Blue plate special An autobiography of my appetites

Kate Christensen, 1962-

Book - 2013

"In the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin, and Ruth Reichl, [this book] is a narrative in which food--eating it, cooking it, reflecting on it--becomes the vehicle for unpacking a life. Christensen explores her history of hunger--not just for food but for love and confidence and a sense of belonging--with a profound honesty, starting with her unorthodox childhood in 1960s Berkeley as the daughter of a mercurial legal activist who ruled the house with his fists"--Dust jacket flap.

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New York : Doubleday [2013]
Main Author
Kate Christensen, 1962- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
353 pages ; 22 cm
  • Prologue
  • Part 1. Berkeley
  • Part 2. Wildermuth
  • Part 3. San Miguel
  • Part 4. Verde Valley and Spring Valley
  • Part 5. France
  • Part 6. Upstate, Oregon, Iowa
  • Part 7. New York
  • Part 8. Williamsburg and Greenpoint
  • Part 9. Monitor Street
  • Part 10. New England
  • Epilogue
Review by New York Times Review

BLUE PLATE SPECIAL An Autobiography of My Appetites By Kate Christensen Doubleday, $26.95. Culled from her popular blog, Don't Let It Bring You Down, Christensen's memoir is a paean to cooking and food, from the homey to the haute. Beginning with her childhood in Berkeley in the 1960s and taking her through marriage, divorce and a new life in Maine , it conveys her passion for the culinary arts while also creating a dead-on portrait of an era when social norms shifted tectonically. Christensen is the daughter of a Marxist lawyer, a "defender of and hero to Black Panthers , rabble-rousing politicos and draftdodgers" who was prone to violent rages and beat his wife behind closed doors. Christensen found comfort in the "plain, simple" cooking her mother jokingly called "blue plate specials." Just after Christensen's eighth birthday, her parents separated, but even after her mother remarried, Christensen, the eldest of three daughters, was responsible for some of the dinner chores, riffing off"Joy of Cooking" to create a memorable pot roast as she also began to try her hand at writing novels . The pairing of food and words would remain central to her life. She worked as an au pair in rural France ("French nursery food was totally irresistible"), studied at Reed College and survived the "chilly and competitive" Iowa Writers' Workshop (a glum time of "hippie food" alternated with pastrami sandwiches and potato chips ) before landing in the smorgasbord of New York, where she was introduced to "raw clams at Ruby's" in Coney Island, "pelmeni with sour cream" in Brighton Beach and roast chicken at the Savoy in SoHo . Sprinkled with recipes and memories of meals, "Blue Plate Special" is a toothsome blend of personal and social history. NINE YEARS UNDER Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home By Sheri Booker Gotham Books, $26. The daughter of a school principal and a police detective, Booker was raised at a safe remove from the crack-addled streets of West Baltimore in a period when the city was often known as "Bodymore." But when she took a summer job at the Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home in the heart of the city , she became witness to the streets' tragic toll. Owned by a roguish church deacon, Al Wylie - a smooth-talking, fancy-dressing man who's actually a pillar of rectitude - the mortuary was a "onestop shop" for the community. "When someone needed a job or wanted to send their kid to college, they rang the doorbell asking for donations." Booker conveys some memorable details: coffins with sculptured angels costing "more than a living room furniture set," a soundtrack with "killer" horn instrumentals that plays during a viewing , beauticians wielding jars of Pro Styl gel to slick down the "unruly tresses" of the deceased, bullet wounds filled with wax and concealed by layers of makeup. Booker puts her larger-than-life boss into cultural context, explaining that undertakers have "historically been the premier entrepreneurs in the black community," their status falling "between politician and preacher." Booker's