Novelist Kate Christensen opens her new memoir with a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and buttered toast, paired with a scary dose of family violence.

Christensen was just 2 years old and eating her first meal of the day when she witnessed her father beat her mother senseless in the bungalow they shared in Berkeley, Calif. It’s a painful recollection that she’s carried all of her life, and it’s the first food-memory pairing she shares in “Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites” (Doubleday, $26.95), the book she’s written about her life and relationship with food.

“Blue Plate Special” uses food as a vehicle to follow Christensen’s search for happiness through work, sex, difficult relationships, alcohol, and all the other unfruitful side trips people take along their way to discovering who they are and finding love and acceptance.

Christensen, now 50, is the author of six novels, including “The Great Man,” which won the 200 PEN/Faulkner Award. She and her significant other, Brendan Fitzgerald, a screenwriter, moved to Portland in 2011 and bought a 19th-century home on the West End.

It is in Portland, Christensen says — like so many others before her — that she’s found real happiness. “It just felt like home right away, for both of us,” she said. “It was a sort of a gut feeling that we trusted.”

The city is small, she observed, “but doesn’t feel small or provincial. It feels like this well-kept secret.”

Christensen has continued her love affair with food here, frequenting neighborhood restaurants like Petite Jacqueline, Boda and Pai Men Miyake. “Even when I lived in New York, I did not have this amazing choice, this array of top-notch restaurants within a stone’s throw of my front door,” she said. “Plus there’s Saigon, which delivers Vietnamese food. So it’s really a culinary paradise, Portland.”

It looks as if food will continue to be a focus of Christensen’s life for some time. For her next project, she’s helping renowned Boston chef Barbara Lynch write her memoir. 

Q: Did this book come pouring out of you, or was it difficult to revisit a lot of these memories?

A: I started the book as a blog ( I began writing the blog after I moved to Portland, and I found myself so surprised by happiness for the first time in my life, and feeling that I was in the right place and the right circumstances to feel really settled and really calm.

Since you read my book, you know that after these turbulent decades of life, Brendan and I bought a house (in Portland) after having not even spent a night there. We flew in and out of the airport on various trips, and came to love arriving in Portland and the lobsters that used to be on the welcome home signs at the gate at the jetport. We would drive into Portland to have dinner, so we slowly got to know the town and decided we wanted to live there, bought a house and moved in. And I realized that Portland has amazing food.

I got so excited, and in an overflow of exuberance with this incredible luck of having stumbled into this town almost by accident and realizing that we had made such a good decision to move there, I started a blog. I thought I would write about the food in Portland. I’d never blogged before; I thought it would be fun. So I posted one post. And then I posted another and another and another, and they just started piling up in my brain and flooding out of me. I wrote about the past, and it was all because I’d started a food blog. As I unlocked all these memories of food and I started thinking about and writing about food in this way, it unleashed, really, my entire life, recollected in tranquility, the calm of this newfound happiness in Portland, Maine. And so the book really is literally a result of my having moved to Portland. But it wasn’t easy.

My mother would read (the blog) and she would like it, but then more and more people started reading it. I became aware of a growing readership, and I became aware that everyone in publishing was reading it, and a lot of food people were reading it. And I started to feel excited about the idea that I might have stumbled on my next book. It was a book that I’d wanted to write for maybe 15 years, since I was young and struggling and in love with MFK Fisher and Laurie Colwin and Julia Child, and deriving a great deal of inspiration and comfort from them. I remember thinking I want to write a food book some day, but I have nothing to say. I’m not a chef. I don’t have any expertise. All I have are my memories, and I didn’t feel old enough that my life had had a trajectory that could form a narrative yet.

As I saw my 50th birthday approaching, and as this blog took on a readership and it coalesced for me into a narrative, I realized that this was my next book. So the book came from the blog, but writing the book was extremely painful and difficult. The blog itself is very light and sort of circumspect and didn’t really delve too much, but writing the book itself I had to tell the whole story, and I had to tell it frankly, because I think with memoir it’s important to create that sense of trust in the reader. I know when I read memoirs, if I sense that the writer is holding something back, or trying to justify something, or not telling the whole story, or pulling his or her punches, I kind of lose my connection with that writer. And above all I wanted to connect with the reader, and I wanted the reader to understand “Here I am, warts and all.” And there are a lot of warts. (laughing) 

Q: Even though people had been reading it on the blog, with a whole book you’re making a lot of things public that hadn’t been made public before.

