They usually start by describing a kitchen from that vast desert common to all of us: memory. Filled with nostalgia, and sometimes not a little anger, culinary memoirs tend to hover around the memoirist’s stomach, in what I would call extreme navel-gazing.
What is culinary memoir? And why are there so many of them springing up like mushrooms on a wet spring morning (over 250 published since Ruth Reichl’s 1999 Tender at the Bone)? And – more to the point – why do they leave me with the mouthfeel (mindfeel?) of a sour orange?
Whatever the reason for the upsurge of this literary genre, culinary memoirs offer historians a unique peek at the inner life of the food-obsessed. I can’t help but think that this phenomenon emerged because 1) people are better educated overall, 2) hunger and famine do not plague as many people as in the past, and 3) use of the Internet encourages the type of narcissism that spawns Tweets and photos of every bite people take.
Just think what treasure there’d be if the great chefs of the past had written about their daily cooking life as Anthony Bourdain did in Kitchen Confidential? And consider the rejoicing if some graduate student unearthed Marie Antoinette’s handwritten cookbook in the dusty, brittle papers housed in the Archives Nationales in Paris!
Essentially a form of autobiography, the first culinary memoir came from the pen of a Roman Catholic saint, St. Augustine, who wrote about stealing pears in his Confessions:
“There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its colour or for its flavour. Late one night–having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was–a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves.”
St. Augustine’s guilt translates into my guilt, your guilt, everyone’s guilt over some thoughtless teenage act, things that all young people do and later regret. Even though he lived centuries ago, his story still wields power, it still prods the reader’s memory, and his words still bring forth an ashamed “Oh, yes!”
So what’s the difference between memoir and autobiography?
Well, in a way, the question splits hairs.
Technically, memoirs cover a portion of a person’s life, filled like a jelly doughnut with surprising revelations, usually a thematic approach, as in the case of the increasingly ubiquitous culinary memoirs cluttering bookstore shelves. As for autobiography, pundits define it as biography written by the person under scrutiny, in this case the author. Autobiography generally tends to cover a complete life from birth until whenever it is that the person picked up the pen or began banging on the keyboard. It can’t ever be complete and end with death, for how would the author write about that?
In Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (2001), Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson list fifty-two genres of autobiography, ranging from Apology to Travel Narrative and Witnessing. One of their genres is Memoir.
Many M. F. K. Fisher fans consider her monumental The Art of Eating to be the first of the increasingly large number numbers of culinary memoirs glutting bookstore shelves today. They forget Della Lutes’s groundbreaking The Country Kitchen (1936, reprinted 1992), which came out a year before Ms. Fisher’s Serve it Forth (1937). And of course there’s Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste (1825 ) and Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s The Feasts of Autolycus (1896 ).
Since memoir considers questions of identity, perhaps the recent surfeit of them signifies the yearning for a sense of place and belonging. The food craze offers a sense of identity for many people. The kitchen or the stove or the farm or the restaurant become sites of narration and self inquiry. It’s almost as if the stereotypical coming-of-age story (bildungsroman) now must take place in a restaurant or at least in front of a stove or while staring at a cow’s udder.
Unlike some of the luminous stories of young people coming of age (think The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls), today’s food memoirs often reveal nothing larger than, “Gee, I really grew up when Chef yelled at me” or “Cooking became my religion” or “I made it through a year cooking my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” (My own Confession here: I must admit that Julie & Julia REALLY disappointed me – it could have been so great, with a newbie cook’s reflections on cooking, some material about Julia Child, etc. , but instead it was frankly one long boring “poor-me” whine.)
Most of these culinary memoirs come from the United States, written for the most part by people with middle-class backgrounds.
But some emerge from cultures long considered “The Other.” Madhur Jaffrey and Colette Rossant, to give but a few examples, write of their childhoods in Climbing the Mango Trees and Memories of a Lost Egypt: A Memoir withe Recipes, respectively.
It’s a fine line to straddle, between being personal and yet universal at the same time. I beg editors and publishers to look for stories that veer more toward the universal. Many recent culinary memoirs offer little to chew on once the reader turns that last page.
Yet, yet, these memoirs do at times offer a lot to historians of the daily.
You know, I’d love to know the story behind the kitchen in the photo at the beginning of this post … . And I can almost imagine the beginning: Aunt Adela looked out the window, its panes grimy with pork grease, and sighed. “See that tree over there?,” she asked, her gaunt finger pointing at the lopsided fir. “That’s where that stupid Russian general shot your Uncle Dorin.”
© 2012 C. Bertelsen