descriptions of her experiences of loss, dating and coming of age are interesting, but it's her revelations about the daily workings of a funeral home in a poor, urban setting that are transfixing. MOTHER DAUGHTER ME By Katie Hafner Random House, $26. At first glance, Hafner's memoir reads like the book it purports to be: an account of a yearlong experiment in multigenerational living in which a grandmother (Helen) , a daughter (Hafner) and a teenage granddaughter (Zoë) reside under one roof. Hafner, a seasoned journalist and the author of five books of nonfiction, places her story against the backdrop of aging in America : the wrenching decisions families must make when they can't afford assisted living facilities , the difficulty of persuading old folks to leave their homes, the burdens of the so-called sandwich generation. But there's a twist. Hafner's mother may be a 77-year-old woman "sailing toward a new life," but she has also been a heavy drinker whose children - Hafner and a sister - were at one point removed from her custody. Helen has stopped her compulsive drinking and ceased her "flat-out vicious alcoholicfueled" rants, but she still knows how to put the viper into "vituperative." Within her first week in residence, she destroys Zoë's confidence about playing the cello, driving her to tears - and on it goes. So why persist in this venture? While Hafner scoffs at her younger self for indulging "a fantasy version of my relationship with my mother," toward the end of the book she's still asking, "Do I find likable this person who . . . is causing me pain that feels almost physical?" Readers may become frustrated with Hafner's tolerance for being "sucker punched" by her mother, especially if they're unversed in the behavior of the adult children of alcoholics. It's the teenage Zoë who asserts herself against her grandmother and encourages Hafner to do the same. When Helen finally moves into her own apartment, the reader may feel as battered as the author - and relieved that the "year in Provence," as Hafner's mother once hopefully called their experiment, has come to a close. MY ANIMALS AND OTHER FAMILY By Clare Balding Penguin Press, $26.95. Consider the life of Mill Reef, one of many nonhuman characters in this lively memoir of horses and hounds by Balding , a BBC sports broadcaster . After an injury that puts his "leftforeleg in plaster," this thoroughbred receives "hundreds and hundreds of cards" and is visited by a television crew "to see how the patient was progressing." Why all the fuss? Balding's family members are the world-renowned owners of the Park House Stables, located on 1,500 acres in the English countryside. When run by Balding's American-born father, the stables bred and trained horses like Mill Reef for the likes of Paul Mellon and "Her Majesty, the Queen." With British discretion, Balding skips the breastbeating about a family that was focused more on horses than on children and fills her pages with portraits of her beloved pets, including a boxer named Candy, "the only one who was pleased to get to know me," and the thoroughbreds at the center of her family's life . Balding knows her equine history, all the way back to the 1535 Breed of Horses Act, a decree by Henry VIII that destroyed those of moderate stature to ensure a supply of outsize mounts for the kingdom. Given her background, it's no surprise that Balding grew into an elite amateur rider, winning England's ladies championship while still a student at Cambridge. Yet the heart of this book is found not in the sporting life but in Balding's deep affection for the creatures - described with a sometimes wiggy anthropomorphism - that populated her childhood. SHE WHO TELLS A STORY: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World By Kristen Gresh. 164 pp. MFA Publications . $40. Published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston , these provocative images explore the social and political landscapes of the Middle East , and are accompanied by biographical and interpretive essays . Above, Shirin Neshat's "Identified" (1995) . Abigail Meisel is an adjunct instructor at the University of Mississippi's Center for Writing and Rhetoric .

