Review by: 

Timarie Franco

University of South Florida

[email protected]

From the first page of Watkins’ memoir, The Cook Up, the reader is transported to life in the ghettos of east Baltimore. Dee seems like the exception to the rule: his kingpin brother has managed to keep him off of the streets and encouraged him to focus on his studies, resulting in his acceptance to several notable colleges. However, Dee’s plans for school are cut short when his brother is murdered in a drug-related feud. Dee then faces the task of taking over his brother’s business, which quickly consumes his life and leads to his withdraw from Loyola University after one semester.

The majority of The Cook Up is dedicated to chronicling Dee’s experiences dealing and life in the neighborhood. The community is described as “crabs in a barrel…if you open the barrel and look in, you’ll see them pulling each other down so that no crab reaches the top” (p. 234). Youth raised in this community have the expectation they will be killed or incarcerated. Loss and grief are common, as are fear and revenge. However it is clear that, despite his deep involvement in the drug scene, Dee wants more. He eventually leaves the life he knows and attends school again, but not without consequence. His friends and family are confused and angered by his perceived abandonment and often pressure him to return. Eventually he is not welcomed into the neighborhood anymore, but in the end he does not feel he belongs there anyway.

The Cook Up is an honest, sometimes cringe worthy look into the experience of a first generation college student.  While slang and slightly graphic content occasionally make it difficult to read, it provides a clear picture of the challenges faced by students coming from this environment. While Dee is not part of a traditional family, he does mention his protection and financial support of those in the neighborhood and fears for their wellbeing if he leaves. He also struggles with losing the comfort of his lifestyle, always having what he wants at his fingertips. Despite the gritty feel of the book and the prominent violence and sexism exhibited by those in it, it is easy for advisors who work with a similar population to see their students’ struggles in Dee and root for his success.

First generation students often experience guilt for leaving family behind and the financial strains college creates, which is exacerbated by lack of family support (Sickels, 2004). They also “enter without as much preparation, they get lower grades, and they are more likely to drop out” (Jaschik, 2005). The Cook Up is an important read for advisors who support first generation students, allowing them a deeper understanding of the student experience and how to most effectively support students who are coming from a similar background. The Cook Up is sure to engage readers and aid them in gaining perspective to a world they may not be familiar with, resulting in improved student relationships and more effective advising. 


Jaschick, S. (2005). First Generation Challenges. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed News website: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/08/10/first 

Sickles, A.R. (2004). Advising first-generation students. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Website: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/1st_Generation.htm

The Cook Up. (2016). D. Watkins, Grand Central Publishing. 272 pp., $26.00, (Paperback), ISBN #978-1-4555-8863-3, http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/d-watkins.the-cook-up/9781455588633/.

Posted in: 2016 Book Reviews
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