Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen: Not Your Typical Food Memoir
In her debut memoir, Blue Plate Special, Kate Christensen talks about food as the mile markers to her life; food, its presence or absence, is the stuff that consistently permeates her days, bringing her comfort or reassurance, and at times the satisfaction of self-restraint. It is there when, as a child, she first sees her father hit her mother; it is there decades later as she and her husband weep together in restaurant after restaurant, as they try to make sense of their relationship. Blue Plate Special is not exactly a food memoir, though; it is a memoir – a life – marked by moments of gustatory sensation.
There are three kinds of segmenting that occur in Christensen’s memoir: geographic, professional, gastronomical. She imparts her story following these different notches on her timeline, a tool that is neither disruptive nor clinical, but instead grounding. It may even be this device that keeps Christensen from ever employing any form of narcissistic self-obsession in her writing. Instead, she is raw and authentic, self-deprecating but not self-pitying. Her immediate family – comprised significantly of estrogen and eccentricity – is revealed to the reader as only a sister and daughter full of the same eccentricity can reveal, as imperfect and cherished and infuriating. The men in Christensen’s life – from father to stepfather to boyfriends to husband – are perhaps as imperfect, cherished, and infuriating.
And back to the food – Blue Plate Special is Christensen’s “autobiography of [her] appetites.” It is not always friendly, not always divine, not always enjoyed. Food, here, is imperfect, cherished, and infuriating. It holds a great place in her life story, and Christensen shows it the attention it has earned, integrating anecdotes about cooking and eating and drinking – or not cooking and not eating and not drinking – into a story that reads like a great journey. When they’ve earned it, certain meals are followed by its recipe in her book, inviting the reader to experience her story more deeply.
Christensen is no stranger to writing; she has six novels under her belt, including PEN/Faulkner award winner The Great Man. When an accomplished novelist turns her attention to nonfiction, however, a reader may find him- or herself holding in one’s breath, crossing one’s fingers and hoping that this isn’t the equivalent of an acclaimed actor’s disastrous foray into directing, or a music legend’s mediocre turn as an actor. You hope for the best. Christensen has delivered it -- her life thus far in all its imperfect, cherished, and infuriating glory -- in Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites.
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.