ALAMEDA -- On a quiet street on the East End of Alameda, if you listen closely, you may hear the soft cluck of chickens.

It's easy to trace -- the sound is coming from the house with the green vegetables growing in the front. That's the house of Eli Brown, a prizewinning author and Alameda resident whose new book, "Cinnamon and Gunpowder," was released last year to excellent reviews.

It's no coincidence "Cinnamon and Gunpowder" is full of copious and loving descriptions of food -- it ties in with the appreciation for gardening and cooking that Brown has created at his and his girlfriend's home in Alameda.

"I get a lot of pleasure from the broccoli in the front growing," he said.

"Cinnamon and Gunpowder," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the tale of a chef kidnapped by a female pirate captain in the 19th century. He's kept alive as long as he manages to cook tremendous meals for his captor, but over the course of the novel, and after many meals, the chef learns to see past his first impressions of the deadly Hannah Mabbot. There's a lot of richly drawn nautical detail and swashbuckling along the way, but it's also a questioning of our cultural veneration of the pirate, which Brown likens to a "mythic animal," celebrated in culture in a watered-down version.

"And yet there are pirates, and they do terrible things," he said.


Advertisement

Brown's first novel was "The Great Days," a fictional account of a cult that won the Fabri Literary Prize. He's currently working on a cookbook, "The Feasts of Tre-Mang." But it's not an ordinary one -- it's a cookbook from an imaginary island nation that exists only in Brown's mind. He successfully raised more than $10,000 back in 2011 for the book via Kickstarter, but he's had a hard time finding a publisher. Cookbook publishers are confused by the fictional origins, while fiction publishers don't really know how to market a cookbook, Brown said.

"I keep getting the same response: 'It's brilliant! We don't know how to do it,'" he said.

He's considering self-publishing the cookbook, but in the meantime he's working on a new novel -- also set in the past, but on land this time. His own farming experiments have made him more curious about how people managed to sustain themselves in difficult times.

The 38-year-old Brown grew up in Brawley in Southern California. The child of two teachers, he was drawn to art, making his own sculptures out of anything he could find -- including wet toilet paper, which he let dry into a papier-mâché-like substance. But it was a solitary pursuit in Brawley.

"It's a desert, culturally," he said.

He studied visual art at UC Santa Cruz, then studied creative writing at Mills College, where he developed a community of writers that he still depends on today. But instead of the heady San Francisco literary scene, Brown is happily settled into a slow-paced Alameda lifestyle of urban farming and he frankly praises what he calls "hipster culture."

"I'm so excited about the pastiche of postmodern thinking and entrepreneurship and reacquisitions of old ways of dressing -- and foodies," he said.

At his house in Alameda, every bit of ground in the front is given over to cultivating vegetables, while in the back, chickens peck around fenced vegetables. Recently, he and his girlfriend tried to estimate how much garlic they needed to grow for a year.

"I think we came up with something like 80 heads," he mused. "Which, now that I say it, sounds like too little. We really like garlic."

---