Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites

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by Kate Christensen

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From acclaimed novelist Kate Christensen, Blue Plate Special is a mouthwatering literary memoir about an unusual upbringing and the long, winding path to happiness.

“To taste fully is to live fully.” For Kate Christensen, food and eating have always been powerful connectors to self and world—“a subterranean

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From acclaimed novelist Kate Christensen, Blue Plate Special is a mouthwatering literary memoir about an unusual upbringing and the long, winding path to happiness.

“To taste fully is to live fully.” For Kate Christensen, food and eating have always been powerful connectors to self and world—“a subterranean conduit to sensuality, memory, desire.” Her appetites run deep; in her own words, she spent much of her life as “a hungry, lonely, wild animal looking for happiness and stability.” Now, having found them at last, in this passionate feast of a memoir she reflects upon her journey of innocence lost and wisdom gained, mistakes made and lessons learned, and hearts broken and mended.
   In the tradition of M. F. K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin, and Ruth Reichl, Blue Plate Special is a narrative in which food—eating it, cooking it, reflecting on it—becomes the vehicle for unpacking a life. Christensen explores her history of hunger—not just for food but for love and confidence and a sense of belonging—with a profound honesty, starting with her unorthodox childhood in 1960s Berkeley as the daughter of a mercurial legal activist who ruled the house with his fists. After a whirlwind adolescent awakening, Christensen strikes out to chart her own destiny within the literary world and the world of men, both equally alluring and dangerous. Food of all kinds, from Ho Hos to haute cuisine, remains an evocative constant throughout, not just as sustenance but as a realm of experience unto itself, always reflective of what is going on in her life. She unearths memories—sometimes joyful, sometimes painful—of the love between mother and daughter, sister and sister, and husband and wife, and of the times when the bonds of love were broken. Food sustains her as she endures the pain of these ruptures and fuels her determination not to settle for anything less than the love and contentment for which she’s always yearned.
   The physical and emotional sensuality that defines Christensen’s fiction resonates throughout the pages of Blue Plate Special. A vibrant celebration of life in all its truth and complexity, this book is about embracing the world through the transformative power of food: it’s about listening to your appetites, about having faith, and about learning what is worth holding on to and what is not.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
PEN/Faulkner Award winner Christensen doesn't just write fiction (e.g., The Great Man); she writes about food on her eponymous blog. In this memoir, an in-house favorite, she talks about food to relate, more broadly, her off-kilter upbringing and current, reportedly happy life. Pitched to fans of Ruth Reichl and Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter.
The New York Times Book Review - Abigail Meisel
Sprinkled with recipes and memories of meals, Blue Plate Special is a toothsome blend of personal and social history.
Publishers Weekly
Novelist Christensen (The Great Man) describes her 1970s upbringing in Arizona in this unpretentious memoir. The oldest daughter of a Marxist lawyer and Waldorf-educated cellist, Christensen always modeled herself after her tough, uncompromising, iconoclastic father, whose manic rages nonetheless ruptured the family, sending the Christensen, her mother, and two sisters to start life in Tempe, Ariz., where her mother took up graduate studies in psychology. The three girls flourished, immersed in the era’s consciousness-raising feminist literature and instant or experimental food, recipes for which Christensen dandles along her narrative without much ado (e.g., “farmers fritters,” “camping peas”). Her efficient, chronological chapters treat some of the details those years, such as her mother’s boyfriends and her own crushes, even the sexual predator at the Waldorf school she attended briefly in high school in Spring Valley, N.Y., but mostly the undercurrent eddies around the author’s persistent loneliness, which she indulged by solitary writing and gorging on comfort food like bread and granola. A stint in France (“flageolets en pissenlits”), followed by college in Portland at Reed, graduate school in Iowa City, and work in New York round out this frank memoir, with appropriate culinary offerings for the writer’s darker moods (“Bachelorette puttanesca”). (July)
From the Publisher
Praise for Blue Plate Special:

“I’ve often thought that eating, writing and living well required similar qualities: creativity, daring, the ability to savor the good stuff and learn from the bad. Blue Plate Special is the memoir of an utterly original thinker, a free-spirited gourmand, and a great American writer. It’s an expert guide on inspiration, ingenuity, heartbreak, buoyancy, home, love, family, screwing up, bouncing back and perfecting the bacon-cheddar biscuit.”
—Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects

Blue Plate Special is the evocative, irresistible tale of the life and loves of one of America’s greatest writers, Kate Christensen. Her loves include: Family, friends, men, travel, literature, but perhaps most of all, food. This is a breathtaking book, sensuously written, emotionally generous, and decadent as a bowl of macaroni and cheese.”
—Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins

“No American author writes with greater generosity of spirit or blazing descriptive power than Kate Christensen. Blue Plate Special is a marvel of a memoir—warm, wise, earthy, funny, honest, haunting, and bighearted. Christensen takes her place among the other great writers who’ve shown us that the best writing about food must also be about life and love and the world that grants us these gifts. If you’re crazy about M.F.K Fisher and Laurie Colwin, you will be crazy for this book, too. There's not a single empty calorie here: every morsel is both delicious and nourishing.”
— Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking With Men
“Kate Christensen’s prose has always been dazzling and brilliant even as it amuses and entertains. In Blue Plate Special, she applies her formidable talent to a memoir about the role of food in her (not always easy or kosher) past and present. The result is a glorious feast of meals, prose, and life from one of our finest writers today—a banquet of a book about eating, loving, and overcoming, to be devoured as fast as one’s fingers can turn the pages.”
— Cathi Hanauer, author of Gone and Sweet Ruin, and editor of The Bitch in the House  

“A novelist’s deliciously engrossing exploration of her life through the two major passions that have defined it: food and writing…A Rabelaisian celebration of appetite, complete with savory recipes, that genuinely satisfies.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Christensen writes with savory, home-cooked clarity as she digs deeply into the pleasures and dangers of food, charting the culinary fads of the 1960s on as well as changes to women’s lives while zestfully telling intimate, harrowing, and hilarious tales of appetites corrosive and nourishing.”

“Christensen…brings a real sense of enchantment to her food writing…She is both sensual and wickedly observant, a hard combination to pull off.”

“In the end, Christensen makes no grand pronouncements, offers no advice, reveals no starry epiphany. There is, simply, life, and its small pleasures, and maybe, with time, a little bit of peacemaking with the company of memory, over plates of asparagus and steamed-and-buttered clams, small glasses of Rioja and chocolate-dipped strawberries, and out of it all a generosity of spirit…”

“In Blue Plate Special, Christensen has deftly tucked food into every scenario, every relationship and every crossroads. But it isn’t her subject. Eating is what she was doing while she was growing up, falling in love and becoming a writer. She recounts all of this very well, creating a homey and vivid portrait of a woman who has dedicated herself to sitting in a room—sometimes of her own—and writing good books, including this one.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A mouthwateringly good story that begs to be read and shared. “
— Bookpage

“After publishing six novels, Christensen (The Great Man) turned her literary attention to food—first in a blog and now in this poignant, delicious first memoir…A delightful book that leaves you hungering for more.”
— People Magazine

“How many more food-based memoirs does the reading public really need? Novelist Kate Christensen proves that there’s always room for one more, provided that it’s good and this one is…There’s plenty of food (and no shortage of alcohol) in these pages, counterbalanced with some really fine prose.”
The Christian Science Monitor

“Picking up Blue Plate Special is a little like having Kate Christensen sit down next to you in a bar and hearing her life story. In a bar, you wouldn’t get her recipes, however. They appear in the book and are built for comfort, from the Bachelorette Puttanesca to the Dark Night of the Soul Soup.”
— Los Angeles Times

Kirkus Reviews
A novelist's deliciously engrossing exploration of her life through the two major passions that have defined it: food and writing. For Christensen (The Astral, 2011, etc.), memory and food are inextricably intertwined. Her book begins with the recollection of a violent argument between her parents over an egg-and-toast breakfast. This scene reminded her of not only the simple comforts of her mother's "blue plate special"–style meals, but also of the troubled dynamic that seemed inherent in male-female relationships. Not long afterward, her mother divorced and took the author and her sisters to Arizona. In this "wild, strange place that was so profoundly different from Berkeley," Christensen suddenly became aware of "taste and texture, flavor and smell" and began reading as voraciously as she ate. Later, drinking became another source of comfort. In between attending classes at a New York arts high school, Christensen overate, crash dieted, and then wrote about her hunger and her loneliness. She refined both her palate and her cooking abilities during a year spent in France. But it would be comfort food and hard liquor that would comprise many of her meals during the vagabond life she led afterward, first at Reed College and then at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she reignited a childhood passion for food in literature. A few alcohol-soaked, undernourished years later, she met her first husband, who "taught [her] how to enjoy food without guilt or remorse or puritanism," but with whom she fought constantly. Middle aged and unwilling to try out the "strange new world of hookups and sexting," she found unexpected love with a man 20 years her junior who fed her soul with the peace she had craved all along. A Rabelaisian celebration of appetite, complete with savory recipes, that genuinely satisfies.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Summer lasted year-round in Arizona, and therefore, swimming pools were a big part of our regular life. Sometimes my mother’s friend Carol would have her consciousness-raising group, which included my mother, over for pool parties, with all their kids. Carol was divorced and she lived with her four pretty, perfectly blond, blue-eyed girls, Marcia, Julie, Jeannie, and Janelle, in a huge air-conditioned stucco house. I remember spending the entire day in their pool, all of us kids shrieking and jumping into the blue water, playing Marco Polo and racing from end to end, pushing against the side and shooting off like launched rockets to the other side of the pool, throwing ourselves on and off rubber rafts and inner tubes, and taking turns running down the diving board and belly flopping or dive bombing into the pool.

Then Carol lit the grill and we had a cookout: hamburgers with melted cheese on toasted sesame buns with pickles and ketchup, potato salad, potato chips, Coke, and ice cream for dessert. I stood dripping and shivering a little in the sudden desert chill at sunset, a wet towel around my shoulders, my hair streaming water between my shoulder blades, eating a cheeseburger as fast as I could shove it into my mouth and chew and swallow it, and wondering how food could taste even better through the chlorine clouds on my tongue.

