Paula Deen can learn a thing or two from Kate Christensen’s new book. In addition to offering some healthy recipes, this food-oriented memoir describes its author’s past mistakes with a level of candor the embattled celebrity cook would do well to emulate. Not for Christensen the dreary exclusiveness of racism. Widely traveled, she delights in all she has seen and eaten. Her taste in men, however, is less appealing. But her father planted that poisonous seed. For the last five decades, she has carried this abusive deadbeat’s burdensome memory.
An accomplished novelist, Christensen tells her own story in Blue Plate Special with brio, humor and a lack of self-pity. She opens with a frightening scene: at age 2 she witnessed her father beat her mother. It would not be the last time. But Christensen identified with the victimizer. She renounced her sex. “I tried to be like some idealized version of a guy: tough, impermeable, ambitious, sexually aggressive, and intolerant of weakness and vulnerability, in myself and everyone else.”
Eventually her mother had enough. She took her three daughters and filed for divorce. After a countercultural stint at Berkeley, they moved to red-state Arizona, where Christensen’s mother pursued her Ph.D. As for her father, he mostly disappeared. A civil rights lawyer who degenerated into a drugged-out hippie, he became a casualty of the 1960s.
Without child support, they had to struggle. But they never starved. Christensen’s mother cobbled together palatable meals (“blue-plate specials,” she called them) with what she could afford. Always wanting more, however, Christensen grew obsessed with food. A precocious kid with a passion for books, she made note of what fictional characters were served. In her juvenilia, she rained down manna. “I couldn’t always have what the characters I read about ate, but I could feed my own characters all the things I wasn’t allowed to have.”
Food would continue to play a key role in her work, as well as in her eventful life. Unlike many writers, Christensen didn’t play it safe and take a position in academia. She ventured forth into the world, hungry for experience. As she puts it, “To taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths — good and terrible, overwhelming and minuscule.”
One terrible truth is her repeated abuse by a deceptively friendly teacher. “He smelled of mint, the most sinister child-molester smell possible.” She falls into a depression, gains a lot of weight. But she pulls out of it and gets an au pair job at a French chateau. She hitchhikes to Switzerland, goes on a chaste camping trip with two male friends to Italy and the Middle East. In Paris, she fights off a would-be rapist. When she returns home, she attends college in Oregon, where she has several erratic love affairs, a pattern that will continue when she transfers to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The chapter on Iowa may disillusion MFA wannabes. The legendary creative writing program is depicted as a cold, cliquish place, where female students are given short shrift by macho-minded professors (Christensen has nothing but praise, however, for the great Allan Gurganus). Lonely and sad, Christensen seeks strange comfort in a quasi-sadomasochistic relationship with an emotionally unsupportive (and somewhat kinky) poet.
After Iowa, she moves to New York City, where she drifts. Every night is a party. She sleeps around, develops a drinking problem. “At twenty-nine, I was like a street dog: undernourished, skittish, unsure of how to behave.” She no longer speaks to her mother or her sisters, one of whom belongs to a Christian cult in Australia (from which she will later escape).
But again, Christensen saves herself. She begins a novel and marries someone who knows his way around the kitchen. It lasts 14 years, during which she finally gets published (a late bloomer, she does not achieve real recognition until her 40s). She mends fences with her family. Following the collapse of her marriage, she goes through another rough patch. But lo and behold, she meets a younger fellow (19 years, to be exact), and while others may roll their eyes and growl like cougars, their relationship is still going strong.
An extraordinary woman who has overcome difficult obstacles, some of which were admittedly self-imposed, Christensen has penned an inspiring and refreshing memoir that should whet the reader’s appetite to seek out the rest of her oeuvre.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.