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Thursday, July 18, 2013

15

Kate Christensen's Blue Plate Special; Or, "Another Fucking Food Book"

Six-time novelist Kate Christensen has written another beautiful book, and this one's a memoir, out now from Random House. It’s called Blue Plate Special, after the home-cooked, simple but sustaining meals her mother used to make. As I read Kate’s “autobiography of appetites”—some food-based but others not; this is a story of life told through food in the venerable tradition of M.F.K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin, and Ruth Reichl, and its scope is much greater than what’s on a plate—I laughed and cried, and sometimes I snacked. As Kate writes in her prologue, “to taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and minuscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon.”

I said the book was beautiful, right? It’s also good with cheese and crackers.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kate just before Blue Plate Special’s release, and in that conversation, she very generously provided some of her recipes for food, and also life.

Jen: Let’s talk about appetites, particularly the appetites we have as women. How do you think these correlate with food?

Kate: The primary hunger of my life has been loneliness and the starvation for true connection. My book is a testament to feeling these appetites, how in control of them I’ve been, how fully acknowledged they’ve been, and how much I’ve let my true passions emerge in my life. Appetites can be a danger, but I feel like I’ve most been in danger when I haven’t acknowledged what I want and when I sublimate my appetites.

Stuffed PortobellosInto a Cuisinart, put 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, 1/2 cup fresh minced basil, 1 cup chopped parsley, 4-6 large cloves of garlic, and 1/4 cup moist sundried tomatoes. Pulverize into a rich pesto. Pull the stems from 24 medium-sized portobello mushrooms and set them aside for something else. Clean the caps with a dry paper towel and place them on an oiled cookie sheet.  Stuff the cavity of each with a generous spoonful of pesto and bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the writing of my own book. Confessing to ourselves what we want to hide or deny is often the hardest part of figuring out and getting what we want. I felt this message so strongly in your book. And then, when you write a memoir, you’re confessing not just to yourself but to everyone. What does that feel like?

When you try to hide, you’re so lonely. I thought, here I am, the reader can take or leave me, but I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. It’s a pretty typical American life portrayed. I worked really hard and long, and you get where you are by doing a lot of hard work. If the book works, it offers a kind of comfort to people like me who go in and out of feeling connected with their life. I trust there are readers who feel the same way. When I can’t sleep at night and am feeling out of sorts, I love memoirs, reading about others like me who’ve been through it.

 Me too.

I really did not want to come off as self-pitying, a victim, or full of myself. I worked really hard to treat everything that happened to me with equal weight. The creepy guy who molested me in high school, I gave that the same weight as working for the creepy countess. That all happened to me, I’m OK now.

How did it feel as a novelist to address your life in this way? Was it terrifying?

It was so strange to write about my life that way. It felt dangerous. I’m exposing not only myself but also other people. I started it with this scene at the breakfast table [in which her mother is abused by her father], writing straight into the heart of appetite, writing into me, my mother, and in terms of women and men, how complex and powerful it is being with the wrong kind of guy. My working title was Another Fucking Food Book. I mean, Blue Plate Special was always the title, but I couldn’t admit it at first. It’s funny, with this idea ofAnother Fucking Food Book, I was trying to distance myself from the idea that I was doing it, as I was doing it.

How did that work?

Well, the first draft was terrible. It was an undigestible mass, this enormous bunch of food. It crammed in 300 pages with barely a break. I hand it in and am like, Here’s the whole story. My editor says, “You have to shape it now.” I had a total panic attack. I thought, I can’t do this. I had sailed through the chronology only to realize that the hard part wasn’t writing the book, it was shaping the story. I almost gave up, thinking I can only write novels. But what turned out—and this is really interesting—is that I had to make myself into a fictional first-person narrator, and I could rely on that strength from writing so many first-person novels. I started seeing it more as a novel than a memoir. I had to forget that all these people were real.