A: Most of all I was concerned about my family, my mother and my sisters. I sent them the first draft and had them read it, and then I had them read the second draft. I was really upset about having to write about other people. Once you’ve written a draft you have to look back at it and take stock. In that moment, I was horrified that I had exposed anybody other than myself, but unfortunately these people all had major roles in my life and so I had to write about them as honestly as I wrote about myself.

My mother and sisters and I ended up having a round robin of emails, and they live in Amsterdam, Arizona and New Zealand, so we’re all across the world in different time zones. The four of us talked about the past together as we never have done before, and they ended up loving the book, all three of them. 

Q: You used food as comfort a lot, and that was often followed by a period of depriving yourself. Did you ever sort out what this kind of emotional eating followed by deprivation meant to you? Was it a good thing or an unhealthy thing?

A: That question gets at the heart of what the book is about, and the subtitle is “An Autobiography of My Appetites.” I’m not moralistic about my appetites or anybody else’s. I think we are animals on a very base level, and when we’re in control of our appetites, in my opinion, that’s when we’re happiest. And for me, being not in control of my appetites was a cause and an effect of unhappiness and feeling unconnected to myself and unintegrated. I traced it back to that breakfast that the book opens with, the scene of domestic abuse and soft-boiled eggs, and how I split in two at that moment and identified with my father, who was beating up my mother, as a way of protecting myself. I denied the part of me that was female as a way of protecting myself from my own vulnerability and my own desires and my own neediness. I really traced a thread through the book when I had to go back and find the story, the story of me and food and drink and sex and writing. I think whenever I try to be something I’m not, or I try to appease my own insatiability with something that doesn’t satisfy it, I think my appetites rule me. And that is, I would say, unhealthy and bad, if I were going to put it in those terms. I think what I’ve learned is to finally eat for pleasure and to drink moderately, also for pleasure. I think my current circumstances have allowed me to do that. It took me almost 50 years to figure that out, so I’m a late bloomer. 

Q: I like how you ended with the egg and toast, too, because it’s like you’ve transformed what that means to you through the book.

A: You know, you are the only interviewer who has noticed that. Thank you for noticing that. That’s exactly what I was doing, showing that food is just what you make it. It doesn’t have any meaning in and of itself. Those same soft-boiled eggs 50 years later were just cozy and joyful and not surrounded by violence but by domestic bliss and tranquility and harmony. 

Q: When you’re here in Portland, what’s your daily life like? Do you write every day?

A: My life in Portland is just really kind of great, because Portland is so great. I wake in the morning, I walk my dog, I make coffee. Then I sit at the table in the dining room and I work. Brendan goes off to Arabica cafe, and he works. And then a few hours later he comes back, we drive over to the Eastern Prom and take a long walk with our dog, and then come home and have lunch. Then he goes off again and I get back to work, and we work all afternoon. At about 5 or so, he comes back home and we start talking about dinner. So my life is, essentially, my dog and my work and food, and walking on the Eastern Prom. This is my routine. 

Q: You’re now working on a memoir with Barbara Lynch. What’s that like? Are you spending a lot of time with her?

A: As much as I can. She’s very busy. She’s running a $26 million empire of restaurants and cooking demonstrations and a cookbook store, and she has a bar and she just launched this new line of dehydrated fruits and vegetables. It’s fantastic, it’s so beautiful. And she’s famous. She’s like a celebrity. As much as I can, I spend time with her, and spending time with her means going down to Boston and going to her apartment and having her cook for me while she talks about her life. I mean, really, honestly, I’m being paid for this. It’s kind of amazing. Again, I kind of pinch myself and think “How did I get here? This is so great.”

This book is a whole new experience for me, writing someone else’s life in her voice. Fortunately, she has a great voice, and the story is really telling itself. It’s a long process. I’m really happy it’s long. I told her I want it to last 10 years so she’ll keep cooking for me. (laughs) I’ll stretch it out as long as I can.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]


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