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updated: 8/20/2013 2:30 PM

New Sandra Lee novel fits vacation mode

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  • Reduce's 10-ounce reusable water bottles fit nicely into kids' lunchboxes.

      Reduce's 10-ounce reusable water bottles fit nicely into kids' lunchboxes.
    Courtesy of Reduce

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Heartbreak, secrets, healing, rediscovery, recipes. Sandra Lee's novel "The Recipe Box" has it all.

In her fiction debut, Lee, host of Food Network's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" and author of 20-plus cookbooks, shares a tale of Grace Holm-D'Angelo, a thirty-something divorced mother trying to raise a rebellious daughter, juggle a Hollywood career and deal with the death of her best friend back in their hometown of New London, Wis.

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I doubt the book will win any literary awards, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Lee's a natural at describing the German chocolate cake that Grace baked for a county fair and the shabby chic decor of her redecorated attic apartment. Her characters are likable and easy to relate to.

Perhaps my enjoyment was heightened by the fact that I read it while vacationing in Wisconsin. I couldn't help but wonder if the small towns we drove past (New Lisbon? Viroqua?) might have been Lee's inspiration for the quaint town with its volunteer fire department and cherished book store.

The recipes sprinkled in the pages were a bonus, yet sometimes it seemed a dish was described in the narrative more as an excuse to include a recipe than to advance the storyline.

That said, I'm still planning to try the blue-ribbon winning Door County Cherry German Chocolate Cake and korvlada, a dish Grace's mother describes as "a Swedish-Wisconsin hybrid" made with brats or other sausages. Oh, and speaking of brats, Grace and her pal Ken grab a bite at The Brat Stop and I know that is not a fictional place.

If you're still looking for a breezy summer book to read on the beach or back porch, "The Recipe Box" is a delicious choice.

Packing it in: I feel the need to add my own two cents to J.M. Hirsch's article last week about lunch gear.

I have two boys (fifth and eighth grade this year) and only last year did their lunchboxes hold up the entire year.

What brands, you ask? Coleman and Built.

Last year my junior-high-aged son quickly claimed the black neoprene Built bag; it collapses to fit in his back pack. If his container of leftover pasta spilled inside, cleanup was easy: Just throw it in the washing machine.

The Coleman lunch box is one I found not with the back-to-school supplies but rather by the camping gear. I think it's technically a six-pack cooler, but it didn't cost much more than the bit-smaller lunch-size totes. And I like the sturdy fabric construction and plastic insert which removed for easy cleanup.

Here's my other favorite piece of gear for school lunches: Reduce reusable drinking bottles. My favorite feature: the size -- 10 ounces, not 16 or 20 ounces like most other reusable water bottles.

For one, no kid needs 20 ounces of juice at lunch. Secondly, a 20-ounce bottle doesn't fit into a standard-size lunchbox.

This year Reduce has come out with a WaterWeek set that includes five BPA-free bottles in really fun patterns (they call it Kids Kaleidoscope) and a tray to wrangle them together in your fridge. With these on hand I hope to go the whole year without buying juice pouches.

Celebrating food: Were you the last of your friends to learn that Tuesday was Lemonade Day or that you missed Ice Cream Pie Day on Sunday?

With a new mobile app from Food.com, you'll never miss out on all the important food holidays.

Every Day Is a Food Holiday is a free app for iPhone and iPad (available for download in the iTunes store) that celebrates and promotes a different food or food-related occasion every day of the year. From each calendar, you can link to recipes -- it has a library of more than 3,000 user-generated recipes -- so you can celebrate the likes of Waffle Day (Aug. 24), Toasted Marshmallow Day (Aug. 30) and Hot Cross Buns Day (Sept. 11).

Users can share their favorite holidays and recipes on social media sites and can bookmark and save recipes and holidays in the app.

Download it now and you still have time to make Spam Musubi to mark the anniversary of Hawaii's statehood.

Come to the table: Beth's Table that is, and enjoy dinner on Aug. 28 with Food Network chefs Ben Vaughn and Emily Ellyn.

The dinner is the latest in the Chef Unplugged Dinner Series hosted by Beth's Table at Liam Brex Kitchen Studios, 222 S. Main St., Naperville.

Beth Peterson, a Naperville mother of three and serious foodie, is the Beth in the name. She befriended chef Vaughn in 2012 and together they cooked up the idea to bring an array of up-and-coming chefs to the suburban high-end kitchen store for a series of intimate dinners.

Ellyn, who studied in Paris and at the Culinary Institute of America, competed on "The Next Food Network Star" and is known as the "Retro Rad" chef who takes classic recipes, remixes them and makes them new again.

The four-course dinner will be held 7 to 10 p.m. and costs $100. Order tickets at localwineevents.com.

For information about other dinners in the series (Sept. 12 and Oct. 3) and Peterson's cooking classes, head to bethstable.com.

• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at dpankey@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at Facebook.com/DebPankey.DailyHerald or follow her on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter @PankeysPlate.com/

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