Before we moved to Arizona, I was largely indifferent to food, except those few favorite things I loved best and requested constantly. But at Wildermuth, something ignited a passion for eating in me. Maybe my palate had developed enough finally to enable me to taste fully what I was eating for the first time. Maybe Tempe itself, this wild, strange new place that was so profoundly different from Berkeley, opened my senses to taste and texture, flavor and smell.

I was in no way a born gourmet, and my palate was not instinctively refined. Far from it. I was an omnivore, a glutton. I loved putting things in my mouth and chewing them and swallowing. I loved eating, and thinking about food, as much as I loved reading and writing, and somehow all these passions were connected for me, on a deep level.

The rest of my family liked food, but no one else felt as vehemently about it as I did. At mealtimes, my sisters and mother ate happily enough, but I devoured, exclaimed, crowed, exulted. When something tasted particularly good, I would say in a didactic, insistent voice, “Yum!” My sisters would look at me, knowing I wanted them to concur but unable to share my visceral intensity. Susan later told me that she felt a certain strong pressure to agree with me and quailed under the fierce unblinking certitude of my stare around the table.

My mother was (and still is) possibly the slowest eater in the world. At the beginning of the meal, as the rest of us were all attacking our plates of food, she took a bite very deliberately, chewed and swallowed, then took a sip of whatever was in her glass, wine or water or beer. A long time elapsed before the next bite, during which she would talk, laugh, lean back in her chair. She appeared to have forgotten she was eating, as if the ongoing flow of bites that make up a meal, start to finish, were of no consequence to her, as if she were oblivious to any gustatory narrative flow. Instead, for my mother, each new, successive mouthful of food seemed to have its own logic, its own internal poetry. Every morsel was a world in itself, separate from all the others. She sat over her plate until long after the rest of us were finished.

My mother could also do a neat trick: sometimes, when she was eating corn, she could blow a kernel out her nose, much to our astonishment. We had no idea how she did that. None of us ever could. She was very mysterious about it. “Oh, you know,” she told us. “It’s just one of those things.”

During most of our years as a family in Arizona, we were flat-out poor. My mother clipped coupons, saved books of Green Stamps, was very careful about her budget, and bought all our clothes in thrift shops. But we didn’t feel deprived. Every night before bed, our mother read us stories or made them up. In the mornings or afternoons, she sat with her cello in the living room and practiced the Bach suites, which she played with fluid, soulful beauty. For her graduate school friends and their spouses and kids, she threw barbecues, pumpkin-carving parties, and poker parties.

She also fed us very well with the little money she had—before dinner, to stave off our immediate hunger while she cooked, we got a plate of cut-up raw carrots and peppers and jicama, which, not knowing any better, we gobbled up as fast as she could dole them out—or a big bowl of frozen mixed vegetables, which we called frozies. She baked fresh whole-wheat bread and handed us a piece of fruit or a graham cracker for midafternoon snack. Sugary things were restricted; candy was limited, and the only cereals we got were Cheerios, corn flakes, and wholesome hot cereals. Pop (as we called it in Arizona) was out of the question; we drank nothing but milk, water, and juice in our house. Of course, out-and-out junk food like Cheetos and Pop-Tarts was never allowed.

My mother was a cook of the plain, simple, homey variety, which was perfect for our undeveloped palates. She wasn’t a puritan or a health nut, but she greatly cared what we ate and took pains to serve us good meals every night. Sometimes, when she dished up one of her typical home-cooked dinners, and we told her how good it was and asked for seconds, she would say half joking, “Aw, it’s nothing but a blue plate special!” She told us this meant the kind of dinner you got in an old 1950s diner: a piece of fatty, salty meat or chicken or fish, usually fried, with or without gravy, plus a side of vegetables cooked to a gray pallor, plus something starchy, like mashed potatoes or baked beans. It was old-fashioned and filling, and also cheap, which was a big consideration for her back when she was a student and had to live on fried farina for most of the week.

My mother’s own versions of those other, earlier blue plate specials from her past struck me as a lot more special than those meals she described to us. Her mashed potatoes were rich, lumpy, and buttery, and when she made fried chicken, she shook it in a paper bag of spiced flour before frying it in very hot oil, so it was always both juicy and crunchy. She thawed frozen cod or haddock fillets—firm, white, mild, kid-friendly fish—and baked them just till they were flaky and tender, then squeezed lemon juice on them. She made meat loaf with ketchup, eggs, chopped onions, and bread crumbs, then served us each a savory thick slice that melted on the tongue. Her vegetables were usually frozen French-cut string beans or peas brought to a boil, then drained when they were still bright green and tossed with salt and margarine. They were never gray or overcooked; we loved them.

Part of it might have been the romance of eating the food that had comforted and nourished my mother when she was very young and very poor, and part of it might have been how good these meals were, but the term “blue plate special” has always been one of the homiest, coziest, most sweetly nostalgic phrases in the English language for me. It brings me right back to Wildermuth, back to that time in my childhood when I had my mother and my sisters all to myself; we were a complete family then, just us four girls, living in a wild, strange place, making a home for ourselves.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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