My Kitchen Wars: A Memoir

My Kitchen Wars: A Memoir

by Betty Fussell, Laura Shapiro

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Although My Kitchen Wars is a war story, this time the warrior is a woman and the battleground the kitchen. Her weapons—the batterie de cuisine of grills and squeezers and knives—evoke a lifetime’s need to make dinner, love, and war. By prying open the past with these implements, Betty Fussell gives voice to a generation of women


Although My Kitchen Wars is a war story, this time the warrior is a woman and the battleground the kitchen. Her weapons—the batterie de cuisine of grills and squeezers and knives—evoke a lifetime’s need to make dinner, love, and war. By prying open the past with these implements, Betty Fussell gives voice to a generation of women whose stories were shaped and yet simultaneously silenced by an era of domestic strife and global conflict, from World War II to Vietnam.
My Kitchen Wars also is a love story, recounting Fussell’s liberation from the tyrannical Puritanism of her family by a veteran of the “Good War,” a young writer named Paul Fussell. But she soon finds herself captive again, constrained by the roles of faculty wife and mother. Still, she cannot stop hungering for both a life of the mind and carnal pleasures. Her inner war to unite body and mind brings down the marriage in a denouement as brutal as the whack of a cleaver. Yet Fussell, however bruised, emerges to cook another dinner and to tell her tale in this fierce and funny memoir. My Kitchen Wars was adapted into a one-woman play performed in Hollywood and New York.

Editorial Reviews

Elle - Wendy Smith
"Fussell serves up the story of her life with the same cutting wit and pungent detail that distinguish her cookbooks."—Elle
New York Times Book Review - Susan Bolotin
“[Fussell] marks the passage of time through foods eaten, tastes discovered, pots and pans employed—and then ladles on salacious detail as the gravy. This is juicy stuff.”—New York Times Book Review - Carolyn W. Fanelli
"Fussell has led a fascinating life during interesting times, and tells her story with a down-to-earth realness and inhibition that keeps you engrossed from decade to decade. . . . There is no question who has come out on top in this war."—Carolyn W. Fanelli,
“The author (and chef) knows how to get the most from her ingredients, and she uses not only irony but also self-deprecating humor and poignant understatement with delicate precision.”—Booklist

"Fussell serves up the story of her life with the same cutting wit and pungent detail that distinguish her cookbooks."--Elle

— Wendy Smith

New York Times Book Review

“[Fussell] marks the passage of time through foods eaten, tastes disc
— Susan Bolotin

"Fussell has led a fascinating life during interesting times, and tells her story with a down-to-earth realness and inhibition that keeps you engrossed from decade to decade. . . . There is no question who has come out on top in this war."—Carolyn W. Fanelli,

— Carolyn W. Fanelli

Product Details

UNP - Bison Books
Publication date:
At Table Series
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

My Kitchen Wars

A Memoir

By Betty Fussell


Copyright © 1999 Betty Fussell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1843-3


Assault and Battery

Come in, Come in. I've just made coffee and it smells, as good coffee should, of bitter chocolate.

Don't mind the mess. It's always this way, because a kitchen is in the middle of things, in the middle of life, as I'm living it now, this moment, the detritus of the past heaped like a midden everywhere you look. That squat brown bean pot we got in 1949 for our first kitchen, in a Boston slum, when I didn't know beans about cooking. That tarnished copper bowl I bought at Dehillerin in Paris in 1960, used heavily for soufflés during my Julia decade, which I haven't used since for anything at all.

I like food because it's in the middle of the mess. I like thinking about what I ate yesterday, what I'll eat tonight, what we're eating now—this hot crumbly shortbread full of butter and toasted pecans. So delicious. So tangible, sensuous, real. I can hold it in my hand, in my mouth, on my tongue. I can turn it over in my mind. I can count on it. The next bite will bring the same intense pleasure the last bite did, and the same pleasure tomorrow, if there are any bites left.

Do you take milk, and would you like it frothed? This little glass jar has a plunger fitted with a wire-mesh screen, and when I pump it up and down, the hot milk thickens into a blanket of foam. It's the little things that count, and everything in my kitchen counts heavily. Look at this olive pitter that I use maybe twice a year, this shrimp deveiner which removes that telltale line of gut in a trice, this avocado skinner, ingeniously fiddle-shaped to allow me to separate soft flesh from shell in a single motion. When I try to explain to my grown children, to friends, to myself, why I still live a kitchen life, I begin with the naming of kitchen parts. Well-made implements, well chosen and well used, turn labor into art, routine into joy.