As you were writing, how present in your mind were the greats who’ve written about food and life? M.F.K. Fisher, I love her so much...

I was trying not to think about them! But Julia Child, Nicolas Freeling, Ruth Reichl, there are the authors of the books I’ve loved so much and found so comforting and beautiful and exciting. As with writing a novel, you feel the great grounding of these books that have inspired you. It’s scary, but it’s possible because these other people have done it before you.

M.F.K. Fisher crystallized it in a female way, making her work about sex and family and writing and ambition, and later motherhood and widowhood, and all of this she tied into food. But she did a dance of the seven veils; she was very elliptical and sophisticated. My editor said, "I want you to tell it straight and true." He’s always right. I beat against it for a while, but I realized that’s the only way. I could see it with my first scene. The story I had to tell was not the sophisticated, beautifully poised seductive dance with the reader. It was going to be the blue plate special, what you see is what you get. It goes along with what I’m saying in the book, that connection occurs when you’re not hiding things. There are ways in which I wish it were fancier and more brilliant, more like M.F.K. Fisher and less like me, but this is the book I set out to write.

How long has the book been, er, marinating?
I wanted to write this for a decade, but I don’t think I could while I was in the grip of all these emotions. Also, I was feeling my 50th birthday coming and that’s what inspired me. I think I was ready to look back and lay it out. I can now move beyond it. The happy ending is having fulfilled what I wanted.

How does the arc of your food life pair with the arc of your personal life?

The plot is about the tension between inner and outer, a conflict I’ve been wrestling with much of my life. We feel so much pride and pressure to be independent and autonomous and make the best of what we’ve got... and to not complain. As a kid, I was not going to be vulnerable, a victim, and I was not going to have needs, either. But hiding the truth is a way of staying safely stuck. With my marriage, I spent years not admitting I was unhappy, and once I did, I had to leave. That was the hardest part of the book to write, and it’s just my side; as hard as I tried to be fair, it’s still just my side.

Roast Glazed Eggplant

Slice 1 firm, glossy large eggplant into 1-inch rounds. Place on an oiled cookie sheet. In a saucepan, simmer 3/4 cup balsamic vinegar and 3 tablespoons of honey, stirring until it reduces to a thick syrup. Spoon the glaze over the eggplant rounds. Dust generously with minced fresh rosemary and lemon zest.  Bake at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, turning them over halfway through.

I could see through the book that my relationship with food has changed. In the process, it’s been so tumultuous, gluttony or asceticism. I eventually learned to eat, learned to cook, even though in my late 20s I didn’t dare go into a restaurant.

Let’s talk about food and emotions. The food moments you write about are so vivid. How does food evoke memory for you? 

It was my way in, a conduit to the rest of my life. The senses of taste and smell are so locked into memory. I wanted to write about food, and I ended up writing my life story. My next book, a food book, will be hopefully less autobiographical.

I think it’s important that a life has a shape by the time you sit down to write it, and my life is so shaped by food. There’s an intersection of food and language, and the appetite part of my brain and I perk up when there’s food in a book. I put food in all my novels.

I’ve heard you’re a great cook.

Ha! I’m a really cozy cook. I love to feed people. I love the social aspects of cooking. I’m by no means a great chef.What are your favorite foods?

Whatever I’ve just eaten. I just had this amazing lentil salad. My mom hates the word “vegan” but she doesn’t eat animal products, so we had lentil salad, pesto-stuffed mushrooms, and roasted eggplant.

Why does your mom hate the word "vegan"?

All the implications. She doesn’t want to be seen as someone who lives according to dogma. She does love a lamb chop. She’s about to turn 77 and I think she’s been doing this for two years; she did it so she can live as long as possible. Since she went vegan she’s been perfectly healthy.

Let’s talk about food and love, which you address in various ways throughout the book.

Food is incredibly seductive. Eating together in the throes of new love is possibly more sexual than having sex. This shared swoon! Pastas drenched in olive oil and garlic, fresh produce...

