July 7, 2013

Book review: Are you going to finish that? Bet you will

By JOAN SILVERMAN

Kate Christensen grabs our attention on the first page of her fierce, big-hearted memoir with a scene that readers won't easily forget: A young family is eating breakfast when the husband erupts in a fit of rage and pummels his wife, their two small children looking on.

REVIEW

"BLUE PLATE SPECIAL: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY APPETITES." By Kate Christensen. Doubleday. 368 pages. $26.95.

Not only does the author witness this event but, as a panicked 2-year-old, she identifies, improbably, with her father.

So begins Christensen's "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites." Even the book's title, in equal parts homespun and operatic, warns readers of the ping-pong world they're about to enter. This is where food, family and dysfunction unite, often with great humor.

Christensen, who now lives in Portland, tells her tale chronologically and in episodes, with various kitchens and meals at the heart of the action. While the book spans five decades and countless domestic and foreign sites, its constant themes are love and identity -- lost, sought and found in the sanctuary of food and related musings.

The acclaimed author of six novels, Christensen has been writing about food almost as long as she's been obsessed with it. Even as a budding teenage author, she penned a thriller whose heroine finds her way, inevitably, to a diner. The character then orders nearly everything on the menu -- french fries, baked beans, chicken, hamburgers, meatloaf, blueberry pie, ice cream and more.

A self-described glutton who once ate 27 pancakes at a sitting, Christensen merely listed the items that she herself would have wanted in the same fictional scenario.

That her epic appetite suggests some deeper hunger should come as no surprise. Christensen had a fraught, complicated childhood and adolescence, torn between a thrice-married psychologist-mother whom she largely adored and a distant, erratic attorney-father. Longing for a real dad kept young Kate on the lookout for possible replacements.

More reliable than many of the people we meet in this memoir is the staying power of food -- its ability to comfort and inspire. But this is no foodie manifesto. Christensen's tastes are thoroughly democratic -- highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between.

"The dusty, sweet, innocuous taste of Graham crackers," followed by cold milk, she says, "was my first experience of the catch-22 of mind-numbingly narcotic pleasures." Nutella, she says, is "that crack-like chocolate-hazelnut goo." And her palate evolves throughout the book.

A year before college, Christensen worked as an au pair in France, and saw firsthand the French way with food. Then came a transformative meal of zucchini that bore no resemblance to the dreaded plant she recalled from the Phoenix garden of her youth.

"It was sublime, subtly multidimensional in flavor and velvety in texture... with an herblike essence," she writes. "That zucchini woke me up to the idea that food had possibilities and qualities that I had not suspected. I began to see it not as a substance to assuage hunger or homesickness but as something to savor when it was good, like a well-written book or piece of music."

Years later, in an embattled marriage, food again came to her aid. Even as she and her husband grew apart, their shared passion for food and drink could still supply a "food-inspired rush of love," they would joke. Subsequently, in an affair, Christensen knew that the pairing was doomed when her new companion showed no interest in food.

"Blue Plate Special" is a banquet of sorts, with a surfeit of flavors. Christensen eats for all of us, and writes about food at the intersection of everything that matters.

Her account of loneliness and longing, and the multifarious powers of food, is alternately joyful, harrowing and smart. Along the way, there's an ample serving of sex and booze -- the other "appetites" of the title -- that lends depth, if not distinction, to the author's journey.

In a book about excess, though, that's a small complaint. It's like a fudge sundae whose chief failing is too much chocolate.

Joan Silverman of Kennebunk writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews for numerous publications.

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