Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites
Disclaimer: I owe Kate Christensen cookies.
About nine years ago, she did a guest author stint over at Readerville.com after a group read of her wonderful The Epicure’s Lament. It was the kind of book that invited rambling, and made for a convivial visit—more of a disembodied party than book discussion. At some point while she was there I got on the subject of myself—imagine!—and my fledgling baking business, and how I intended to read her first two novels, In the Drink and Jeremy Thrane, and that the immediacy of the latter depended on the good fortune of the former. Christensen, in turn, struck me a deal: She’d send me copies of the books, and I’d send her a batch of my famous decorated gingerbread cookies. We sealed it with an Internet handshake… which, as it turns out, is worth the paper it’s printed on.
The books arrived within the week; a copy of each, not just inscribed and signed but beautifully, personally doodled on. I was delighted. I read them both, enjoying them immensely. I also, over the next few months: bought a house, moved, got a puppy, ended a longterm relationship, decided the food service industry was too unreliable and got a full-time job in publishing (we can pause for a laugh here), and donned the hair shirt of whip-cracker for the resident teenager’s college application process.
I did not bake those cookies.
I had them all designed in my head, knew exactly what they were going to look like, but that’s as far as I got before life whomped me over the head. Six months went by and I looked up and thought, Shit, I never made those cookies, and at some point I realized I didn’t even know where I’d put her address. Inexorably, the whole enterprise inched over into the “Embarrassment” subdivision of my Personal Fail column, where it dwells to this day.
The worst part is that my Fail column is relatively underpopulated—I rarely break promises or completely abandon my end of deals—so those cookies have been glaring entries for the better part of a decade. Periodically her name pops up on a friend’s Facebook feed, or I read another novel of hers (OK, I’m being disingenuous—I follow her blog regularly), and I get that twinge of guilt. And now I find out she’s gluten-free, so if I ever do make the damn things I’m going to have to learn how to bake with spelt flour or some such weird substance.
I know all about Kate Christensen’s gluten intolerance, and a good deal more. Her recently published Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites is an affable warts-and-all memoir filtered through her shifting relationship to food—not just what she ate but how she ate, and the process of learning to feed herself in some kind of holistically joyful way. And if that sounds hippie-dippy, then I’m doing the book a disservice. She may have grown up in Berkeley in the ’70s, but there’s nothing new agey about Christensen; she is clear-eyed and dispassionate—sometimes almost disconcertingly so.
All the classic f-words of autobiography come into play here: family, friendship, and falling in love, but food gets center stage. And it’s to her credit that she paints an honest picture of all the ways there are to be unhealthy with it—physically, and even more important psychically—without making the book a chronicle of dysfunction. (Likewise, it’s refreshing to hear someone admit to drinking too much at low points in her life without the story ending up as a rehab memoir.) There are as many ways to eat well and feel deprived as there are to eat poorly and luxuriate—Christensen has a particularly lovely passage about the joys of eating takeout chicken noodle soup with packets of Saltines at her desk every day while working as a receptionist and writing her first novel.
Blue Plate Special opens with an early memory of her soon-to-be-estranged father hitting her mother at the breakfast table, which Christensen relates prosaically—almost uncomfortably so. The reason for that comes out later, but it also sets a certain tone. There’s an interesting inverse of affect throughout the book, where descriptions of hardship or trauma take a narrative backseat to the meals associated with them. It takes getting used to, as does the blog-installment evenness of the narrative, but she knows how to craft a story, and it works. Christensen takes us through her childhood in California and Arizona, where her single mother served the eponymous “blue plate specials”—cheap, filling meals—to her three daughters to make ends meet; teenage years spent working, often in kitchens, and traveling; an uncomfortable couple of years pursuing an MFA at the University of Iowa; working and writing and negotiating a caring but ultimately unsuccessful marriage in New York; and finding her way out of the city again. Food is a familiarizing medium, and it levels the playing field of experience. Certain restaurants that require more self-confidence than a young office assistant might have just to walk in the door, or drawn-out breakups spent crying together at a corner table somewhere, or the pleasure of putting together a stir-fry with a roommate—all of it rings true.
Christensen is great on the food itself: tofu is “that chalk-white substance that tasted vaguely of some sort of low-vitality bodily humor”; the zucchini bread served at the Rudolf Steiner community where she worked as a teenager was “wretchedly wholesome, granular with whole-wheat flour and sweaty with oil. Flecks of grated zucchini crisscrossed each piece like the thick clothe ribbons we used to make pot holders with at day camp.” Her celebration of memorable meals is deeply pleasurable, as it’s meant to be, from homemade granola to fresh clam chowder to an all-day Valentine’s feast, which included
two small endives and, on twinned pairs of the crisp, subtly bitter leaves, I slathered sour cream and loaded each with capers, fresh basil, and oil-packed artichoke hearts. We ate the whole plateful with a fresh batch of blini and slabs of two rather spectacular mild cheeses and some seedless purple grapes.
But so are her stories of abnegation, whether inflicted by self-denial or health concerns. She describes periods of not-eating just as lusciously:
… the strangely satisfying pleasures of asceticism, of self-control, of slenderness. But I thought about food, as always, lasciviously, lustfully. That year, my sense of food became bifurcated. I ate little, but I thought about it a lot. The idea of great food, my memories of the rabbit stews and chocolate mousses and Yorkshire puddings I’d made and eaten in France, sustained me.
In addition, I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever seen a gluten-free diet compared to Oulipo. In a neat trick, at the end of one recipe she points out that the entire paragraph was written without using the letter “g,” and how eating gluten-free is a similar kind of omission: you don’t really notice it until someone points it out.
Maybe I’ve just officially reached the age where I like reading memoirs by people my age, but there’s something reassuring about Christensen’s trajectory, including the fact that she doesn’t consider herself a born foodie. M.F.K. Fisher may have emerged gastronomically fully-formed, knowing how to cook a wolf and feed a crowd on foraged greens the moment she hit adulthood; Christensen admits to approaching food by trial and error, with a certain amount of satisfaction in recounting her missteps—and not only where eating is concerned. There’s a subtext of encouragement for everyone who didn’t grow up cooking, or who spent far too many years living on Chinese food and Snickers bars, or, heaven forfend, dieting. But for all her flirting with restraint, Blue Plate Special winds up with a satisfying acquiescence to pleasure—in family, friendship, falling in love, and, of course, food.
Although I can’t help feeling that she’d be even happier if I made her those damned cookies.