Blue Plate Special
Author Kate Christensen tells her own story of a lifetime of love, loss, and great meals.
Novelist Kate Christensenâs memoir,Â Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of my Appetites, is a moving feast of memory, a repast of the past. âTo taste fully is to live fully,â the author declares at the outset.
Chronicling her American girlhood from the early 1960s (at the end of the Baby Boom), to her present life as a writer and blogger in Maine, the book is an honest portrayal of the forces that have shaped her: love and loss; joy and pain; trust and despondency. In those 50 years, the author turned to food â to nourish away gloom, to celebrate, to reconnect with lost years. The book includes a smattering of recipes: Anadama bread, Yorkshire pudding, rabbit stew, among others.
Originally written as blog posts, the bookâs brief chapters read like complete stories in themselves. Christensen, author of seven novels including "The Great Man," winner of the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award, writes wonderfully. Her clean prose is sprinkled with witty phrases and wry observations.
The story begins at a âwrecked breakfastâ in Berkeley, California, where 2-year-old Kate recoils in confused horror, watching her father beat her mother.
Eventually Kateâs mother moves her three daughters to Arizona so she can attend graduate school, and then on to a Bohemian âghost townâ in northern Arizona where the girls are forced, yet again, to fit into all new schools. But the teenaged Christensen isnât satisfied; she enrolls in a Waldorf-inspired high school in upstate New York, only to discover the rural idyll includes male teachers who take sexual advantage of students while officials turn a blind eye.
Upon graduation, Christensen takes a job as a nanny in France, where she learns French language and cooking (by far the most interesting culinary discussion in the book). Hereâs Christensen making her popular muesli for breakfast: âEvery night before bed, I cut up all the ripest plums, peaches, and apricots in the larder, and soaked it all in milk overnight with a heap of steel-cut oats. The next morning the vat held a slightly fermented, sticky, thick mass that smelled like library paste on a rotting orchard floor. The âŚ kids couldnât get enough of it.â
Boyfriends come and go; food obsessions wax and wane; her weight seesaws.
She graduates from Reed College, and in 1987 enrolls in a Masters in Fine Arts program at the prestigious Iowa Writersâ Workshop, a place she calls âterrifying, chilly, and competitive âŚ a manâs world, and a boyâs network.â Â She encounters teachers helpful â the delightful Allen Gurganus â and hurtful. Director Frank Conroy, she says, dismisses the writing of women students as âlittle coming-of-age novels,â despite the fact that his own memoir, "Stop Time," was just that. She even wins a short story contest, sponsored by "Mademoiselle" magazine, with a story Conroy had disliked. (A good reminder for budding writers to take your writing teacherâs advice with a shaker of salt!)
Dumped again by a boyfriend, Christensen moves herself to New York, works briefly in publishing, including ghostwriting for a Spanish countess, which becomes the topic of her first novel. âWhat matters is that you keep writing,â Allen Gurganus had encouraged her at Iowa, when sheâd bemoaned a broken heart. So she dives in. During lunch breaks, after work, on weekends: She writes, writes, writes.
âFor the first time since junior high âŚ I was writing in my own voice,â Christensen says. âGone was the earnest Iowa Writersâ Workshop attempt to be Faulkner, to be GreatâŚ. Sometimes I felt electric with joy at the words that came from my fingers, but most of the time it was agonizing and terrifying.â It took ten years to finish, and in 1999, during the âchick-litâ wave propelled by Helen Fieldingâs "Bridget Jonesâ Diary," Christensen published her first novel, "In the Drink."
More books follow, and then a marriage and an adoption (of a rescue dog â a compromise with her husband who doesnât want to have children).
This latter portion of the memoir, focused on her marriage and writing, seems far more interesting than the earlier portions because the author reveals more of herself â her flaws, her grit and determination. Narrators of memoir tend to be most interesting when theyâre at war with themselves; certainly Christensenâs inner conflicts â in her 30s and 40s â make for a more satisfying meal than autobiographical bits that lack complexity.
In fact, the food asides started to feel gimmicky, almost a way for the author to avoid the work of self-reflection. I was left wanting less of the literal, and more of theÂ metaphoricalÂ appetite promised in the bookâs subtitle â giving us a sort of Italian-meringue icing on this otherwise tasty literary cake.