Tuesday July 9

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.

Excerpt: Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition

Chapter 1

Breakfast at McGee

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. We had eggcups, but we never used them. These soft-boiled eggs were so good, we’d lick the bowls clean.

One such morning, when I was about two years old, my parents sat at the breakfast table with my baby sister, Susan, and me. The table was littered with cups and plates and bowls, eggshells and toast crumbs. The sun shone in the windows of the kitchen in our small bungalow on McGee Avenue in Berkeley. My father was about to walk out the front door to go somewhere, work probably.

My mother said in a high, plaintive voice, “Please stay and help me, Ralph. I just need some help. Don’t leave yet.”

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. He slammed his fist into her chest and stomach. He pulled her hair. He seemed to want to hurt her badly. She gasped with shock and tried to stop him, but he was much stronger than she was. Then he let her go abruptly and slammed out the door and left us there, the three of us. My baby sister was wailing. My mother picked her up out of her high chair and held her, weeping slow, silent tears, rocking back and forth. I remember being paralyzed with an inward, panicky terror, but I didn’t cry, I’m sure of it. I just stared at the table, at the eggshells and toast crumbs, and then I looked at my mother.

There we sat, a young family around a breakfast table on a sunny morning, surrounded by the shells of soft-boiled eggs, such a cozy and nourishing breakfast. The air jangled with the wrongness of what had just happened, vibrated with the disjunction between this sweet scene, mother and children, and the terrible thing my father had just done.

There were many later violent incidents like this one, according to my mother, but that is the only one from those early years that has stayed near the surface of my memory. Maybe this was the first time it happened, the first time my father beat up my mother in front of me. Maybe I had learned by the next time to shield myself by blinding myself, by blocking my memory.

Whatever the case may be, this particular wrecked breakfast is imprinted on my soul like a big boot mark. It became a kind of primordial scene, the incident around which my lifelong fundamental identity and understanding of the dynamic between women and men was shaped, whether I liked it or not.

In that moment, as a helpless child, I had two choices of people to identify with. In that moment, I split in half. As part of me stared at the eggshells, the toast crumbs, the empty, yolk-streaked bowls, that other part allied itself with my father, the person with the strength and force and power.

And so, from then on, I denied that part of me that was female. I tried to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambitious, sexually aggressive, and intolerant of weakness and vulnerability, in myself and everyone else.

My self-protective urge to be masculine, remove myself from all things female—myself, my mother, my baby sister—let me get through my childhood and early adulthood believing, because I told myself so, that I was unaffected and unscathed by any of it. My father didn’t hit me. He hit my mother. She was the one who was hurt. I was okay. And it had nothing to do with my own relationships with men. I wasn’t my mother. This last was key: I was not my mother, I wasn’t vulnerable, I wasn’t feminine, and I wasn’t ever going to be beaten up by anyone. I would do the beating up, if it came to that.

And so internally I absorbed my father, beating up his wife, a young, exhausted, vulnerable girl, punching her in the breasts, pulling her hair, seized by a rage that had nothing, really, to do with her at all, a rage that went all the way back to his childhood and was now caused by his own sense of failure, his disappointment in himself.

I absorbed my mother’s perspective, too, even as I refused to identify with it. She was attacked and punished for being needy, for daring to ask for something, for revealing her weakness. Her withstanding of this punishment without fighting back or leaving went back to her own childhood and was caused by a deep sense of unworthiness and a fundamental unlovableness.

When I understood this, I believed that by understanding, I was free of it. That was, of course, not true at all.

chapter 2

Liz and Ralph

w  Despite her treatment at the hands of my father, my mother never seemed like a victim to me, no doubt because she refused to see herself as one.

She was born Marie Elisabeth Pusch in July 1936 in Dornach, Switzerland, to Hans and Ruth Pusch. Her parents were anthroposophists, devoted followers of Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher and clairvoyant who started the first Waldorf School in a Stuttgart cigarette factory for the children of its workers. Hans was an actor and theater director at the Goetheanum, where he worked with Marie Steiner, Rudolf’s widow. Ruth was a eurythmist, a kind of dancer, who performed all over Europe with a troupe of other young sylphs in purple gowns and veils, waving their arms while overenunciating vowels and diphthongs in wobbling, dramatic voices.

