reply Amanda January 31, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I'm glad to hear someone else took books to family functions as a kid . . and usually I still wish I could, haha. 🙂 I'll have to check out Winter Sea.

  • Reply Maggie January 31, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    I, myself, always felt edgy when I snuck home a Sweet Valley High book. Of all the books . . .why were we willing to take the risk for THAT series?

  • Reply Lady Susan February 1, 2014 at 12:49 am

    So, I think Mel must be a long lost sister since my sisters and I grew up reading Dorothy Keddington, Madeline Brent, and Patricia Veryan. I don't think I have met a person outside my family who has read all of my "secret pleasures." This means obviously, that you, Mel, need to read Mary Stewart is you havent, because that is an author in the same vein. (9 Coaches Waiting, Madam, will you talk? The Moonspinners). And even though I enjoyed parts of Edenbrooke, I have to agree that the twirling was a bit embarrassing.

  • Reply Mel February 1, 2014 at 1:20 am

    Lady Susan – we ARE soul sisters because Nine Coaches Waiting is another of my favorite books ever! 🙂

  • Reply Christy February 3, 2014 at 3:36 am

    As soon as I saw the Juliet Marillier pic I knew I had to read this post and that I'd like Mel. I LOVE Juliet's novels. I am a fantasy fan, but her stories always come across more like folk tales to me. I'll go get some Susanna Kearsley book tomorrow:)

  • Reply Meghan February 3, 2014 at 4:52 am

    Looking forward to this series 🙂

  • Reply Mimsie February 4, 2014 at 4:41 am

    Thanks for some excellent suggestions! I was all set to tell you that I once started Seabiscuit but couldn't get into it–actually, because of the small, dense print. Now that I see all the positive comments about the book, I may give it another try.

  • Reply Kelli February 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    Mel's Kitchen Cafe is the absolute best cooking blog! That's how I found your blog, Janssen. Also–I just finished Firebird, sequel to the Winter Sea. I thought it was beautiful, and fun timing–it's set in Russia, just in time to get me excited for the Olympics. Made me realize I know nothing about Russian history (and I have a Masters Degree in Histoy!)

  • Reply ben March 12, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Wow, this was like reading about myself! Right down to planning on reading Seabiscuit. I just finished Unbroken (as in, today!!) and it was amazing. I read it in 4 days even though life is crazy and I have 3 kids. lol! Love your blog, Mel. I have made many delicious recipes that have become staples in our house. Thanks! 🙂
    ps Sweet Valley High was a no-no in my house to when I was growing up!

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