And yet the French got it right when they christened the kitchen arsenal the batterie de cuisine. Hunger, like lust in action, is savage, extreme, rude, cruel. To satisfy it is to do battle, deploying a full range of artillery—crushers, scrapers, beaters, roasters, gougers, grinders, to name but a few of the thousand and two implements that line my walls and cram my drawers—in the daily struggle to turn ingredients into edibles for devouring mouths. Life eats life, and if we are to live, others must die—just as if we are to love, we must die a little ourselves.

I've spent most of my life doing kitchen battle, feeding others and myself, torn between the desire to escape and the impulse to entrench myself further. When social revolutions hustled women out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, I seemed to be caught in flagrante, with a pot holder in my hand. I knew that the position of women like myself was of strategic importance in the war between the sexes. But if you could stand the heat, did you have to get out of the kitchen? For even as I chafed at kitchen confinement, cooking had begun its long conquest of me. Food had infiltrated my heart, seduced my brain, and ravished my senses. Peeling the layers of an onion, spooning out the marrow of a beef bone, laying bare the skeleton of a salmon were acts very like the act of sex, ecstatically fusing body and mind.

While cooking is a brutal business, in which knives cut, whisks whip, forks prick, mortars mash, and stoves burn, still it is our most civilized act. Within its cardinal points—pots, a fan, a sink, a stove—my kitchen encompasses earth, air, water, and fire. These are the elements of nature that cooking transforms to make the raw materials of food, and the murderous acts of cooking and eating it, human. Cooking connects every hearth fire to the sun and smokes out whatever gods there be—along with the ghosts of all our kitchens past, and all the people who have fed us with love and hate and fear and comfort, and whom we in turn have fed. A kitchen condenses the universe.

Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat. Eating is an in-body experience, a lowest common denominator, by nature funny, like the banana peel or the pie-in-the-face of slapstick. The subversive comedy of food is incremental. Little laughs add up to big ones, big enough to poke a hole in our delusions of star-wars domination and bring us down to earth. The gut, like the bum, makes the whole world one.

That's why I write about food. It keeps me grounded in small pleasures that add up to big ones, that kill time by savoring it, in memory and anticipation. Food conjugates my past and future and keeps me centered in the present, in my body, my animal self. It keeps my gut and brain connected to each other as well as to the realities of the world outside, to all those other forms of being—animal, vegetable, mineral—of which I am a part. Food keeps me humble and reminds me that I'm as kin to a cabbage or a clam as to a Bengal tiger on the prowl.

That's why I decline the epic view from the battlements in favor of the view from my kitchen window, fogged by steam from the soup in the pot. When I chop onions and carrots, crush garlic, and hunt out meaty bones for my soup, I'm doing what I've done for decades and what women before me have done from the beginning of time, when they used stones instead of knives and ashes instead of pots. There's comfort in this, in the need, in the craft, in the communion of hands and of hungers. A wooden spoon links me to my grandmother in her apron and to the woman who taught Jacob to stir a mess of pottage. History can turn on a spoon, on a soup.

And so of arms and the woman I sing, while we drink our coffee, you and I. The singer is an "old stove," as they say in San Francisco of a woman who's done time at the burners. But the songs of an old stove, no matter how darkly they glitter, are gay.


To Arms with Squeezer and Slicer

My dad's favorite kitchen implement was the orange squeezer, not the elemental hand squeezer with a serrated cone on which you place half an orange and, pressing hard, turn the orange clockwise, releasing pulp into the container below. His was a 1930s improvement made of dull metal alloy. He put the orange half into a container elevated on a stand, and when he brought the handle down, as if pumping water, a thick metal square squeezed the orange flat so that its juice squirted through an opening. He'd had lots of experience with pump handles, and a pump that squirted orange juice instead of water was better than the Well of Cana that turned water into wine.

Dad loved to squeeze oranges. He never squeezed people or even touched them. Bodies embarrassed him. But oranges he could hold in his hand with impunity. Oranges he loved.

That's why we lived in California, and that's how it happened that I was born and my mother died in a kitchen in the middle of an orange grove. California was the romance of my dad's life, and he never got over it.

