I once wrote an entire blog post about the difference between “memoirs with recipes” and “memoirs, with recipes.” It’s the latter that I prefer, books in which recipes are not the main course, but a sweet lagniappe appended to excellent, incisive writing. So when I learned that this week’s TueNight theme was “Tasty,” one book sprang immediately to mind: Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by novelist Kate Christensen, which was recently released in paperback.
In her prologue, Christensen (The Epicure’s Lament, The Great Man), says: “Food is a subterranean conduit to sensuality, memory, desire, but it opens the eater to all of it without changing anything.” To change something through eating requires the eater to connect the conduit to its source — and that can be painful.
No wonder Christensen’s first included recipe is called “Dark Night of the Soul Soup.” All of her appetites are addressed in Blue Plate Special, including those a lesser artist might have chosen to discreetly gloss over, like her adolescent fumblings towards domestic normalcy in a splintered family and her adult alcoholism. What makes this “memoir, with recipes” so powerful is that Kate Christensen is committed to finding and telling her truth, whether it involves a richly complex gourmet soup or a simple can of cold peas shared around a campfire.
Blue Plate Special’s particular brand of tastiness brings me straight back to the author whose “memoir, with recipes” is somewhat different, yet no less special: Laurie Colwin. Her volumes Home Cooking and More Home Cooking (both of which I wrote about a few months back) focus more sharply on the process of cooking, serving, and eating, but are really about becoming a grownup in 1970s and 1980s Manhattan.
Colwin’s recipes for Baked Mustard Chicken and Chocolate Cake are still regarded as seminal, not just by her contemporaries, but by a whole new generation of foodies and food bloggers — including her writer daughter Rosa Jurjevics. While Colwin had many firmly held beliefs about food and its preparation, she was not interested in fanciness or complexity per se, but simply excellent provenance and superb taste. Like Christensen, Colwin believed that mistakes have their own lessons to share. Her essay on a spectacularly disastrous “Sussex Pond Pudding” from Elizabeth David is a classic of culinary disappointment.
However you (and we) define this week’s theme, the works of Kate Christensen and Laurie Colwin provide an approach to discovering their own definitions that just may help you refine your own tastes. Their energetic writings are also perfect beach reads — the kind that will have you craving post-swim burgers, corn on the cob, and ice cream cones. As their spiritual foremother Julia Child would say: Bon Appetit!