Authors: Kate Christensen
All of the events and incidents in this book have been written exactly as I remember them. In addition, I have corroborated many of the facts with the people involved. All dialogue has been reconstructed to conform as closely as possible to my memories. Nonetheless, I have changed many names and identifying characteristics of the individuals involved.
Copyright © 2013 by Kate Christensen
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Portions of this work were previously published in different form, in the following publications:
edited by Peter Terzian (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009);
The Bitch in the House
edited by Cathi Hanauer (New York: William Morrow & Company, 2002);
Love Is a Four-Letter Word
edited by Michael Taeckens (New York: Plume, 2009);
magazine (May 26, 2011);
The Days of Yore
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
Jacket design by Emily Mahon
Jacket illustration/type by Pablo Delcan
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Blue plate special : an autobiography of my appetites / Kate Christensen. — First edition.
1. Christensen, Kate. 2. Women authors, American—21st century—Biography. 3. Authors, American—21st century—Biography. 4. Mothers and daughters—United States. 5. Appetite—Psychological aspects. 6. Food—Psychological aspects. I. Title.
For Liz, Susan, and Emily
Often the place and time help make a food what it becomes, even more than the food itself.
M. F. K. FISHER
If we could just have the kitchen and the bedroom, that would be all we need.
Often, whenever I come up against anything painful or difficult, my mind escapes to food. I am sure I am far from alone in this. Even if I’m too upset to eat, just the thought of a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup is warm and cozy and savory and comforting. Unlike memories, emotions, experiences, food is an irrefutable fact, a bit of physical nourishment, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
During the worst dark nights of the soul, my smaller failings rise up one by one in a chorus of metallic voices: that unwritten, obligatory important letter; my tipsy, laughing, unintentional, klutzy faux pas booming into a sudden silence; the failure to speak when speaking would have helped someone.…
These things are much worse to recall than any of my gigantic, life-changing mistakes. Those are boulders too big to see all at once, hulking, unmoving, and strangely safe, whereas the little things generate a cascade that turns into an avalanche. They’re all attached to one another somehow, neurochemically, so that remembering just one of them sets off a chain reaction sparking all the way back through the decades with increasing urgency until I’ve looped through my entire life, all the way back to the first one, which now seems worse than ever in light of all the others.
Evidently, my mind wants to whirl and foment and obsess in those dark little hours when there’s nothing to distract it
from its own petty storms. But sometimes, if I start to picture what’s downstairs in the kitchen cupboards and fridge and those bowls on the counter, and try to piece everything together in a series of interesting meals and fill in any gaps with a mental grocery list, it turns into a fun, riveting game so engaging I forget what a horrible person I am and fixate instead on the far more relevant question of what I plan to cook and eat in the near future. Let’s say hypothetically that there’s some goat cheese downstairs plus a butternut squash, some red onions, ginger, garlic. Also, there are some apples … a box of chicken broth … pine nuts.…
Before I know it, I’m asleep again.
My love of food was slow to ignite, but when it did, the year I turned eight, it exploded into one of the great passions of my life, along with writing (alcohol and sex came later, of course). This was exciting, but it also brought the usual perils that threaten any avid eater.
Food can be dangerous. For the unintegrated person—someone hiding a deep, essential truth from herself or someone in the grip of emotions almost too strong to tolerate (both of which have been me at various times)—it can cause trouble, and I don’t just mean indigestion. Food is not a means toward resolution. It can’t cure heartbreak or solve untenable dilemmas. Maybe for this reason, food often feels meaningless in times of true emotional duress. When I’m in some sort of extreme state—depression, mania, heartbreak, crisis—I can’t eat. When I’m so full of yearning I think I might implode, or when there’s so much trouble in my life I can’t see a way out, food overwhelms me—my soul has become so splayed open that to eat might be to disintegrate from overload.
Food is a subterranean conduit to sensuality, memory, desire, but it opens the eater to all of it without changing anything. If carnality is what you’re after, there’s a danger of
increased frustration in the seductive, savory earthiness of a plate of spinach ravioli with sage butter: food can do many things, but it can’t substitute for sex. If you’re seized with terrible, unprintable rage toward someone you love, a ripe, velvety avocado can send you over the edge with its innocent bystander meekness.
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 minuscule. 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.
began with eating and moved on to cooking just as I began with reading and moved on to writing. I was very lonely for most of my life until the past few years, and this loneliness was assuaged, as it so often is, with reading and writing, cooking and eating. These were most often solitary pleasures for me. The company of other people, the vicissitudes of romantic relationships, or just being out in the world, have often made me feel anxious, uncomfortable, judged, shy, or misunderstood, and fundamentally unconnected to myself, the truest cause of loneliness. Eating a good meal, like reading a satisfying novel, has returned me to myself during times when this disconnect was a profound internal chasm.
Through the years, I’ve published six novels, all of which engage in some way with the same themes—struggling, loneliness, floundering, and excess, as well as food, love, art, marriage, and family. All my novels are about, in one way or another, people whose lives are changing whether they like it or not, people who are faced with some degree of external crisis and have to scramble to deal with it. My protagonists are men and women, young and old, but they all share this. The
older I get, the more my own life feels implicated in my own novels, and the clearer it is to me that all my characters’ concerns come directly from my own experiences.
In recent years, my life has started to intrude on my writing. It first announced itself as a subject quietly but insistently, as subjects will if you let them, the way a cat might sit on a book you’re trying to read. Finally, a year ago, as my fiftieth birthday approached, I gave in, put aside the novel I was working on, and out of nowhere for the first time started to write short essays about my life—ostensibly centered on food as a lifelong passion and favorite pastime but, in a deeper way, addressing my own experiences and memories. These essays emerged naturally, almost as if I were transcribing rather than writing them. Not for many years had my work felt so urgent, effortless, and fun. I posted them online, one by one, as a blog, in order to connect with readers, even if they were just my mother and a few friends. To my happy surprise, more and more people began reading these essays, until I became aware of a growing readership and understood from their responses that I was offering comfort, somehow, simply by revealing certain truths about my own life.