Today I'm interviewing Judith Newton, prize winning author of Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen. Doesn't the cover make you hungry?
TZ: Describe your book.
JN: Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen is a food memoir organized by decade and by the cookbooks that were most influential in my life. It is about the way that cooking for, and dining with, others can carry on an important kind of emotional labor. In my life, for example, cooking for and dining with others helped me heal from a difficult childhood (in which my mother's cooking and baking were the most reliable forms of nurturing I received). Cooking helped me recreate a series of alternative homes--in my marriage to a gay man, in a commune, and in various places with my daughter. Cooking gave me a sense of optimism and joy in living that sustained me during my participation in social movements, and it helped me lay the groundwork for a cross race political community on my campus.
I try to share that sense of community through food with my readers. The book is loaded with scenes of cooking and dining that invite readers to the table, and it includes recipes that are intended to give them a more lasting way to create pleasing moments in their lives. Tasting Home is meant to be a book that encourages people to give parties, and despite whatever suffering they may have experienced, to feel that life can be joyful, intense, and thoughtfully led.
TZ: What inspired you to write this particular book, using this structure?
JN; I wrote a food memoir because I had an epiphany in my kitchen. I had moved to a new house, and its pantry was not large enough to hold my 140 cookbooks, so I tried to prune them, only to end up longing for a cookbook I had gotten rid of during a previous change of place. It came to me then that my cookbooks reflected the history of my life and more--they'd been agents of my salvation from childhood grief and from many other forms of loss. It was through cooking that I had redefined myself and found new ways of being home.
I chose the structure of short chapters forming a narrative arc because this was a popular form of food memoir at the time. M.F.K. Fisher had used it and so had Ruth Reichl, Molly Wizenberg and Jeanette Ferrary among others. I wanted to see if I could stretch the form to make it tell a new kind of story, a story of personal development but also a story of how my participation in social movements of the time--Civil Rights, the Women's movement--had also contributed to my feeling of home in the world and had fed off the optimism that cooking brought to my life.
TZ: What is your favorotie recipe in the book?
JN: I have to vote for Gary Danko's Oven Polenta with Tomato Fondue and Dry Sonoma Jack Cheese. When cooked, it bubbles with cream and cheese and the tomato fondue with shallots adds a refreshing l, slightly acidic note. I also love polenta. I made this dish time after time in the 1990s when I was giving large buffets as a means of bringing people together, drawing them into civil conversations, and through inviting them to share the pleasure of a generous meal, incducing them to begin to feel a sense of common cause. The recipe can be doubled and tripled to feed a crwod, and it always comes out well. In the book I call it the "best buffet dish ever created."
TZ: So many of our rituals and our memoires are associated with food. Was it difficult to choose the most salient ones?
JN: It wasn't difficult choosing dishes from my adult life. I had a habit of cooking through cookbooks like Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the 1960s, Time Life: Foods of the World in the 1970;s and Moosewood in the 19i80s. I was very conscious of what my favorite recipes were, and I marked them with a check, plus, and star system, so I'd remember. I also recalled what food was involved in important turning points. I really did cook Lasagna Bolognese when my sex life with my husband began falling apart. In relation to my childhood, I knew which of my mother's dishes I liked the best, but I had to give more thought to which recipes I would use and where I would place them. I sometimes used poetic license. Crybaby Cookies aippear after a scene in which my mother and I are both sobbing in the kitchen. Spareribs come after my description of the bleak evenings my borther and I spent alone while my parents were out dancing.
TZ: I know you've written other books but nothing as personal as this one. Was it difficult to write? Any part especially hard?
JN: When you write as an academic, you are writing defensively. You're always aware of how others might criticize your argument and you're careful to defend yourself against that. Writing a memoir requires a different emotional orientation. The idea is to open yourself up, to share private stories with your public and to engage with readers on an emotional level. I had to imagine a non-academic audience to write like that, and even then, writing the memoir sometimes felt like jumping into free fall off a cliff.
I also found that when you write about past suffering, you entered into the suffering again. It was important for me to switch gears, to write about happy times and then come back to the difficult ones. In the third section of the book I had to describe a breakdown and a divorce from my husband. I couldn't write that section until I wrote Section Four and Five which are more upbeat. Writing those happier sections gave me energy to come back to Section Three. In the end, it became my favorite section.
I also had trouble writing what is now the first chapter, the chapter in which my mother denounces me for playing doctor with the boy down the street. In my first draft I buried that scene in the fifth chapter, even though it took place when I was four and shaped everything that came after. It came as a shock that I still felt some of my original shame, and I was embarrassed about feeling that. Omly after my writing group read that section did I feel free enough to put it in the first chapter which is where it always belonged.
TZ: Who is your favorite celebrity chef? Or do you like watching food shows?
JN: I do like some food shows like Chopped, Cupcake Wars, and Restaurant Impossible. I can't say I have a favorite chef. Iron Chef is too high pressure for me, so I don't watch it and thereby miss seeing a lot of celebrity chefs. I've only seen Cook's Illustrated show once, but I like the calm, scientific approach of Christopher Kimball. I also subscribe to the magazine. The chef I truly enjoyed watching was Julia Child. I sometimes rent her old videos so I can be with her again. She's not pompous. She's not in a hurry. She makes mistakes, cheers you on, and demystifies French cooking. I miss her!
TZ: Tell us a little about this book as it relates to your work in gender studies and feminism.
JN: My years of teaching women's studies had made me aware that the private and public spheres are dependent on each other and that the personal always informs the political. Traditionally, for example, women have fed, cared for, educated, and humanized members of their household including men, children and the old. This frequently invisible and unpaid labor is essential to having a society at all, and especially one that involves people working in cooperation with each other. In writing a book that celebrates home cooking as a humanizing and healing kind of work, I think of myself as carrying on a feminist project--that of giving value to a traditionally female, often unseen, but essential form of labor, one that the political scientist Janet Flammang in her book A Taste for Civilization, calls a preparation for civil society itself.
Another feminist project has been to show how political movements also depend on a kind of emotion work. The sociologist Belinda Robrett, for example, in her book How Long is Long? African American Women and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes about how African American women worked behind the scenes during the Civil Rights movement, meeting ordinary people, listening to their needs, and building face to face relationship of friendship and trust. This emotion work was critical to the success of building a grassroots movement, and is critical to the success of present-day coalition as well. By demonstrating how cooking can bring people into connection with each other, not just in a domestic setting but in a political group too, Tasting Home continues this project of linking the political to the personal and emotional.
TZ: What are you working on now?
JN: While was working on the memoir, I needed another project I could turn to when memoir writing became too hard, so during National Novel Writing Month in 2011 I wrote a feminist mystery. It involves poisoned cornbread, a feminist network, and a university that is tainted by corporate values. I comes with recipes.
TZ: Any advice for memoir writers?
JN: Take classes. The ten to twenty minute in-class writing exercises I turned out did eventually become chapters in the book. It was hard to imagine that happening when I first began. Also classes give you a lot of support. They really help you begin your story and they get you used to having strangers read your work. If you write about painful episodes in your life, be sure you switch off to write about happy memories so you don't get depressed. I found it very helpful to have a second project that I could escape into. Find a supportive but critical writing group and be open to criticism. Criticism is your friend. At some point, hire an editor to work with you. My editor was a lot younger than I and she was excellent at pointing out where I needed to explain myself more. She'd say, "Am I supposed to know that?"
TZ: Where is your book available?
JN: It's available on Amazon (paper and kindle) and the paper is available from Seattle Books, She Writes Pres, Avid Reader in David and Books, Inc. in Berkeley.