MY KITCHEN WARS
By Betty Fussell
North Point/Farrar Straus Giroux. 238 pp. $23
You can almost picture the lunch over which Betty Fussell pitched this book. Here's a no-holds-barred first-person memoir, she might have said, that dishes dirt and delves into one of the preoccupations of our time. The Me Culture feasts on personal anecdote and gossip, and loves practical tips on fixing food.
Nora Ephron, in her semi-fictional novel "Heartburn," was probably the first to weave together tasty recipes and bitter recollections, inspiring more than a few women to perfect their vinaigrette en route to divorce court. The kitchen-tested autobiography is now so well established it was the subject of a witty sendup, John Lanchester's novel "The Debt to Pleasure," which begins normally enough with a few interesting how-tos but disintegrates, along with the narrator, in passages like "Oh, go look it up yourself in a good cookbook."
And now another variation on the theme: food memoirs with nary a recipe but with evocative coming-of-age set pieces (e.g., Ruth Reichl's "Tender at the Bone") and, in the case of Betty Fussell's "My Kitchen Wars," one strong metaphor that descends directly from Ephron: the kitchen as battleground of the sexes.
Driven to cook long before it became fashionable, Fussell endured it all, from the repressive kitchen politics of the '50s to the rise of Julia Child as cultural icon and the competitive cooking craze of the '70s. Next came the acquisitive '80s, when cooking was an excuse to buy great stuff like Cuisinarts and copperware, Euro food and travel was trendy, and boozy entertaining bordered on the orgiastic. "Kitchen Wars" stops just short of today's fin de siecle decadence, when men and women alike build gigantic semi-professional kitchens and then dine on carryout.
Fussell's blow-by-blow, much of it describing her plight as an academic wife, will enable many women between, say, ages 45 and 70 to relive old times--even if some of us may well wonder how we missed out on the take-a-lover phase Fussell describes so breezily she might be writing about a souffle instead of a serious affair. But where this cooking narrative differs from others is in a surprise ingredient: the biting taste of revenge.
The author's ex, the historian Paul Fussell, may once have been known as a groundbreaking author of books on World War II. But after this book, his reputation will never be the same. Paul rarely stepped into the kitchen, except metaphorically; he was too busy writing about more macho battles, flirting with students of both sexes and trying on his nylon bikini briefs. As narcissist-chauvinists go, he appears to have been stimulating company, and he certainly did a good job of inspiring Betty to achieve self-realization through sauces, providing great meals for himself and their friends in the process. But when the kids were grown and Betty needed a morale boost to move to the next stage--as a writer herself--Paul let her down. Frankly, he just didn't get it.
Which brings us to the second and more interesting metaphor at the heart of this book: the kitchen as a room of one's own. Though Betty was often shut away with her wire whisks and lemon zesters, her prison (like her marriage) wasn't all bad. Indeed, it provided a refuge from the old goat and an excuse to cleave a lobster or two in private.
Once the marriage collapsed, Fussell might easily have torched her Julia memorabilia as she pulled out of Princeton. Instead she used food as grist for a new career. After all, she points out, cooking and writing require remarkably similar arts of rearranging. Why not let one reinforce the other?
The author of nine other books, Fussell writes smoothly and is at her best when she isn't carried away by metaphor: Chapter titles like "Blitzed by Bottle Caps and Screws" are one thing, but it's another to write, "My mind was still like the empty bowl of the blender, begging to be filled, and what ingredients were to be had!"
Though "My Kitchen Wars" begins at the beginning, as Fussell watches her father squeeze oranges, this rather thorough chronology gathers strength once she turns her clear, candid eye on what it all means. She may be spiteful, but she admits it takes two to do battle. And though she may mock her arsenal of knives and whirring machines, you know where they ended up when everything else was divided and sold: The batterie de cuisine stayed, as does control of this memoir of a marriage, with its rightful owner.