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.