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 25, 2013]
Review by Booklist Review

Novelist Christensen (The Astral, 2011) pegs her tangy memoir of a peripatetic life to the endless quest for sustenance and the nurturing of the self. In her first food memory, she's just eaten her favorite breakfast, soft-boiled eggs, when her father viciously attacks her mother. An anxious and overly responsible child, she vows to help her mother and relies on books for solace and enlightenment. I began with eating and moved on to cooking just as I began with reading and moved on to writing. Christensen tracks her food and literary adventures from California to Arizona, France, upstate New York, Oregon, Iowa, New York City, and New England, through tumultuous relationships and jobs as varied as short-order cook and corporate secretary. Harmonizing with her nostalgia for childhood comfort food, or blue plate specials, Christensen writes with savory, home-cooked clarity as she digs deeply into the pleasures and dangers of food, charting the culinary fads of the 1960s on as well as changes to women's lives while zestfully telling intimate, harrowing, and hilarious tales of appetites corrosive and nourishing. Recipes included.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Novelist Christensen (The Great Man) describes her 1970s upbringing in Arizona in this unpretentious memoir. The oldest daughter of a Marxist lawyer and Waldorf-educated cellist, Christensen always modeled herself after her tough, uncompromising, iconoclastic father, whose manic rages nonetheless ruptured the family, sending the Christensen, her mother, and two sisters to start life in Tempe, Ariz., where her mother took up graduate studies in psychology. The three girls flourished, immersed in the era's consciousness-raising feminist literature and instant or experimental food, recipes for which Christensen dandles along her narrative without much ado (e.g., "farmers fritters," "camping peas"). Her efficient, chronological chapters treat some of the details those years, such as her mother's boyfriends and her own crushes, even the sexual predator at the Waldorf school she attended briefly in high school in Spring Valley, N.Y., but mostly the undercurrent eddies around the author's persistent loneliness, which she indulged by solitary writing and gorging on comfort food like bread and granola. A stint in France ("flageolets en pissenlits"), followed by college in Portland at Reed, graduate school in Iowa City, and work in New York round out this frank memoir, with appropriate culinary offerings for the writer's darker moods ("Bachelorette puttanesca"). (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Christensen's (The Great Man) latest is quite a departure from her typical fiction works. In this memoir, the author unflinchingly shares her far-from-idyllic life, from growing up with an abusive father to her lifelong desire to satisfy her appetites for love and belonging. Christensen ties the events of her life story together using food; whether expressing joy, grief, loss, or love, there is a cuisine to go with it. Prolific narrator Tavia Gilbert's expert performance makes listeners feel they are catching up with an old friend. VERDICT Fans of food memoirs, such as Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter or Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone, will be delighted. [See a Q&A with the author and the narrator on page 60.]-Donna Bachowski, Orange Cty. Lib. Syst., Orlando, FL (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A novelist's deliciously engrossing exploration of her life through the two major passions that have defined it: food and writing. For Christensen (The Astral, 2011, etc.), memory and food are inextricably intertwined. Her book begins with the recollection of a violent argument between her parents over an egg-and-toast breakfast. This scene reminded her of not only the simple comforts of her mother's "blue plate special"style meals, but also of the troubled dynamic that seemed inherent in male-female relationships. Not long afterward, her mother divorced and took the author and her sisters to Arizona. In this "wild, strange place that was so profoundly different from Berkeley," Christensen suddenly became aware of "taste and texture, flavor and smell" and began reading as voraciously as she ate. Later, drinking became another source of comfort. In between attending classes at a New York arts high school, Christensen overate, crash dieted, and then wrote about her hunger and her loneliness. She refined both her palate and her cooking abilities during a year spent in France. But it would be comfort food and hard liquor that would comprise many of her meals during the vagabond life she led afterward, first at Reed College and then at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she reignited a childhood passion for food in literature. A few alcohol-soaked, undernourished years later, she met her first husband, who "taught [her] how to enjoy food without guilt or remorse or puritanism," but with whom she fought constantly. Middle aged and unwilling to try out the "strange new world of hookups and sexting," she found unexpected love with a man 20 years her junior who fed her soul with the peace she had craved all along. A Rabelaisian celebration of appetite, complete with savory recipes, that genuinely satisfies.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

