Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that generations can have an enormous impact on how one receives and relates to the unfolding story of another person's life. In reading award-winning novelist and food writer Kate Christensen's BLUE PLATE SPECIAL --- all 354 adventurous, poignant, mundane, sensual, annoying, inspiring, and remarkable pages of it --- the dates and events dropped here and there told me that I am about half a generation older. More importantly, our mothers were born nearly a generation apart.
Why would our mothers be important? Mothers are always important when their daughters write. Mine was born in time to live most of her childhood during the Depression, followed immediately by the onset of WWII as she officially entered adulthood. Christensen's mother was born more than a decade later, entering adulthood during the post-war economic boom and the social upheaval that gave birth to bohemian culture, women's liberation and social activism --- concepts unheard of during my mom's formative years.
They came to parenthood with vastly different expectations, starting their families during the Baby Boom and Baby Bulge, respectively. My mother's generation of married couples traditionally did not divorce or separate under the weight of dysfunctional or abusive relationships. Their offspring were expected to marry just once (unless death intervened), but most of my peers tried it and found marriage a hugely flawed idea. Christensen's mother, like her daughter, journeyed through many good, bad and indifferent partners, always searching for the right one.
"...a zesty start for readers and foodies alike who yearn for an eclectic buffet of fine narrative writing spiced with masterful imagery and substance."
That hunger to search, taste, find and reflect on the ideal relationship --- with others, with oneself, with one's vocation or work, and especially with what nourishes us emotionally, spiritually and physically --- is what sets BLUE PLATE SPECIAL apart from the usual coming-of-age memoir.
As one generation continuously flows into another, points of conflict or surprise randomly burst the safe bubble called "me." But while my peers (especially females) were conditioned mainly to shut up and tough things out on the premise that maturity would eventually happen and magically turn us into complete and happy people, Christensen's cohort boldly claimed the right to unrestricted exploration.
All around me during the 1980s, I saw younger 20-somethings seeking meaning through exotic travel (each segment of BLUE PLATE SPECIAL is a place, not a dish); through pushing and tearing the various old envelopes of morality, love, or spirituality; and often living riskily outside traditional zones of self-knowledge and comfort. Ironically, their parents half a generation on the other side were often trying to do the same thing to a slightly different soundtrack. But not my parents, and not (until much later) me. That in-between context likely made BLUE PLATE SPECIAL all the more savory a dish for its vicarious delights.
Living on the momentum of sensory and emotional appetites isn't without its dangers and pain, however. Christensen makes that searingly clear at least once in every chapter of her food-filled reminiscences, which can't help extending to her interesting but often dysfunctional family, her turbulent love relationships, and her migratory life. Things break apart, break down, implode, explode, and just as surprisingly come together and reconcile as well.
Sometimes her focus is on an abundance of food, sometimes on its diversity, quality, or rarity. She also reflects memorably on the impact of abstinence from food, or on the limitations of a very selective diet. The recipes salted and peppered throughout her volume aren't there just for decoration; making them would make another layer of meaning and intimacy to the stories they accompany.
Late in her account, Christensen discovers that a long-undiagnosed gluten intolerance has had profound cumulative effects on her metabolism, body chemistry and emotional balance. The bursting of an enthusiastic omnivore's assumptions about sustenance and nutrition proved both traumatic and cathartic, extending far beyond what goes into the mouth to include also what resides in the heart.
Kate Christensen's memoir is far from definitive. To risk over-using a cliché that feels supremely appropriate here, it's truly a work-in-progress. One can only imagine what she'll have to say at the other end of her unorthodox life. This half is a zesty start for readers and foodies alike who yearn for an eclectic buffet of fine narrative writing spiced with masterful imagery and substance.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on August 9, 2013