If the old saw that you are what you eat is true, then novelist Kate Christensen is made up of equal parts home-cooked comfort foods, red pepper flakes and wine. Her down-to-earth memoir, “Blue Plate Special,” which chronicles her life and loves against a backdrop of the foods she lustily consumed along the way, reflects an unpretentious sincerity and a craving for stimulation and spice.
Christensen is certainly not the first writer to filter memories through her palate. Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone,” Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking,” Patricia Volk’s “Stuffed” and Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones & Butter” jump to mind. Their rich descriptions of the foods that literally shaped them (and their careers) are characterized by voluptuous, sensual evocations of flavors, textures and aromas that make you want to pull out your knives and pots.
But Christensen is up to something different here. Neither a chef nor a food writer, she tends to couch her culinary ecstasy in simple declarations along the lines of “stupefyingly delicious” (TV dinners) or “gobsmackingly delicious” (dipping sauce for asparagus). Her enthusiasms and featured recipes — which include the soft-boiled eggs with toast bits of childhood breakfasts and a rabbit stew she learned to prepare as an au pair in France during a gap year between high school and college — are unlikely to send you running to your stove (though I am tempted to try her “Dark Night of the Soul” roasted vegetable soup). She recalls what she ate on various occasions the way some people remember what they wore. These dishes are not memory triggers like Proust’s famous madeleine but a way to explore the link between craving, comfort and fulfillment.
A skillful novelist, Christensen certainly knows how to grab our attention. Her book, arranged chronologically by domicile, opens with one of her earliest memories, a benign family breakfast in Berkeley, Calif., that quickly went terribly wrong. She recalls that in response to her mother’s plaintive request for help, something snapped in her father. Without warning “he leaped at her and began punching her in a silent knot of rage” — right in front of 2-year-old Christensen and her baby sister. The violent incident — unfortunately not unique, though the only one of its kind she remembers clearly — “is imprinted on my soul like a big boot mark,” she writes, summoning the perfect metaphor to convey its brutal psychic impact.
Ralph Johansen, Christensen’s father, was charismatic but distant, a ponytailed Marxist lawyer who defended draft dodgers and Black Panthers. His hold on the daughter he named Laurie Kate Johansen continued long after her mother bravely left him and moved with her three daughters to Arizona to pursue her education. (When Christensen’s first stepfather, Jim Christensen, adopted the girls, their father’s name was removed from their birth certificates. She dropped the name Laurie at 14.)
“Blue Plate Special” takes its lovely title, which Christensen comments “has always been one of the homiest, coziest, most sweetly nostalgic phrases in the English language for me,” from her mother’s modest characterization of the healthy, simple, home-cooked meals she managed to put on the table every night, even when she was struggling through a doctoral program in psychology with no child support. And indeed, the book is in part a tribute to this valiant woman, who clipped coupons, shopped in thrift stores and expected her daughters to do their own laundry and vacuuming, but also raised them on Bach cello suites and bedtime stories and taught them to put a bright face on adversity.
Christensen’s obsession with food should come as little surprise to readers of her six novels, including the culinarily titled “The Epicure’s Lament.” Like many writers, she uses characters’ relationships to food as a handy key to personalities and socioeconomic background. For her novel “The Great Man,” Christensen invented a chicken tagine with which “a seventy-four-year-old woman half seduces a forty-year-old man” — one of 20 unfussy recipes scattered throughout her memoir.
Christensen portrays herself as a robust eater. “To taste fully is to live fully,” she writes. “To eat passionately is to allow the world in.” One thing she shared with her first husband during their 14 years together in Brooklyn was a love for restaurant meals. Until she became gluten intolerant, she was a “culinary Viking, a swashbuckling food adventurer” who “ate everything with gluttonous enthusiasm, as irrationally proud of my ironclad stomach as I was of my high tolerance for booze.”
But eating was also, she notes repeatedly, part of her effort, along with reading and writing, to assuage the gnawing loneliness that overshadowed much of her life, until just a few years ago when she met her second husband, with whom she now lives in Maine.
Rest assured that “Blue Plate Special” is not a book about bingeing or struggles with obesity — although the disciplined Christensen recounts periodic stringent diets to combat “huskiness.” Like the blue plate special of its title, this earnest, low-key memoir is a modest dish. Although it’s occasionally a tad bland despite all the pepper flakes and lovers, it makes a fine case for life’s simplest pleasures — soul-satisfying sustenance shared with a soulmate.
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL
An Autobiography of My Appetites
By Kate Christensen
Doubleday. 353 pp. $26.95