A turbulent life, recalled through food

Kate Christensen's food-focused memoir "Blue Plate Special" looks at her abusive childhood and writerly beginnings

By Kyle Minor
Published July 18, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

In the opening page of “Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of Appetites,” Kate Christensen writes, “Often, whenever I come up against anything painful or difficult, my mind escapes to food.”

This sentence, which seems at first to be a rather simple declaration, proves to be deceptively sophisticated. After the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving, it offers in broadest strokes the story that will occupy the reader for the next 370 pages, or the listener for the next 10 hours and 47 minutes. And it solves the problem of the memoir of the picaresque life, giving shape to what might otherwise be shapeless, and unifying the book’s 10 primary locations by anchoring each of them to the heroine’s true home, which turns out to be whichever table is set with the food.

The audiobook edition is narrated by Tavia Gilbert, a veteran reader who has also done well by Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard and L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Gilbert’s delivery is precise, almost overenunciated, every consonant savored. It’s a match well made for a book so lush with the names that stand in ably for the foods they describe. Gilbert, like Christensen, seems acquainted with the sensory pleasure that rises from words such as butternut squash, red onions, ginger, garlic, velvety avocado and spinach ravioli. Upon hearing the words, the listener pictures their shapes as letters, and then the colors and shapes and textures and smells and flavors for which the letters stand. It’s a special pleasure, to engage so many senses at the same time, and it provokes in the listener strong emotions because of the memory associations that attach to all those sensory things.

It doesn’t take long for Christensen to build a second layer into the reader’s emotional engagement with these sights and sounds and smells and tastes. One mark of a good memoir is that it multiplies the reader’s experience of the world by adding to it something of the essence of another person’s experience. That kind of access is hard to come by in life, because by definition we only have access to our own interior lives. One disappointment that comes with reading many books marketed as memoirs is that for all the facts and dates and names and declarations they offer, they rarely do offer the feeling of having experienced, however briefly, a life not one’s own.

But Christensen, a novelist by trade, knows how. Chapter by chapter, she’s quick to the trouble. In early childhood, in Berkeley, Calif., a mother-made breakfast of soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them is ruined within two paragraphs by an enraged father who beats his wife in front of their three children, pulls her hair, and leaves abruptly, all in response to a very small provocation: The mother wanted the father to stay for a few minutes, and help in the kitchen.

Christensen is 2 years old when this happens. It is her first memory. “In that moment,” she says, “I split in half. As part of me stared at the eggshells, the toast crumbs, the empty, yolk-streaked bowls, that other part allied itself with my father, the person with the strength and force and power. And so, from then on, I denied that part of me that was female. I tried to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambitious, sexually aggressive, and intolerant of weakness and vulnerability, in myself and everyone else.”

Christensen’s father — a military school roommate of Marlon Brando’s, a social worker, and later a Marxist attorney who defended “Black Panthers, rabble-rousing politicos, and draft dodgers” — had already left behind a first wife and 1-year-old twin daughters a decade before meeting her mother. This second marriage soured immediately upon the arrival of another daughter, then another and another.

In Christensen’s estimation, her father felt supplanted, as he had in his first marriage, the wifely devotion upturned in favor of the motherly. “I’ve always believed that he was born with this dark side,” Christensen writes. “I imagine that my father hated his own father, and authority, and the system, and the man, for every second of his life afterward, and I suspect that he still does, wherever he is.”

During her mother’s third pregnancy, her father carries on an affair, and when he comes home he punches his wife repeatedly in the stomach to try to force a miscarriage. “Nonetheless,” Christensen writes, “he was surprised and puzzled when my mother announced that she was leaving him.”

This was the beginning of better days -- a house full of children and “other cool, sexy young mothers, a cabal of hot chicks,” at the height of the counterculture, and in the Bay Area, its epicenter. Christensen’s career as a writer begins here, in a tiny garage nook outfitted with table, chairs, a couch and a bookshelf, as a seventh birthday present. Fit to the time, her first completed story is titled “My Magic Carpet.”

Christensen’s mother, meanwhile, finishes her undergraduate work, at age 34, at Mills College, with transcripts reflecting coursework at 13 different colleges over parts of three decades. She moves the family to Tempe, Ariz., to pursue a doctorate in psychology, and it is here that Christensen’s “palate had developed enough finally to enable me to taste fully what I was eating for the first time.”

It is here that the audiobook turns a sharp corner into the pleasures of the autobiography of appetites promised in the subtitle. First, the food, healthful and hearty, raw carrots and peppers and jicama and frozen mixed vegetables, counterbalanced by the “blue plate specials,” dinners reminiscent of 1950s diner fare: “a piece of fatty, salty meat or chicken or fish, usually fried, with or without gravy, plus a side of vegetables cooked to a gray pallor, plus something starchy, like mashed potatoes or baked beans.”

The family, sans father, comes together around those meals, for the first time “a complete family … just us four girls, living in a wild, strange place, making a home for ourselves.”

These are rich years, full of “Bach and Joan Baez and Benny Goodman” and novels and poetry and a house that smelled of pot. Brief interludes visiting her father in Oakland only serve to validate the specialness of family life in Arizona, now in a room painted bright red, a mattress gloriously on the floor, “butter-yellow fuzzy carpet.”

Am I getting carried away with the summary? Perhaps. We’re only 20 percent of the way into the book, now, not even yet to San Miguel, a first date, in elementary school, on bikes, to the library. Not even yet to the shoplifting, the vegetable garden, first crush, first love, first sex. Then: France, Egypt, Reed College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a first job in publishing in New York, in another 10 years a first novel, a second novel, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a marriage, an ill-chosen affair, a divorce, a recovery, at midlife a new love, and all throughout: tapioca pudding anadama bread, farmers fritters, camping peas, pot roast, flageolets en pissenlits, Yorkshire pudding, spinach pie, chicken tagine, orecchiette with broccoflower ...

In the end, Christensen makes no grand pronouncements, offers no advice, reveals no starry epiphany. There is, simply, life, and its small pleasures, and maybe, with time, a little bit of peacemaking with the company of memory, over plates of asparagus and steamed-and-buttered clams, small glasses of Rioja and chocolate-dipped strawberries, and out of it all a generosity of spirit that could allow the woman who used to be the little girl to silently wish her father a happy birthday, wherever he is.

Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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