Some of the most successful memoirists of the 1970′s and ’80′s peered through the lens of their brush with the counter-culture to find the moment the central, existential question that has shaped their choices, triumphs and missteps, the internal struggle whose reconciliation is the basis of the coming of age memoir. Back then, many of the memoirs were disguised as first novels — think: Fear of Flying (Erica Jong), Blue Skies, No Candy (Gael Greene), The Electric Kool-Aid Test (Tom Wolfe). Over the past decade, food has taken the place of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. There’s been a population explosion in food memoir-ville.
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential established the cook-as-shit-kicking-adventurer and minted a tone that keeps me coming back for more — he reads like a latter-day Hemmingway, but this middle class kid is getting dirty in the formerly blue collar world of food, instead of war. Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, beginning with Comfort Me with Apples, found the wistful, romantic skein and gave, as well, an ironic and hilarious voice to a career that food built. Together the two minted a genre. One that is moving beyond simple tales of bone-crunching apprenticeships and the lucky chance of being in the right place (New York City) at the right time (just as food moved from the revolutionary fringes to main street USA).
The subject matter is nearly coincidental to the art of two of the recent bests — Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter and Bill Bufford’s Heat. Food memoirs such as these are more than stories, they’re literature, an experience, shared transformation. They capture something of their subject matter — its raw, physicality, the daily transcendence of a meal well-cooked, the combat sense of its front lines, the tenderness and whole heartedness of it.
Food memory also offers the writer a mainline to the senses, the conscious self that is constantly sniffing and tasting, seeing and hearing — and forgetting. Awakening buried memory makes personal history shimmer. Talking to Sasha Gong today, I began to understand that looking at the world through food summons the same capacities in writing that it demands of the cook: generosity, forgiveness and joy.
A child-victim of China’s Cultural Revolution, Ms. Gong has written two memoirs. The first, Born American, is a variation on the mix-up-at-the-nursery myth in which the writer explodes her sense of having been born “American” — in love with freedom and individuality — but entering the world in the tightly controlled Maoist Beijing, where both silence and uniformity was enforced. Her second memoir, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, which she co-wrote with her friend and fellow historian, Scott Seligman, goes deeper into the dark era in which her family was exiled from its urban life to live as peasants on a remote countryside.
The subject itself, she said, made it easier to return to that time, easier to linger and re-feel the feelings, easier to confront its life-long effects. “When you write about food, you fall into the same mindset as when you cook,” she said, “you are generous, even if you don’t like someone, you feed them well and at the table you experience the best part of them.”
She said that the improvisational nature of cooking makes writing that springs from cooking and eating seem less monumental, more of-the-moment. She said that in the very darkest eras, meals shared or, when you are starving, meals remembered, are patches of blue. The food carries you back to the best family memories, the best moments in friendship, community, life. These memories offset the pain, she said.
The food memoir is not, then, a story whose power reflects the obsession of an era, the subject is also a narrow framework with positive association — a boon to the excavation and facing, the reconciling and forgiving that the best memoir writing demands.
Tomorrow, I am interviewing Cara daSilva whose book In Memory’s Kitchen follows a group of Jewish women in an concentration camp and provides another look at the power of food memory in times of terror and tragedy. It can keep you from despair, it can keep you alive.
These interviews are available to The Hungry I students and can also be purchased individually. Ms. Gong’s interview can be found here.