And when you fall out of love... when my marriage ended, we’d sit and cry together. During my marriage, though, I was learning to cook and coming into myself, using food as a prism as I was coming of age as a writer in a parallel way. I didn’t really start writing until I met my husband. It was the first time I’d experienced this stability and safety and support. As I wrote in the intro, food doesn’t change anything. It’s a conduit. Eating and tasting and loving food opens you up so much.

Do you have any advice or, let’s say, a recipe, for living fully and well?

Italian Lentil Salad

Simmer 1 3/4 cups black lentils in 4 cups of a good vegetable stock or broth, for about 20 minutes, until just tender but still toothsome. Drain and toss with 1/3 cup good olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine (not balsamic) vinegar, kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Add the following, chopped: 1 red onion, 2 ripe tomatoes, 1 red pepper, and a large handful of fresh basil. Mix well and chill.

Admitting we can have needs without fear of being weak is such an important thing. When one says it, it’s so profound. It goes to the heart of my whole path: I’m not a fortress, I’m not able to do it all. It’s really ironic because I spent so much of my life floundering and falling apart and telling people I didn’t need anything. Once I opened myself to loving deeply—and I didn’t have kids, didn’t experience motherhood, this was all between me and myself—I feel that was the source of my own power that I was denying. We have to give ourselves permission to express it. It’s like emotional anorexia. Let yourself eat and love and be loved and need and all will be well.

My mother just left after visiting me for five days, and she reminded me, when you are feeling stuck or unhappy and there’s something you need to decide, the only way to get there is to risk everything. Risk losing everything you can’t lose. Some change will happen, and it’s probably better than what’s going on right now. She was so right in every way.

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.



15 Comments / Post A Comment

iceberg

ooh I want to make those mushrooms! Food is such a huge part of life, it's actually easier for me to understand an autobiography that includes recipes than one that doesn't.

awabb

@iceberg hahaha, another interesting topic with great title. Title another fucking book is amazing. With this title you can understand what type of content will be in this post. free facebook likes

lookuplookup

(First, please forgive any typos as I'm covertly typing this on my phone during a work thing.) I have such strong, varied, and weird food feelings. I love eating, but struggled with severely disordered eating habits for a better chunk of my life (and still struggle, because is that stuff ever really over?) I tend to avoid food memoirs because my feelings about food are so weird/strong, but might check this one out. Aside from personal food history, I think that a big part of what I've struggled with re: food writing has been a general absence of class awareness. For me, food is really deeply tied to class & most of the food writing that I've read has been pretty lacking in that class awareness component (like, did anyone else read that graphic novel, Relish? I thought the art was sweet, but really struggled with what felt like a lack of awareness when it came to how the author's class background allowed her to have all of these great food experiences around the world.) Any suggestions for food writing that is also thoughtful about class?

aphrabean

@lookuplookup Ah, man, I don't have any ideas myself, but I would read the hell out of a book like that, so I'm commenting to hitchhike on this thread.

Homestar Runner

@lookuplookup Gabrielle Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter" touches on class issues, especially in descriptions of her childhood.

Jen Doll@twitter

@lookuplookup I would say this one does, especially when Kate is young and then new to New York, but really it's woven throughout. I need to read Blood, Bones & Butter, which I've heard is great.

j-i-a

THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD Y'ALL

crane your neck

Kate Christensen rules! Thanks for this interview--it's wonderful.

missupright

This sounds incredible. This book, this interview, the recipes. Excellent work, Hairpin. Excellent work, Jen Doll. Excellent work, Kate Christensen.

honey cowl

Yep this was amazing. I can't wait to read it. Thanks Pin for introducing us.

othersfirst

I am completely agree with iceberg that food is really a huge part of life, So others first like recipes posts

Blinn Dobreva

It does not matter if you think that it is not that good because for the readers anything that catches their attention is a good one. - Lindsay Rosenwald

Edmon

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