The pull of the West had long ago drawn my Lowland Scots ancestors, first across the Irish Sea to County Derry and Tyrone, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Pennsylvania, down the Appalachians to Virginia and on to Ohio and Illinois, beyond the Missouri to Colorado, and finally over the Rockies, stopping only when further west meant east. By the late nineteenth century they moved to the galloping rhythm of a St. Andrews Society versifier who'd somehow got stuck in Philadelphia:

To the West, to the West, to the land of the free,
Where the mighty Missouri rolls down to the sea;
Where a man is a man even though he must toil,
And the poorest may gather the fruits of the soil.

They would have been appalled to learn that their descendants were called Scotch-Irish, as if a single one of them would have mingled blood with Papists when they paused in Ireland on their long roll west.

Of all the Scots in the list of begats pasted into our family Bible, the Erskines were the fiercest. Their Calvinism was a straight shot of Knox, with no mediating chaser. My father's mother, Carrie Hadassah Erskine, was a descendant of Presbyterian Dissenters unto the ninth and tenth generations, including the Reverend Ebenezer Erskine of Stirling, who in 1743 preached his most famous sermon, "Christ considered as the Nail fastened to a sure Place, bearing all the Glory of his Father's House." The carpentry metaphor was apt for a people compelled to keep moving their Father's House from place to place, the better to hammer in Christ the Nail.

If the housing wars of the eighteenth century pitched Christ against Satan, Protestant against Catholic, Calvin against the Pope, the street fights were Presbyters against one another, each lit by the lamp of God. The moment one Scottish gang split from the main division, another rose to fight it. New Licht Burghers battled Old Licht Burghers until both were attacked by New and Old Licht Anti-Burghers. Such were the wars before the truce of the United Secession Church in 1820 produced the oxymoronic United Presbyterians of America.

This was the Church and this the stock that spawned a long line of farming ministers and doctors before my father's father, Charles Sumner Harper, dissented from the traditional medicine practiced by his father and left the family farm in Kansas to study osteopathy in Des Moines. From there he moved on west to Greeley, Colorado, for the sake of his wife's health. In a family photo, I see Grandpa H. in his office, a big comfortable man who sits in a wooden rocking chair behind a desk that is bare but for its proud trophy, a telephone. In the companion photo, his wife sits small and erect, with a grin as wide as her sidesaddle, atop her favorite gray workhorse, Minnie, on their nearby farm.

My dad, Josias Meryl Harper, was thirty years old and president of the student body at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley in 1922 when he met the organist, a music professor five years his senior named Ruby Hazel Kennedy. Six feet tall, with a bony face, Roman nose, dimpled chin, and ready smile, Meryl was an attractive man, a hard worker, and as upright as a fence post. His handsome younger brother, Roy, had graduated the year before, but Dad's studies had been delayed by military service. Roy would go on to find Eden in Brazil, as a Presbyterian missionary, but my father had already found it in California. As a naval recruit during World War I, he had been sent to San Francisco Bay to Goat Island, renamed Treasure, and had spent the war in a hospital bed on Mare Island after abdominal surgery for adhesions went awry. Following a medical discharge and a second bout of surgery, he spent the next two years recuperating on his parents' farm and vowing to get back to California. In his senior year he married the music professor and at graduation moved to paradise, as he'd vowed, with his bride and their month-old baby boy.

A photo of my mother in the college catalogue shows a round-cheeked woman with a gentle face and smile, thin-rimmed spectacles covering her brown eyes, and a puff of wavy hair that I'm told was auburn as autumn leaves when she was young. Miss Hazel Kennedy, the catalogue explains, laid the foundation for her successful career with a course at the University School of Music in Lincoln, Nebraska, before studying at the National Academy of Music at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She was the only one of my predecessors to reverse direction and go east.

Like the Harpers and Erskines on my father's side, the Kennedys and Culvers had moved in prairie schooners unremittingly east to west, fighting Indians along the way. My mother's mother, Ellen Josephine Culver, had the writing itch, and in 1928 she wrote her "Memories of Early Days," scribbling with a pencil on both sides and in the margins of what are now tattered sheets. From these, I know that her mother, Hannah Carpenter, pushed west from Ohio to the Iowa frontier with the family of a married sister in 1840, when Hannah was seventeen. I know that Hannah got married in her uncle's log house in a snowstorm three years later, and that she doffed her lace cap with its yards of white satin ribbon to put on flannel and linsey in time to do the chores when they got back to their newlyweds cabin down the Magnolia River. I know that one Sunday after a hard thunderstorm, the couple went for a walk in the sun and killed thirty rattlers before they got home. I know that on a day when the men were cutting grain in one field while the women shocked it in another, the women saw a large group of Indians crossing their field and hid all night in a grain shock because they were afraid the Indians would return to burn the house.