Hitler’s rise to power put my grandparents on edge; they weren’t sure what would happen to anthroposophists at the hands of the Third Reich, since they didn’t take kindly to weird spiritual/artistic types. So Hans and Ruth began to consider fleeing Germany for New York City; my grandmother was American, my grandfather German.

When Hans was drafted into the SS, they immediately booked passage on an ocean liner to New York City, set to sail the following month. But something intervened, so they had to postpone their trip another month. The ship they would have taken sank, and everyone on board drowned. When they finally did set sail on another, later boat, three SS U-boats stopped the ship at midnight, as it was passing the Rock of Gibraltar. All the German passengers were called up on deck as a list of names was read, Hans Pusch’s among them.

My grandfather went down below to say good-bye to his wife and tiny daughters. My grandmother, crying, insisted that they sit and share an orange before he went. So they sat on the bunk, all four of them, and shared the orange that Ruth had peeled as slowly as she could. By the time Hans arrived back up on deck, the U-boats had pulled away and left him behind. And so they all came to America, saved by a piece of fruit.

Hans and Ruth immediately sent their daughters to Lossing, Ruth’s older sister Gladys’s boarding school for mentally handicapped children. My mother was three. She spoke only Swiss German and had to learn English as quickly as she could. At the farm school were a group of mentally handicapped children, including my aunt Aillinn, my mother’s older sister, who had been born deaf and mentally handicapped. With no one else to compare herself to, my mother didn’t realize she herself wasn’t “retarded,” as they called it back then, until she was five.

Gladys herself had gone deaf in her mid-twenties, while she was touring Europe as a concert pianist, and, suddenly bereft of her dreamed-of brilliant musical career—and with a gaping hole in her life to fill—she discovered the trendy, radical teachings of Steiner. She convinced her baby sister Ruth to join her in Europe, where she met Hans Pusch. Meanwhile, Gladys came back to America with a head full of pedagogical steam and single-handedly started the school, whose underlying philosophy was based on Steiner’s teachings.

Gladys was a mean little troll of a woman, and she beat my mother for her childish infractions and impish curiosity. My mother was expected to do chores even though she was only three. After Gladys took her by the hair one day and slammed her head against the wall over her little bed, then left her crying, Lizzie, as my mother was called when a child, ran off into the fields alone. She stayed outside for hours. She ate ears of corn, raw and warm from the stalks, lay between the rows, looking at the sky, feeling untethered to anything on earth, as if she could float away and no one would miss her or notice. But she also taught herself something important—that she could distance herself from whatever was going on by narrating her life to herself as if she were a character in a book. And that was how she got through her time there.

At five, she was sent to a “normal” Waldorf boarding school, in Pennsylvania. She didn’t live with her parents again until she was ten, when she moved in with them in New York City and was sent to the Steiner school there. Her father, Hans, a childish, rather stupid man given to tantrums, ignored her. Her clever, literary mother, Ruth (who had told my mother that she’d given birth to her solely as a companion and caretaker for Aillinn), made it clear to Lizzie that she could expect no affection, since her husband and older daughter demanded all the energy she had.

My mother refused to be the pliable, respectful, spiritual daughter her parents expected and wanted her to be. Instead, she rebelled against her upbringing, rejected the teachings of Steiner, got into trouble constantly, and excelled at everything she did. She was sent away once more. She graduated from High Mowing, another Waldorf boarding school, this one in New Hampshire, at the top of her high school class with straight A’s, having been the captain of the basketball team and student body president. That summer, she took her cello to the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, to take a master class with Pablo Casals. After that, she went to Swarthmore for one year, then studied cello at the Yale music conservatory for another year, and then she went to Juilliard as a cellist, all on full scholarships. Then, with one semester to go before she would have graduated from Juilliard, my mother decided she wasn’t cut out for the life of a concert cellist, so she quit and bought a train ticket to Berkeley and moved there in June 1960.
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Kate Christensen/Photo © Michael Sharkey

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