Food book? Sure—but so much more. Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by novelist Kate Christensen is the great American memoir, a family chronicle suspended from fork and knife. From a domestic dispute over soft-boiled eggs to heralding a new love with raw oysters, steaks and Provençal rosé, food marks time. It sustains, comforts, beguiles and delights.
“To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon,” Christensen writes.
For Christensen, a PEN/Faulkner award winner for The Great Man (2008), dual insatiabilities for food and words awakened early. “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,” she writes. In winter 2011, amid writing her seventh novel and moving to Portland, Maine, she began a food blog. The series of personal essays evolved into Blue Plate Special, a comprehensive chronological retelling of an eater’s life: from Berkeley beginnings, through Arizona and the Hudson River Valley, France, Reed College in Oregon and Brooklyn, New York, to a cozy New England farmhouse via Italy.
To share a meal is to share an experience, and Christensen shares most with her core family, mother Liz and sisters Susan and Emily. (Father Ralph bobs in and out of their lives like an errant apple.) There is a certain delicacy to mining memories that involve one’s self and others—brand-new concerns for an inveterate novelist. Christensen describes the experience of writing memoir as akin to writing a first-person narrative novel but without the clear remove that fiction affords. “It’s almost funny, like the past had detached from my head and gone out into the world and exists now in physical form,” she says. “I feel good about the book. I feel that it’s as close to true as I could make it. I also ran it by my family so it wouldn’t cause strife—my family needed no more schisms. It’s the story of my family, I feel, as much as it is anything else.” She let them make factual corrections, which led to insightful discussions. Meanwhile, her mother has written a memoir, and her sisters might write theirs.
If she hasn’t already, Christensen might advise that their books serve up some delectable scenes. Her novels are peppered with rich descriptions of food, like the meal served by aged muse and mistress Teddy St. Cloud in The Great Man: a succulent chicken tagine with which she nearly seduces her famous lover’s first biographer. “I hate books that don’t have food in them, as a reader,” she says. “I feel it’s stingy of the novelist not to put some in there. ... The way they eat or don’t eat or cook or don’t cook and the way in which they do or don’t do it says as much about characters as anything else.”
Blue Plate Special ups the ante with recipes that extend the narrative at chapters’ ends. Though Christensen lays no claim to professional chefdom, she is an expert enthusiast, always seeking new dishes, new words, new worlds. Recipes range from minestrone to fish in banana leaves. Teddy St. Cloud’s chicken tagine is there. Christensen wrote the recipe for narrative’s sake, and it turned out nearly too good to be true. “There is no modest way to say this: the apricots melt into the broth and sweeten it deeply, the olives give it brine, and the almonds and cilantro and lemon bring it to life. And it contains cinnamon; it is, in a word, delicious,” writes Christensen.
“When I give dinner parties, I serve people too much food,” she says. “My novels are pretty packed full. I’m not a writer of restraint and understatement or minimalism.” Spread on the page or the table, what she’s got to give is a smorgasbord that satiates, sure—but one that may inspire a hunger for more.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.