Season liberally with pepper and salt

February 20, 2008

I have an easily documented history of mocking the culinary philosophy of Sandra Lee, or at least her zealous enthusiasm for its outcomes. I can’t deny that there’s truth in her claim that adding something real to something packaged can change the outcome for the better. Next time you make brownies from a mix, try replacing some of the water with good coffee that you’ve brewed and cooled, or add a tablespoon of real vanilla extract to a packaged cake mix. You probably won’t, as Lee swears, camouflage the formulaic origins completely, but the result is more complex and satisfying.

It’s true of comics as well, and it’s appropriate that one of the most striking examples I’ve come across recently is the next volume of Natsumi Ando and Miyuki Kobayashi’s Kitchen Princess, due this week from Del Rey. It took a couple of volumes for this series to grow on me, and it took the most recent installment for it to become manga crack.

Here’s the story so far: a plucky orphan (I know) enrolls in an elite private school (bear with me) to find the boy (yes, there’s always at least one) who gave her hope when all seemed lost. She overcomes the snobbishness and resentment of her upper-crust classmates (that crowd again) and catches the eye of the school’s cutest boys (insert feuding bishônen here) with her good heart and nigh-supernatural skills as a pastry chef. (If this were shônen manga, she’d want to become the world’s greatest creator of sweets and set about crushing all rivals when not recruiting them to her entourage, but it’s shôjo, so she wants to use desserts to make people happy, smooth the course of young love, reconcile broken families, and heal the sick.)

So how could a series so transparently formulaic become anything but pleasant, predictable fluff? The secret ingredient is cynicism. (There are spoilers after the cut, so be warned.)

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