Grandma Kennedy's father died of typhoid before she was born, but she was told that he'd asked his family to sing "I'm Going Home to Die No More" on the day he passed into the Beyond. As a girl, Grandma K. remembered, she saw off her cousin Cummings and his brothers as they went to answer their country's call to arms during the Civil War. As the train pulled away, she cried, "Cummings, come back," but Cummings did not, for he too died of typhoid while guarding rebel soldiers in Illinois. The women of her house cut up linen to make lint for wounded soldiers while the kids played soldiers by killing rebel mice in the granary with bow and arrow. Ellen was so quick with her hands that she caught mice by the tail and hung on to them even though they bit her fingers until blood dripped. "Lew said that if I let them go, I was not a good soldier," she recalled. "Such was the spirit drilled even into babies."

She married Parks Ira Kennedy in 1880 and homesteaded in the territory of Nebraska. Parks was a well digger, but he was also a builder and cabinetmaker. He dug the first well and built the first church at one crossroads after another. He was a musical man who played the French horn as sweetly as he sang, and once Christ the Nail was fixed in his Father's House, he organized the church choir while Ellen, who'd been trained in elocution, set up the Sunday school. In a later age they might have taken to the road as an evangelical duo, she the poet-preacher and he the accompanying choirmaster, to declare war on the wide world of Sin.

Grandma K. lived long enough to celebrate her sixty-sixth wedding anniversary as a passel of grandsons fought World War II. In her century she brought God and civilization to the prairies in the particular alliance of Calvinism with the genteel arts that characterized the homesteaders of her generation and created the powerful matriarchs of Victorian America. Her children remembered her as the head of an ever-expanding commune of one son and six daughters, two hired girls, at least one hired man, and an accumulation of foster boys whom she welcomed after they'd been sent packing at fourteen, according to Swedish farm traditions in America at that time, to make their own way in the new country.

On a sweltering July day in 1904, Grandma K. delivered, as president of the Nebraska branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a Chautauqua lecture entitled "Some Evils Which Threaten Our Girls."

Did you ever see a lovelier picture than that produced by Dame Nature, on a winter's morning when plain, hill and dell are covered with a mantle of snow, glittering with diamonds or shimmering with pearls, as the changing sunbeams flash their golden lights over that spotless landscape? Did it not make you think of the world arrayed as a Bride to meet the Bridegroom? It is a scene to remind us of the purity of maidenhood before the evils of this life have left their stains and shadows upon its snowy whiteness. Alas! How very soon the contamination begins.

She must have valued the manuscript, because it too came down to me, page after worm-eaten page, detailing the evils of alcohol, tobacco, the dance hall—"an open door to the brothel"—and sensational novels which "give the agents of Satan a chance to do missionary work for the lower regions."

A decade earlier, Grandma K. herself had been contaminated, by consumption, which gave her a certain cachet and, long after she recovered, allowed her to retreat to her bed when convenient. By the time the two youngest girls were born, her eldest were well trained to look after them, and they remained a close-knit clan. Hazel was the fourth girl, and the rebel among them, the tomboy who'd join the boys in swinging down from the hayloft on a rope. Hazel was the ambitious one, the adventurous one, who went by herself on the Union Pacific Railroad to New York, where she'd gotten a scholarship to study at Dr. Wilbert Webster White's Bible Teacher's Training College while furthering her piano study at Carnegie Hall. Hazel was the professional one, in a family of accomplished amateur musicians. Hazel was also the fragile one, who overburdened her strength and overloaded her circuits, suffering a back injury in New York which triggered a nervous breakdown and recuperation in a rest home in New Jersey before she was sent home to Nebraska.


Excerpted from My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell. Copyright © 1999 Betty Fussell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Betty Fussell has lectured widely on food and food history and won the 2008 James Beard Award for “Magazine Feature Writing with Recipes.” She is the author of eleven books, including Masters of American Cookery: M. F. K. Fisher, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child (available in a Bison Books edition), The Story of Corn, and Raising Steaks.
Laura Shapiro is the author of Julia Child (winner of the Literary Book Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals) and several other books.

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