FROM CHAPTER 6 Summer lasted year-round in Arizona, and therefore, swimming pools were a big part of our regular life. Sometimes my mother's friend Carol would have her consciousness-raising group, which included my mother, over for pool parties, with all their kids. Carol was divorced and she lived with her four pretty, perfectly blond, blue-eyed girls, Marcia, Julie, Jeannie, and Janelle, in a huge air-conditioned stucco house. I remember spending the entire day in their pool, all of us kids shrieking and jumping into the blue water, playing Marco Polo and racing from end to end, pushing against the side and shooting off like launched rockets to the other side of the pool, throwing ourselves on and off rubber rafts and inner tubes, and taking turns running down the diving board and belly flopping or dive bombing into the pool. Then Carol lit the grill and we had a cookout: hamburgers with melted cheese on toasted sesame buns with pickles and ketchup, potato salad, potato chips, Coke, and ice cream for dessert. I stood dripping and shivering a little in the sudden desert chill at sunset, a wet towel around my shoulders, my hair streaming water between my shoulder blades, eating a cheeseburger as fast as I could shove it into my mouth and chew and swallow it, and wondering how food could taste even better through the chlorine clouds on my tongue. Before we moved to Arizona, I was largely indifferent to food, except those few favorite things I loved best and requested constantly. But at Wildermuth, something ignited a passion for eating in me. Maybe my palate had developed enough finally to enable me to taste fully what I was eating for the first time. Maybe Tempe itself, this wild, strange new place that was so profoundly different from Berkeley, opened my senses to taste and texture, flavor and smell. I was in no way a born gourmet, and my palate was not instinctively refined. Far from it. I was an omnivore, a glutton. I loved putting things in my mouth and chewing them and swallowing. I loved eating, and thinking about food, as much as I loved reading and writing, and somehow all these passions were connected for me, on a deep level. The rest of my family liked food, but no one else felt as vehemently about it as I did. At mealtimes, my sisters and mother ate happily enough, but I devoured, exclaimed, crowed, exulted. When something tasted particularly good, I would say in a didactic, insistent voice, "Yum!" My sisters would look at me, knowing I wanted them to concur but unable to share my visceral intensity. Susan later told me that she felt a certain strong pressure to agree with me and quailed under the fierce unblinking certitude of my stare around the table. My mother was (and still is) possibly the slowest eater in the world. At the beginning of the meal, as the rest of us were all attacking our plates of food, she took a bite very deliberately, chewed and swallowed, then took a sip of whatever was in her glass, wine or water or beer. A long time elapsed before the next bite, during which she would talk, laugh, lean back in her chair. She appeared to have forgotten she was eating, as if the ongoing flow of bites that make up a meal, start to finish, were of no consequence to her, as if she were oblivious to any gustatory narrative flow. Instead, for my mother, each new, successive mouthful of food seemed to have its own logic, its own internal poetry. Every morsel was a world in itself, separate from all the others. She sat over her plate until long after the rest of us were finished. My mother could also do a neat trick: sometimes, when she was eating corn, she could blow a kernel out her nose, much to our astonishment. We had no idea how she did that. None of us ever could. She was very mysterious about it. "Oh, you know," she told us. "It's just one of those things." During most of our years as a family in Arizona, we were flat-out poor. My mother clipped coupons, saved books of Green Stamps, was very careful about her budget, and bought all our clothes in thrift shops. But we didn't feel deprived. Every night before bed, our mother read us stories or made them up. In the mornings or afternoons, she sat with her cello in the living room and practiced the Bach suites, which she played with fluid, soulful beauty. For her graduate school friends and their spouses and kids, she threw barbecues, pumpkin-carving parties, and poker parties. She also fed us very well with the little money she had--before dinner, to stave off our immediate hunger while she cooked, we got a plate of cut-up raw carrots and peppers and jicama, which, not knowing any better, we gobbled up as fast as she could dole them out--or a big bowl of frozen mixed vegetables, which we called frozies. She baked fresh whole-wheat bread and handed us a piece of fruit or a graham cracker for midafternoon snack. Sugary things were restricted; candy was limited, and the only cereals we got were Cheerios, corn flakes, and wholesome hot cereals. Pop (as we called it in Arizona) was out of the question; we drank nothing but milk, water, and juice in our house. Of course, out-and-out junk food like Cheetos and Pop-Tarts was never allowed. My mother was a cook of the plain, simple, homey variety, which was perfect for our undeveloped palates. She wasn't a puritan or a health nut, but she greatly cared what we ate and took pains to serve us good meals every night. Sometimes, when she dished up one of her typical home-cooked dinners, and we told her how good it was and asked for seconds, she would say half joking, "Aw, it's nothing but a blue plate special!" She told us this meant the kind of dinner you got in an old 1950s diner: 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. It was old-fashioned and filling, and also cheap, which was a big consideration for her back when she was a student and had to live on fried farina for most of the week. My mother's own versions of those other, earlier blue plate specials from her past struck me as a lot more special than those meals she described to us. Her mashed potatoes were rich, lumpy, and buttery, and when she made fried chicken, she shook it in a paper bag of spiced flour before frying it in very hot oil, so it was always both juicy and crunchy. She thawed frozen cod or haddock fillets--firm, white, mild, kid-friendly fish--and baked them just till they were flaky and tender, then squeezed lemon juice on them. She made meat loaf with ketchup, eggs, chopped onions, and bread crumbs, then served us each a savory thick slice that melted on the tongue. Her vegetables were usually frozen French-cut string beans or peas brought to a boil, then drained when they were still bright green and tossed with salt and margarine. They were never gray or overcooked; we loved them. Part of it might have been the romance of eating the food that had comforted and nourished my mother when she was very young and very poor, and part of it might have been how good these meals were, but the term "blue plate special" has always been one of the homiest, coziest, most sweetly nostalgic phrases in the English language for me. It brings me right back to Wildermuth, back to that time in my childhood when I had my mother and my sisters all to myself; we were a complete family then, just us four girls, living in a wild, strange place, making a home for ourselves. From the Trade Paperback edition. Excerpted from Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.