"Food is important," says Kate Christensen. It ushers us through all the events of our lives. It is also what comes back, as this PEN Award recipient trains her eye on her past in her latest book, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. Food colors all manners of being in this memoir: as a child, Christensen remembers enjoying "chicken pot pies, those magical things that [...] were put into the oven in their individual little aluminum pie pans to turn golden brown on top and bubbling and savory inside, with chunks of peas, carrots, and chicken suspended in hot, salty, ambrosial glue." As an adult, reeling from a divorce, she remembers cooking, "one broiled chicken thigh, or even two, with a baked sweet potato and side of garlicky red chard." At the end of her search for contentment, somewhat older but definitely happy, she remembers the food her lover cooked: "roast leg of lamb with green pepper-apple-onion curry, arborio rice, and mango chutney."
Falling somewhere between M.F.K Fisher and Joan Didion, Christensen's memoir covers a span of forty years -- from childhood, to college, marriage, divorce, to true love. And threading it all together is Christensen's nearly religious fervor for food (with actual recipes!).
The storytelling style is all her own. Christensen tends to back into her stories, and things are often revealed backwards, without fanfare -- to an alarming effect. Christensen writes: "When I was a kid, on what passed for chilly mornings in Berkeley, my mother used to make my sisters and me soft-boiled eggs with pieces of buttered toast broken into them." She goes on to describe the tablescape of one such morning, the littler of plates and eggshells and toast crumbs, but also the sun coming through the windows. Next, as Christensen's father is about to go out the door, her mother calls him back, asking for a bit of help. Maybe it's the normalcy of what she says -- "Please stay and help me, Ralph. I just need some help. Don't leave yet," -- that makes the following absolutely chilling:
"My father paused in the kitchen doorway, looking back at us all at the table. Something seemed to snap in his head. Instead of either walking out or staying to help my mother, he leaped at her and began punching her in a silent knot of rage. It went on for a while."
Christensen's father was lawyer to the Black Panthers, draft-dodgers, and "rabble-rousing politicos," and while an upstanding member of his community, behind doors he was prone to violent tantrums. So began Christensen's hunger, for a caring father but also for food and literature and belonging.
Read this book with a good glass of wine, and prepare for a journey between questioning anxiety and sensual satiety as Christensen takes you back and forth between the throes and woes of her swashbuckling life and the satisfaction and wholeness of food. And when you are done with it, I promise you will keep reaching for it, to re-read here and there Christensen's haunting voice, but also to curate your cooking around your personal failures and victories, because if there is anything that is extraordinary about Christensen, it is her ability to treat ailments and joy with food.
I tried one of the recipes, and must say I rarely get excited about soup, but this amazingly accurate title caught my eye:
Dark Night of the Soul Soup
Peel, core, and chop a small butternut squash and 3 apples into bite-size pieces.
Peel and cut up a red onion.
Coarsely chop a knob of ginger and peel 8 cloves of garlic.
Coat everything in peanut oil and roast on a cookie sheet for 40 minutes or so at 375 degrees, or until everything softens and caramelizes.
Puree with enough chicken broth to make a thick soup, adding half-and-half as desired.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Heat in a saucepan.
Serve in large shallow soup bowls with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts on top.